Sunday, June 24, 2007

Chukas: The Staff and the Word

In one of the most famous parts of the Torah, the Jews, yet again, complain to Moshe about their lack of water. Thirty eight years ago, in a similar situation, God commanded the leader of the nation to strike a rock with his staff. Doing so freed a spring of water that accompanied the people miraculously through the desert. However, this time, God instructs Moshe to speak to the rock. Midrashim explain why, but the fact is that Moshe disobeys God's express word, and strikes the rock.

This seemingly small mistake is cause for great rebuke. Because Moshe and Aharon 'lost faith in God, and did not sanctify His name in the eyes of the nation', Moses loses his right to enter the Land of Israel. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 90b) tells us that God punishes and rewards us measure for measure. Why did Moshe's mistake warrant this strict punishment?

Rabbi Hirsch discusses the symbolism of the staff that accompanied Moshe on his mission to redeem Israel from Egypt and beyond. Moshe, the reluctant leader, was chosen by God, and plucked from a comfortable life as heir to the Midianite priesthood, to change the course of nature and history. The staff represents God's direct intervention in the mundane matters of Man and the physical laws of nature. It is the staff of miracles.

When the nation came to Sinai, God gave them a written and oral law, words which instructed them how to lead their personal and national lives. Life is not meant to constantly be lived in direct contact with the miraculous suspension of the laws of nature. The Torah teaches us how to live within the laws of nature, and without direct Godly intervention in the course of history.

Immediately following the exodus from Egypt, the nation was completely governed by the miraculous divine intervention in every aspect of its life. It was not prepared for a natural mode of existence, where action is governed by the law of God. And so, God told Moshe to strike the rock with his staff. However, thirty eight years later, the people were on the brink of entering Canaan. They needed to learn that the miraculous mode of guidance was about to end, and they must turn to the word of God instead of the staff, for counsel.

When Moshe struck the rock instead of speaking to it, he reinforced the wrong message to the people. To correct this, Moshe now must teach the lesson of the word over the staff with his very life. Moshe transfers his power to Joshua. He is the first link in rabbinic tradition. His reception of the Torah is as a tradition from his master, and not from God Himself. Thus, the one who takes the people across the Jordan is one who is totally grounded in the word of God as a tradition from his teachers, the beginnings of rabbinic authority. It is this persona that will sustain Israel throughout history, beginning with their entrance to Israel. By leaving the people at the border of Israel, and transferring power to the rabbinic tradition, Moshe teaches the people the lesson they missed in the striking of the rock.