Numbers 19:1 – 22:1
What does it mean to bring water from the rock?
Miriam has just died. Moses and Aaron are mourning. The Israelites are clamoring, yet again, against Moses. This time, they are demanding water because Miriam had been the water diviner for the community, and now she was gone. Not knowing what to do, Moses turns to God, who commands him to tap the rock with his staff so that water will come forth.
The imagery captures our imaginations. In the dry and desolate Wilderness, life is precarious and water a precious commodity. Yet the Wilderness, when all seems hopeless, is exactly where our ancestors encounter God over and again. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of death, Thou art with me …” [Psalm 23:4]
It is almost as if, in order to truly find God, we must first come face to face with our own vulnerability.
In our parasha, Moses makes a terrible mistake. When God commands him to tap the rock, Moses turns to the Israelites and says: “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” [Num. 20:10] Then he smacks the rock not once, but twice with his staff.
God’s response was both swift and personally devastating for Moses. God said: “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 I have given them.” [Num. 20:12]
What precisely did Moses do wrong? He used the word, “we.” He said, “… shall we get water for you out of this rock.”
On the one hand, I think that Moses deserves a little slack here. The poor man has just lost his sister, and he has had a difficult and thankless time of it trying to lead our people out of Egypt. It could have merely been his frustration speaking, just this once. On the other hand, the people will follow his example, even as they complain every step of the way. His responsibility as a role model does not allow, not even once, for him to even suggest that he has power like God.
From a cosmic standpoint, to the extent that we could even understand such a position, this may well be an irrecoverable mistake. Yet, there may also be a more human lesson here. When we put ourselves in emotional armor, so much so that we replace the “Thou” of God with “we,” when we think of ourselves as powerful and in command of our domains, that could be when what we need most is time in the Wilderness. The Promised Land, and I am not referring merely to geography, may only reachable after we have learned to take off our armor, after we have been forced to drink water from the rock.
Numbers 16:1 – 18:32
Speak truth to power.
Before Torah, pharaohs and kings were seen as gods, and gods could never be challenged. Yet in Torah both Abraham and Moses directly and successfully challenge not only powerful foreign leaders, but even God! Speak truth to power - this is among the most radical teachings of Torah.
Abraham dared to challenge God in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, places so filled with evil that God determined that the only suitable solution was utter destruction. Abraham convinced God that the innocent should not be destroyed with the guilty, and asked God to spare the cities if fifty righteous people could be found among the population. Then amazingly, Abraham continued to negotiate, eventually bringing the number of innocent down to ten. God does not punish Abraham, God listens and then agrees that if ten righteous people could be found the cities would be spared. [Gen. 18:16 – 33]
Abraham challenged God once. Moses challenged God on several occasions, and always on the same theme: to save Israel from Divine punishment. The most famous of these instances is the Golden Calf. Moses has been with God at the top of the Mount Sinai for almost 40 days. Not knowing what Moses and God were doing, the Israelites began to panic, and built the Golden Calf. God became incensed and decided to destroy the Israelites and give Moses a new people to lead. Moses challenged God not only on the basis of ethics, but also God’s own reputation among humanity. God listened to Moses and relented. [Ex. 32:1-14]
Korach is also a story of challenging power, but in more ways than one. Korach is a Levite, a cousin to Moses and Aaron. With his two lieutenants, Dathan and Abiram, Korach organizes a group of 250 leaders – chosen from among the tribes – to challenge the leadership of Moses and Aaron. He uses the language of democracy, saying: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” [Num. 16:3] Moses first tries to speak with them, but they refuse. Then Moses turns to God to protest his innocence, saying that not one of these men has been wronged by him. Finally, Moses asks that God choose between them.
What happens next is extraordinary. God appears before the entire assembly of Israel, and tells Moses and Aaron to move to a place of safety: Israel is to be destroyed. God has rejected Korach’s challenge because it is not about helping the people, but about grabbing power. Furthermore, because representatives from every tribe joined in, God holds all of Israel responsible. Moses and Aaron fall to their faces and challenge God again, asking that the innocent be spared. God again relents, but singles out Korach and his followers who all die dramatic supernatural deaths for the way they challenged God’s authority.
One might think the story would end here, but the next day, the Israelites railed against Moses and Aaron, accusing them of bringing death to the people. Again, God tells Moses and Aaron to separate themselves from the people. Moses realizes that, this time, there is no time to argue with God, that the punishment has already begun in the form of a plague. So he sends Aaron not away from the people, but into their midst – with a fire pan for a guilt offering. For the first time, Moses and Aaron challenge God not just with words, but with deeds.
What happens next? Some of the Israelites die of the plague – a large number. But the overwhelming majority are spared. Even more, neither Moses nor Aaron are punished for directly disobeying God.
The story of Korach, Moses and Aaron helps us to understand that we can and should stand up to those who have power, but only for the right reasons. Leadership, in Torah terms, is about service. When our leaders truly serve the people, they deserve our support – even if we don’t agree on everything. However, when our leaders are poised to harm the people, even when it is God Almighty, Torah teaches us to stand up for what is right – even if doing so is dangerous.
Speaking truth to power – this is moral obligation Torah places upon us all.
Numbers 13:1 – 15:41
Some call it the greatest failure of leadership in all of Torah.
God commands Moses to send spies to the Promised Land to bring back report on both the land and the people who live there. Moses chooses twelve spies, one from each tribe, each a prince among his people. They explore the land for forty days and then return carrying a cluster of grapes so large that it took two men to carry it. They described the land as “flowing with milk and honey,” fertile beyond their wildest dreams. However, they also reported that the land was inhabited by well-armed people who lived in fortified cities. So far so good. This is an accurate depiction of what they found. The failure in leadership is what follows: two of the scouts, Joshua and Caleb, argued that we should continue forward. However, the other ten spoke of “a land that consumes those who dwell in it.” [Num. 13:32] Even more, they described the inhabitants as giants, saying that in comparison, “we were in our own eyes like grasshoppers, and so we must have been in their eyes.” [Num. 13:33] The people wailed and mourned so much so that they were completely paralyzed, saying: “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt, or in this wilderness would that we had died. And why is the Lord bringing us to this land to fall by the sword? … Would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?” [Num. 14:2-3]
From among all the people, only Joshua and Caleb offered leadership. Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before the mob, and panic ruled the day. Let’s not forget that this was the generation that witnessed the Ten Plagues, the Sea part, and the Revelation at Sinai. They saw Pharaoh’s army destroyed and Egypt, the greatest superpower of its day, brought to its knees. Given that personal history, how could they not have confidence in overcoming a handful of Canaanite tribes?
The ten spies who pedaled fear not only encouraged the people to forget about their faith in God, but asserted that they could not put their trust in each other. As a result, God determined that they were not ready, nor would they ever be. For forty years, the Israelites would wander through the Wilderness, during which time the current generation would age and die and a new generation, born to freedom, would arise. Of all the Israelites who left Egypt, only Joshua and Caleb would survive the years of wandering and enter the land.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches that great leaders lead by example, and that great leaders do not engage in fear mongering. Rather, great leaders instill confidence – based on realistic assessments – and cultivate our faith in what we can achieve together.
Fear does not empower; fear does not elevate; fear diminishes us and damages our potential. Our greatest leaders have had faith in us, and have taught us to in turn to have faith as well. Consider the amount of faith God places in us. Forget that God has entrusted all of Creation to our care. Let’s looks at something more limited: the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are not structured as “if/then” propositions. The commandment does not say: if you commit murder, then this shall be the penalty. That approach subtlety undermines our faith in ourselves – it says, ‘you already know that murder is bad, but without this penalty you might decide to kill anyway.’ No, the command says: “Don’t murder.” In other words, God is saying to us that we are capable. We are capable of not committing murder, or theft, or adultery, or idolatry. We are perfectly capable of not doing any of those things, and by simply saying “don’t” God is in effect also saying that there is a Divine confidence in us. We can succeed. This is great leadership, modeled from on high.
Just as God models great leadership at Sinai, Shelach Lecha models what not to do. However, also it reminds us – through our experience of failure through fear (and our eventual triumph through faith) – that we are not grasshoppers after all.
Numbers 8:1 – 12:16
Do you know how many books there are in the Torah? According to the sages, the answer is not five, but seven! That’s right, seven. The ancient rabbis broke Numbers into three separate “books,” and the reason why can be found in this week’s Torah portion. Among the many and varied verses in the portion is an oddity of scribed Torah. Two verses from BeHa’alotecha are bracketed in every Torah scroll by a pair of inverted letter nuns:
This is the only place in Torah where we see anything like this. Why are these verses bracketed?
According to the Talmudic rabbis, God personally put these brackets in as a sign above and below these verses to teach, “that this [section] is not in its proper place [in the Torah]. Rabbi says: it is not for this reason, but rather because [this section] ranks as a book unto itself.” (Talmud Bavli: Shabbat, 115b-116a)
Let’s take a closer look at each of these answers. The first argues that God purposefully placed these two verses in the wrong place, and then put these markings in to make sure that we would know. Since the tradition teaches that Torah is perfect, this is part of the perfection of Torah. Where should these verses be? In chapter two, verse seventeen, where the marching and camping order of the camp is detailed and completed and the method of starting each march with moving the mishkan is described. Here’s how the text would read if the bracketed section were to be moved to chapter two:
“Then the tent of meeting, with the camp of the Levites, shall set forward in the midst of the camps; as they encamp, so shall they set forward, every man in his place by their standards.” (Num. 2:17)
It makes sense from a literary standpoint, but Rabbeinu Bachya takes this even further. He noted that the letter nun represents the number fifty. Numbers 2:17 is fifty sections before 10:35-6, where these verses are currently written.
Pretty cool, right?
Then there is Rabbi’s explanation, that these two verses are a book unto themselves. If this is true, then there are three books in Numbers: everything before this section is one book, the section itself is another, and everything after is a third book. In this reading, the section belongs exactly where it is in Torah – for why would God possibly put something in the wrong place, especially when it comes to Torah?
The Talmud initially seems to agree with Rabbi, and asserts that there are indeed seven books of Torah. According to Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, this little “book” was inserted to put a separation between what happens immediately before and immediately after these verses, which he calls the “Two Punishments.” The first “punishment” was that after leaving Sinai it took us only three days to turn away from God. The second is that, despite how God provided us with everything we needed, the people complained vociferously about the food they missed from the “good old days” in Egypt. (Talmud Bavli: Shabbat, 116a) The “punishments,” then, were the severe sins of the people – deserving of Divine retribution. Placing these sins in different books, softens the blow for sensitive readers of the text, and gives Israel a fighting chance.
Rashi ultimately resolves both possibilities in his commentary to the Talmud. He taught that these verses are in the correct place now, but will be returned to their rightful place in chapter two when the Messiah comes and there will be no more Divine retribution.
The theological implications of these ideas are both extraordinary and practical. First, there is a direct causal link between leaving God behind and personal dissatisfaction. Even in the Wilderness, our awareness of the Divine Presence provides a sense of well-being, safety and fulfillment. When we turn away from God, we begin to discover an emptiness inside – and that emptiness leads us towards deep dissatisfaction even when we have everything we need. With God we feel the calm joy which comes with faith; without God we experience unhappiness, anxiety and fear. To leave God at Sinai is not only a sin against God, but a sin against ourselves!
Second, the choice to either embrace or abandon God not only effects our own individual lives, but the course of Creation. In other words, it has cosmic implications. Why? According to tradition, the World to Come – the world of peace and well-being we all wish could live in, will be ushered in by the Messiah. However, that will only happen when we no longer live in such a way as to deserve Divine retribution. In other words, the Messiah will only come when we have already done the heavy lifting to make this world the World to Come.
All of this from two little brackets …
Numbers 4:21 – 7:89
It is just days after our celebration of Shavuot, when we reenacted the Revelation at Sinai and heard the Ten Commandments as if we stood at the base of the mountain. Following such a spiritual high, what will we read in Torah on this Shabbat? Perhaps the strangest ritual in all of Torah: the test of the sotah. It is as if we are watching Monty Python, as they quip: “And now for something completely different.” Parashat Naso covers many topics, and among them is what to do when a husband suspects and then accuses his wife of infidelity. The ritual assumes that there are no witnesses, so it is his word against hers.
What is the ritual of the sotah? The husband brings his wife before the priest and accuses her of adultery, because “a spirit of jealousy may have overcome him.” [Num. 5:14] He then offers a jealousy sacrifice, a remembrance offering and a guilt offering. The priest brings the woman forward to stand before God, since only God can know what did or did not happen. The priest then takes holy water, and places some dirt from the floor into the water. With her palms on the offerings, the woman must swear before the priest that the now bitter water will determine the verdict: if she has cheated, then her “belly will swell and her thighs will sag,” if not then nothing will happen. The priest writes down the words of her oath and dissolves them in the bitter water, which she then drinks.
On the surface, this is a horrible and demeaning ritual. It unfairly singles out women, does not seem to hold men accountable for adultery, and seems otherwise just bizarre. There is good reason why Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai effectively legislated this rite out of existence in the Mishnah. [Sotah 9:9] That said, as with most of Torah, there is more here than meets the eye. The most likely outcome of the ritual is that nothing will happen. Drinking water with a little dirt and ink would cause no harm, and the priest would then declare the woman innocent. Furthermore, because the priest is the representative of God, there could be no appeal – and it would be the husband, not the wife, who would then be shamed. In context, this odd ritual provides a level of protection to women in a patriarchal society.
There may also be a connection with Shavuot, or more precisely, the Ten Commandments. The third commandment requires that we not worship other gods, because God is an Eil kana. Eil means God. Kana can mean either zealous or jealous. Then, in the Tenth Commandment, we are commanded not to covet. The primary motivation for coveting is jealousy.
Where does this leave us?
On the one hand, we know that jealousy is a toxic emotion. Left unfettered, jealousy can ruin relationships and in some cases, destroy lives. On the other hand, it seems that jealousy is an attribute of God, and we are taught that not only are we made in the Divine image but that we should emulate God. How do we reconcile this tension?
To be completely honest, I do not know … but there are a few suggestive clues.
It seems that while God may be able to take jealousy in stride, people cannot. As far as I can tell, out of 613 commandments, Torah only legislates two emotions: one positive and one negative. On the positive side, we are commanded to love. We are commanded to love God, and we are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves. On the negative side, we are commanded not to be jealous. We are reminded that jealousy leads to hatred in our hearts, and we are taught that jealousy destroys. From the human perspective, this is enough for me.
From a theological perspective, the idea of God as jealous still nags. We know that we are not God, that we should not attempt to act as if we were God. We also know that we should emulate God to the best of our limited and human ability. Where is the line? Where is jealousy relative to that line?
The answer may very will reside with you.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras