Punishment and Consequences

Posted on July 8, 2022 by Steve Lieberman

This week’s Torah portion is from Bemidbar, the Book of Numbers, the fourth book of the Torah. It is entitled Chukat or “decree.” It takes place as the Israelites are nearing the end of the forty years of wandering in the desert

Although this parashah is the shortest in the Book of Numbers, like all other parashiyot, it is chock-full of interesting and provocative themes that could occupy discussions for weeks on end.

The parashah begins with the ritual of the red cow, which deals with purification after a death. It then turns to subjects that perhaps are more familiar to us.

In simple and straightforward language, Parashat Chukat tells of the people’s encampment at Kadesh, which is connected to the root for the word holy. The people stayed there and Miriam died and was buried there. No mention of any period of mourning.

But the next verse, coming right after the burial of Miriam, says that now there was no water in the community. Thus, this serves for the many midrashshim linking Miriam to the well and the life-giving qualities of water. How the well that followed the Israelites throughout their wilderness journey suddenly dried up and disappeared. But that is a discussion for another time.

The lack of water caused great grumbling among the people, quarreling with both Moses and Aaron, and repeating the familiar refrain of “why did you lead us out of Egypt just to die in the desert?” Again, the miracles of manna from heaven, the ten commandments, and the victories over their enemies were just distant memories. The people concentrated on the current state of suffering and the lack of water.

And this leads to the story of God speaking to Moses and telling him to speak to the rock so that the rock may bring forth water for the people to drink. But Moses and Aaron, both likely angered by the short sightedness and lack of faith of the people, yelled at them calling them rebels and then Moses took his staff and struck the rock. Although this was an act of disobeying the word of God, water did pour out.

But the actions of Moses and Aaron did not go unpunished. Their punishment for disobeying the word of God in the presence of the Children of Israel was the decree that neither of them would enter the Promised Land, the Land of Israel.

Aaron then dies shortly thereafter and is buried. He is mourned for 30 days.

The parashah then concludes with the conquering of neighboring tribes and lands as the Israelites continued their march towards the land of Israel.

I just want to take a moment to reflect on the topic of bringing water from the rock by striking it. The Torah is timeless and imbued with lessons that, although written more than 3,000 years ago, are relevant and meaningful to today’s world and can give us important guidance. This parahah is no exception.

Look at the punishment received by Moses and Aaron. Is it fair that one small slip, striking the rock instead of speaking to it, should yield such a harsh punishment as being deprived entrance into the land of Israel? Shouldn’t they be judged on their entire life’s work and given a free pass, a second chance, a redemption, their own Yom Kippur atonement? Why isn’t Moses’s body of work as liberator, prophet, lawgiver, enough to save him from the failings resulting from an outburst of perhaps justifiable temper? But no, God’s punishment does not change.

How can this be justified? How can this be explained?

I believe it can be.

We have all been reading the papers and have been overwhelmed with reports of transgressions of our elected leaders. For the most part, no sin can be too great to matter. Whether it be the actions of President Clinton, the many misdeeds of President Trump, the ethical failings of so many of our elected leaders, military and law enforcement personnel lying under oath, many seem to be immune from suffering the consequences of their improper actions.

But what the Torah is telling us is that our leaders must be above ethical reproach. They need to be held to the highest standard of morality. They need to represent the best that is within us and when they fail, they fail as leaders and no longer possess the needed moral authority to continue.

There has been a great deal of discussion in the news about the intermingling of church and state, and religious doctrine creeping into the public domain. What is sad about this trend is that the wrong aspects of religious doctrine or teaching are being advanced, while the teachings of higher morality are being left to the wayside. If, indeed, this is a country founded on religious principles, it is a country founded on principles of ethics and higher calling, not on narrow mindedness and beliefs that are hurtful to others.

Would that our leaders, and our fellow citizens, focus on the important teachings that can be gleaned from our religious heritage. Perhaps then, our future as a country would be much more hopeful.

Ken y’he ratzon — may this be God’s will.

Shabbat Shalom,

Steve Lieberman
Guest Darshan