Parshat Chukat: At Least Keep It Private!

Rabbi Joel Zeff: Parshat Chukat

Moses Bringing Forth Water From the Rock

This week’s Torah portion recounts the collapse of one of Moshe’s highest aspirations. Imagine having taken on the assignment of leading the Jewish people from the slavery of Egypt to the Promised Land. Moshe had endured the most taxing of crises, some of them in the form of the seemingly never-ending series of internal rebellions. When the Bnei Yisrael arrive in a location without any obvious supply of water they confront Moshe and Aharon in an outrageous expression of unmitigated chutzpa.

“If only we had died with the death of our brothers before the Lord. Why have you brought the congregation of the Lord to this desert so that we and our livestock should die there? Why have you taken us out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place; it is not a place for seeds, or for fig trees, grapevines, or pomegranate trees, and there is no water to drink!”

God instructs Moshe to speak to a rock so that it should miraculously produce water. Moshe gathers the nation in front of the rock and declares: “Now listen, you rebels, can we draw water for you from this rock?” He then strikes the rock, resulting in an eruption of a gush of water. This act of Moshe was regarded as such a grievous affront that God decrees the ultimate punishment, “Since you did not have faith in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the Land which I have given them.”

The midrash points out that not only was this not the first time that Moshe had not responded optimally to the complaints of Bnei Yisrael, but it is not even the worst:

But had not Moshe previously said something that was worse than this? For he said (Numbers 11:22): “If flocks and herds be slain for them, will they suffice them? Or if all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, will they suffice them?” Faith surely was wanting there too, and to a greater degree than in the present instance. Why then did G-d not make the decree against him on that occasion?

The midrash answers with a most significant observation:

Let me illustrate. To what may this be compared? To the case of a king who had a friend. Now this friend displayed arrogance towards the king privately, using harsh words. The king, however, did not lose his temper with him. After a time he rose and displayed his arrogance in the presence of his legions, and the king passed a sentence of death upon him. So also the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moshe: “The first offence that you committed was a private matter between you and Me. Now, however, that it is done in the presence of the public, it is impossible to overlook it.” Thus it says: “[Because you did not believe in Me] in the eyes of the children of Israel.”

There is only one thing worse than sin and that is public sin. Why? The answer lies in reminding ourselves of our job description as Jews. We are entrusted with the weighty responsibly of being God’s public relations professionals, charged with mastering and utilizing all manner of social media in order to promote God’s name. When our private behavior falls short it is a personal failure. When our public behavior is odious it is a desecration of God’s name and a betrayal of our mandate as Jews. Let us never cease to be mindful of the awesome responsibility of bearing the title “Israel.”


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