Thoughts on Chukkat (5777)
(Num. 19:1 – 22:1)
(dvar torah given at Temple Israel on 6/30/17)
One of my favorite Far Side Cartoons by Gary Larson is called “Cow Philosophy.”
It shows a beautiful mountainside scene with puffy clouds and green hills. A cow in meditative contemplation sits upright wearing a monk’s robe and serenely advises another cow who has come up to the mountain to obtain philosophical wisdom.
The wise cow says:
“And, as you travel life’s highway, don’t forget to stop and eat the roses.”
Of course, this is a play on the well-known adage that one should take time to stop and smell the roses. And we might expand this to the idea of stopping to look at the roses. Indeed, to stop and soak in the experience of the beauty of the world.
As it says in Psalm 34:9
טַעֲמוּ וּרְאוּ, כִּי-טוֹב יְהוָה
“Taste and see how good is the Eternal.”
And this is, indeed, what Shabbat is all about.
I was reminded of that Far Side cartoon while studying this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat. It doesn’t mention roses but it does mention blossoms that Moses apparently fails to truly see. And maybe his failure of vision can teach us something about our own limitations.
Parashat Chukkat is the first Torah portion to have as its setting the final stages of our people’s journey from slavery to freedom. Between last week’s Torah portion and this week’s Torah portion there is a gap of some thirty-eight years. Korach’s rebellion, in last week’s parasha, took place during the second year after the Exodus. And in this week’s parasha, when Moses berates the community at large as “rebels”, we are in the fortieth year after the Exodus. A new generation – but is it the same old rebellion?
Well, that’s what Moses appears to think. The rebellion of Korach and his followers was only the last in a long line of incidents in which the people had been complaining to Moses about the hardships of the wilderness journey and calling for returning to Egypt.
As you’ll recall from last week’s Torah portion, God causes the earth to open up and swallow Korach and his two-hundred and fifty co-conspirators. A mighty impressive show of force on God’s part.
And one might reasonably presume that this would put an end to the challenges to Moses and Aaron’s leadership.
But that’s not what happens. To the contrary, after Korach and his 250 followers are swallowed up, the opposition to Moses just gets more intense. As we read in Numbers 17:6 – “The next day the whole Israelite community railed against Moses and Aaron, saying, “You have brought death upon Adonai’s people!”
And this more widespread uprising leads to a plague that kills 14,700 people before Aaron is able to use his priestly powers to stop it. (See Num. 17: 6-15)
After this, God, as it were, learns an important lesson. Violent force may temporarily quell unrest, but it won’t lead to unity and harmony. And so, the rebellion in Parashat Korach is ultimately assuaged not by the opening of the earth, not by the plague, but rather by an invocation of beauty.
And here’s where we come back to the blossoms.
God tells Moses to collect one staff from each tribal leader and to place them in front of the stone tablets in the Tent of Meeting. Alone among those staffs, the staff of Aaron miraculously sprouts, producing blossoms and bringing forth ripened almonds (Num. 17:23). And then God commands that this staff be preserved as a sign for generations to come.
So, that was last week’s Torah portion.
In this week’s Torah portion, thirty-eight years later, near the entrance to the Promised Land, the people lack water and complain to Moses. God commands to Moses that Moses should “Take the staff” and, in the presence of the community, speak to a rock at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting so that it will bring forth water (Num. 20:8).
Moses instead berates the people, saying: “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” (Num. 20:9). And then he strikes the rock twice with the staff and water gushes forth.
Surely it can’t be such a big deal that he struck the rock instead of speaking to it. After all, what was he supposed to do with the staff that he was commanded to take?
But, nevertheless, God immediately thereafter declares to Moses and Aaron: “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” (Num. 20:12).
What’s going on here? Thirty-eight years earlier, back in Exodus, chapter 17 in Parashat Beshallach, there had also been an incident when the people lacked water. And at that time God had indeed commanded Moses to take his staff and strike the rock.
Reasonably enough, Moses thought that history was repeating itself. Back then he took his staff and struck the rock. So, now too, he would strike the rock. How significant could it be that God was telling him now to speak to the rock rather than strike the rock?
But Moses didn’t really understand that this was a different staff, with a different symbolic meaning.
It was the medieval commentator Rashbam who emphasized that the staff with which Moses wrongly strikes the rock in the Book of Numbers was not the same staff with which he rightly struck the rock in the Book of Exodus. In the earlier incident, Moses was using what a contemporary commentator, Rav Chanoch Waxman, calls “the Staff of Power”. This was Moses’s staff that had turned into a snake and back before Pharaoh’s magicians, and which had turned the Nile into blood during the first of the ten plagues.
By contrast, Rashbam observes that the staff that Moses was commanded to take thirty-eight years later was the blossoming staff of Aaron, which Rav Waxman calls “The Staff of Life.” (See Rashbam on Numbers 20:9). This was the staff that had sprouted and produced blossoms and brought forth ripe almonds --- thus signaling the final reconciliation and healing after the end of Korach’s rebellion.
That’s a staff that represents peace and fruitfulness and harmony. It’s not a staff that represents brute force and destructive power.
But Moses didn’t stop to smell the flowers – or eat the almonds…
Moses was living in the past. He didn’t recognize that the people before him were not the hopeless and cynical former slaves of the previous generation. In an insightful contemporary commentary, Rav Elchanan Samet observes that the people who were complaining now, thirty-eight years later, were not pining for the fleshpots of Egypt. Rather, they were upset that their seemingly imminent arrival to the Land of Israel was being delayed. They were ready for freedom in a way that their parents had not been.
They were the people who needed to be led by a shepherd wielding the staff of life – not by a rabble rouser wielding the staff of destructive power.
But Moses didn’t see it – and so it became clear to God that it was time for new leadership.
We, like Moses, sometimes make the same mistakes in our personal lives.
And political leaders, like Moses, sometimes make the same mistakes in the affairs of nations.
We sometimes fail to distinguish the challenges of the past from those of the present that may superficially resemble them.
And we sometimes lash out destructively in situations where we would be better served by empathetic engagement with those with whom we are in opposition.
But if we remember to stop and smell the roses. If we learn from the past without being immobilized by it --- we may just yet succeed in getting to the promised land of our dreams.
© Rabbi David Steinberg
July 2017/Tammuz 5777
 “Of Sticks and Stones,” Torah MiEtzion: New Readings in Tanach – Bemidbar (Maggid Books, 2014), pp. 263-273.
 “The Waters of Contention,” Torah MiEtzion: New Readings in Tanach – Bemidbar (Maggid Books, 2014), pp. 253-262.