Moses entered the stage of Jewish history by heroically striking an Egyptian taskmaster who was beating an Israelite slave (Ex. 2:11-12). In contrast, his unfortunate striking of a rock in this week’s biblical portion of Chukat precipitated his exit from the stage of Jewish history. His first act of striking was done out of love for his people, an act of courage and self-sacrifice that forced him to flee the house of Pharaoh.
Striking the rock, however — which in reality was directed at the People of Israel, whom he called “rebels” — was an expression of deep frustration with a nation that had defied his teachings and fomented rebellion after rebellion to undermine his and God’s authority.
Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Harlap describes in his multivolume “Mei Marom” the change in Moses’ mindset toward the People of Israel by distinguishing between two descriptive nouns for them, which are usually taken for synonyms: kehal and eidah, assemblage and community.
A kahal (assemblage) consists of the many individuals who gather together, the separate and disparate persons who make up a crowd. An eidah (community) is guided by a specific purpose, which serves to unite and connotes individuals united by their commitment to historic continuity from generation to generation. Indeed, the very term eidah comes from the same Hebrew root as witness (eid) and testimony (eidut).
With this background, let us take a fresh look at our biblical portion. Immediately following Miriam’s death, the desert wells dry up, and the Israelites assemble as a crowd of disparate rabble (vayikahalu) in complaint against Moses and Aaron. In response, God addresses Moses: “Take the staff, and you and Aaron assemble the community (hak’hel et ha’eidah). Speak to the rock in their presence, and it will give forth its water. You will thereby bring forth water from the rock and allow the community (ha’eidah) and their beasts to drink” (ibid., v. 8).
God expected Moses to see through the angry mob and inspiringly extract from deep within them the faith of their forebears. But Moses, disappointed and disgruntled, personally devastated by their “ingratitude,” can only see a mass of fearful and immature freedmen dancing before a Golden Calf. He had lost sight of the community of Israel and could only see the assemblage of Israel; he spoke to what was in front of him instead of to their potential, the great moments and the noble individuals who comprised historic Israel and forged the Israelites in front of him. And so he became incapable of speaking with love; he could only strike out in anger. Given this attitude, Moses cannot continue to lead the nation toward the fulfillment of its historical destiny.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chief rabbi of Efrat.