Parashat Chukat deals a lot with death. At the beginning we find the mysterious laws of the Red Heifer, which is used to ritually purify those who have become impure due to contact with a dead body. We then read a brief description of the death of Miriam, the prophetess who was the older sister of Moses and Aaron. Her passing is followed by the people’s outcry for water. A connection between these two events is drawn by our commentators who determined that it was because of Miriam’s merit that water was provided to the Israelites in the wilderness — “Miriam’s Well”. We then read about the death of Aaron and the people’s mourning for him for thirty days. This is really one of the saddest portions of the Torah.
What makes this portion even sadder is that we witness Moses at his weakest. The long time leader of the Israelites, the greatest teacher and prophet of our tradition, loses control of himself. As a result he is punished by God.
The Israelites are camped at Kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin, when Miriam suddenly dies. The people start complaining of their thirst to Moses and Aaron, who go to confer with God. God instructs them both to take a rod and, in full view of the community, they are to order the rock to give water. Moses and Aaron begin to do as they are told and they gather all the people together. But then, instead of commanding the rock as instructed, they castigate the people. They proclaim, “shall WE get water for you out of this rock?” Then Moses hits the rock twice with the rod. As God promised, water flows from the rock, but God then takes Moses and Aaron to task for not doing exactly as instructed.
God declares their punishment: because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the people, you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them. Neither Moses nor Aaron will be allowed to enter the Promised Land.
Commentators throughout history have struggled with this passage, trying to come to terms with the severity of God’s punishment. After all, this is Moses, the great leader of our people, the one who stood up to Pharaoh and led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, and then continued to lead them for forty more years, molding them into a people and coping with their day to day gripes. After schlepping around with this contentious people for four decades, should Moses not at least be allowed to enter into the Promised Land? Was he not a fully human leader, surely subject to bouts of self-doubt and frustration? Let us remember also that Moses was grieving. He had just lost his big sister, the one who helped save his very life when he was an infant. The loss of a close family member must have surely impaired his functioning. What exactly then did Moses do to deserve such a severe punishment? Should God not have shown more mercy to his most faithful servant?
Generally it is understood that Moses was punished for disobeying God’s instructions. God clearly instructed him to “speak” to the rock, but instead he hit it, not just once, but twice. Rashi suggests that God was dismayed that Moses denied him the opportunity to impress the people with the miracle. More simply, Moses displayed a lack of faith and compliance with God’s command, something that might have been common among the people but was certainly expected of their leader. Moses was not just an average Israelite; he was expected to set a higher example. As the Zohar (2:47a) teaches, “The acts of the leader are the acts of the nation. If the leader is just, the nation is just; if he is unjust, the nation too is unjust and is punished for the sin of the leader.”
Aaron the High Priest, who witnessed the incident, was also held accountable. If Moses had only hit the rock once, then he alone would have been punished for the act. But since Moses hit the rock twice, Aaron is deemed culpable as well. After seeing Moses hit the rock once, Aaron should have stopped him before he did it again.
According to Maimonides, the main sin of Moses and Aaron was the contemptible language they used when they spoke to the people. Certainly all the prophets spoke to the people in harsh tones, but it was effective and deserved. But here the language is deemed inappropriate since the people only sought water, a basic human need. There was no reason to speak to the people as Moses did, except to satisfy his own needs. He compromised his own leadership and therefore was punished by not being allowed to lead the people into the Promised Land. Moses was, indeed, human, and therefore he could only the lead the people so far.
Moses’s sin may not have been so great. If anyone else had done the same, they surely would have been given a second chance. We may feel that, under the circumstances, Moses should have received some compassion. But even at the time of his greatest vulnerability, he was held accountable for his actions. As the leader of the people, he was expected to be a paragon of faith and virtue.
We understand that Moses was human. Like all of us, grief, frustration, weariness and stress can certainly add up to make us less then our best selves. But in positions of highest leadership, the tough decisions and constancy of action are expected even during the toughest of times. That’s what separates a great leader from a good leader. Moses was great leader, but had his moments of weakness. For that, he was held accountable.