For the week of July 9, 2022 / 10 Tammuz 5782
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 19:1 – 22:1
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 11:1-33
Originally posted the week of June 27, 2015 / 10 Tammuz 5775
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Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock. And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” (B’midbar/Numbers 20:10-12)
Moses is one of the greatest people to have ever lived. It’s hard to believe that after trying so hard to avoid God’s call on his life, he successfully led his people out of Egypt and right up to the border of the Promised Land. Once he was on board, he remained faithful until the end of his life. He boldly confronted Pharaoh with God’s demand for the release of his people from slavery even though he knew that Pharaoh could have imprisoned, tortured, or killed him. He also faced great criticism from his own people both before and after the Exodus and he settled their disputes. On top of that, he bore the burden of waiting upon God for direction step by step and was responsible for receiving and transmitting the Torah.
One of the remarkable things about the Bible is how it doesn’t gloss over the failings and foibles of its key characters, and Moses is no exception. Long before God spoke to him at the burning bush, he tried to stand up for his people with disastrous results, having murdered an Egyptian and then running away for fear of his life. There are also two other negative incidents that took place during the time of his leadership. Both appear to be rooted in uncontrolled anger. The first is when he came down Mt. Sinai and saw the people engaging in great immorality. He reacted by smashing the two tablets upon which were written the Ten Commandments (see Shemot/Exodus 32:15-20).
The other incident is recounted in this week’s parsha. It’s a confusing story about the people complaining about not having water. God instructs Moses to take his staff, but unlike the previous time a similar thing occurred (see Shemot/Exodus 17:1-7), he was not to strike the rock, but speak to it. Why God specifically told him to take the staff, but not use it, we don’t know. It’s also difficult to discern what Moses did that was so wrong. It is described as “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel” (B’midbar/Numbers 20:12), but God doesn’t actually say that the error was the striking of the rock. It could have been the way he talked to the people by distancing himself from them, overly associated himself and Aaron with God. This might explain the reference to not upholding God as holy. Whatever he did precisely, he lost it. After decades of patiently putting up with the people, he lost it. Moses lost control and let his anger get the better of him.
Note how I said that: his anger got the better of him. The emotion of anger is so misunderstood. It’s not that Moses was angry that was the problem, but he lost control of it. Moses had been in this kind of situation so many times before. Every time the people complained about something, he went to God, God told him what to do about it, and he did it. That we are not told about how he felt doesn’t mean he had no feelings. In those forty years in the wilderness there was much to have feelings about, and not good feelings, I am sure. That Moses might have felt angry at times is to be expected. But for the vast majority of those forty years, he controlled his anger. Not this time. His loss of control cost him. It cost him the privilege of entering the Promised Land.
It’s too easy to dismiss the seriousness of this. When we look at all Moses accomplished, not entering the Land might seem like a small thing. He was probably going to die soon anyway. New Testament readers might point out that he made it in eventually when he appeared to Yeshua along with Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration (see Matthew 17:1-8). But all this misses the point.
Put yourself in Moses’s sandals. To go through all that he did, but not be allowed to reach the God-ordained goal is devastating. Read it again: devastating! If you don’t believe me that this is how Moses saw it, check out what he told the people later on – how he pleaded with God to permit him to even briefly enter the Land (see D’varim/Deuteronomy 23:26). Most of us would feel the same way. That is why it’s so important not to lose it. In the grand scheme of things, our loss of control may not completely destroy God’s plan for our lives, but it can do considerable damage to ourselves and others.
Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version