Chukat: Speak Words of Torah

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chukat

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts.’ “(Bamidbar/ Numbers 20:7-8, JPS translation)

Good evening!

The Torah portion Chukat is long and varied, containing many interesting and dramatic narratives, including strife in the wilderness, the decree that Moshe will not enter the Land, and the deaths of Miriam and Aharon. The beginning of chapter 20 relates the famous story of “striking the rock,” with the resultant terrible decree on Moshe, who was apparently supposed to speak to the rock when the people cry out for water, as in the verse above. Instead, he struck it with his staff, and is told that he will never enter the Land.

There is oodles and oodles of rabbinic commentary on what, exactly, Moshe did that was so bad, but we won’t get into that today. (You can check out commentaries on that topic here, here, and here.) Rather, I’m interested in a fascinating midrash related to what Moshe was ostensibly supposed to do when the people cried out for water, and there were only rocks around them. The late medieval commentator known as the Or HaChaim (from his famous book of that title) quotes an earlier text to which interprets “order the rock” [literally, “speak to the rock before their eyes”] as “study Torah by the rock,” or maybe even to teach Torah to the rock itself ! The text says that Moshe should have spoken just “a single paragraph” to the stone; given that rocks, unlike people, don’t have ears to hear or minds to understand, what could this possibly mean?

The verse itself is clear that Moshe was supposed to speak to the rock, not just whack it with a stick, but the image of studying Torah by- or with- the rock suggests that the better way to get water from a rock is a more meditative approach, rather than frantic action. This is not about a miracle of hydrology, it’s about what it takes to draw out from others something deep and nourishing: first, go to your innermost core, reminding yourself of your deepest ideals and sense of connection.

Then, speak words of Torah- that is, words which are grounded in our best selves, our most authentic ethical and spiritual traditions and paradigms. That’s how you draw out something sustaining when the community is “dry” of ideas, hopes, and vision. “Speaking Torah to the rock” can mean: Moshe, if you’re swinging sticks around when the people are scared, go back to your own source of innermost meaning- study some Torah so that you act from a place of spiritual intentionality, not negativity, resentment or anger towards the people.

Dealing with human beings- stubborn, stiff-necked and complaining, as all of us are, at least some of the time- often requires a reorientation of our attitude before we can be effective agents of hope and care. Even Moshe had to remember who he was- a teacher, a leader, a lover of Israel, grounded in sacred ideals- before he could give others what they needed. It’s no great failing to want to strike the rock; we fail only ourselves when in haste we forget to slow down and take in Torah and its vision of compassionate humanity.

Shabbat Shalom,


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