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 Parshat Hukkat June 19, 2021

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom
There are two things that stand out in Parshat Hukkat. One is the law of the Red Cow. It is striking because the law seems to contradict itself. It makes someone ritually pure no matter how severe the impurity might be, and yet, whoever handles the ashes becomes impure. How can something that purifies also be a source of impurity? I will leave that discussion for another day. 
The other part of the text of the Parsha that stands out is the incident of Moses striking the rock to provide water for the People of Israel. Commanded to speak to the rock, Moses strikes the rock. The effect is the same, there is water for the people. Still Moses is punished by God, the exact infraction is not stated, and he is told that he will not enter the Promised Land. The punishment seems to not fit the crime. A lifetime of leadership for Moses is wiped out in an instant for what? Not speaking to a rock? Something is not right here.
Later Rabbis, who are not happy with this section try and add to the story either by compounding the sin of Moses or blaming his personality. It is true that Moses did not strictly obey what God told him to do. It is true that Moses, a leader with humility, strength, a passion against injustice, and a stutterer, has much for us to emulate. Still, he does have a nasty temper. He often gets angry with the people and with God. His anger also was the cause of his killing an Egyptian taskmaster. This is a man with a serious anger management problem. 
But Professor Amy Kalmanofsky, the Dean of List College at the Jewish Theological Seminary, in this week’s edition of the JTS weekly Torah study writes, “Given the great things Moses accomplishes and the intimate relationship he has with God, one expects God to forgive him this tantrum. Instead, God punishes Moses along with his brother Aaron and denies them entrance into the land of Israel. Generations of readers question how the punishment fits the crime and search for more serious wrongdoing. After all, a moment of anger should not cancel a life’s work. Moses must be guilty of more.”
According to Professor Kalmanofsky, the real crime is that, in spite of all his leadership accomplishments, Moses was not able to instill a belief in God into the people of Israel. Who can say that if Moses had only talked to the rock, rather than hitting it, the people would have been impressed with God’s miracle and would have believed in God. 
O Plu-eezzee!
I know Professor Kalmanofsky and I understand her attempt to understand God and Moses in this moment but despite her tremendous scholarship, I respectfully disagree. Moses had already brought many miracles for the People of Israel; ten plagues, crossing the Red Sea, changing bitter water to sweet water, providing manna, providing quail meat on demand, bringing the Torah down from Mt. Sinai; an endless succession of Miracles and all the people can say to Moses is “What have you done for me lately?” Will speaking to a rock suddenly make the people believe in God? I would say that Moses had a right to be angry with the People of Israel; they were looking for another miracle and still, when the next aggravation would come along, they would have no faith that God would provide for them. If this is the reason God punished Moses, well…. God should have known better.
My friend, Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein called my attention to the Midrash Tanhuma, a fifth century compilation of Rabbinic homilies. There we find a rather interesting account of the story “behind the story”: ‘And Moshe and Aharon assembled the congregation in front of the rock’ (Numbers 20:10) This comes to teach that each and every person saw themselves as standing before the rock… They began to say: ‘Moshe surely knows how this rock works. If he only requests, water will flow forth for us from it.’ So, they said to Moshe: ‘Behold a rock. You want to bring forth water from this rock, bring it forth from that rock [instead].’ So, Moshe was in a quandary. [If he listened to what the people wanted, he would be defying the word of God and if he did what God wanted, the people might not discern that it was a miracle.] Moshe responded harshly, shouting back: ‘Listen, you rebels, shall we get water out of this rock?’ (Numbers 20:10)
While there is no evidence of this version in the Torah, the Midrash appeals to the historian inside of me. This is the kind of cynical story that has the ring of truth in it. These people know exactly how to get Moses angry. They know precisely how to push his buttons. How do you teach faith in God to these people? How do you demonstrate God’s love for the people when they see every sign of that love as some kind of a trick? Is this a failure of Moses’s leadership or a failure of the people to see what is right in front of their eyes? 
This is the sad ending of this story. Moses is condemned for his inability to lead the people, to instill a faith in God in the community. He too must die in the wilderness. Maybe it is unfair, but that is the nature of leadership. A lifetime of accomplishments can disappear in a moment’s failure.
We like to think that good leaders sometimes get too full of themselves and begin a long slide into infamy. We can think of many leaders who succumbed to this all too human inflation of ego. There are precious few leaders who remain humble in the face of all the praise that is heaped upon them. I had to smile this week when our President Joe Biden got mad at a reporter after the big meeting with Vladmir Putin. The reporter asked the president how he could trust Putin to keep the agreements Putin had made. “Who said I trust him?” snapped the president, who later apologized. Biden knew that agreements with an enemy does not depend on trust, but on self-interest. The reporter was asking Biden to speak to the wrong rock.
This is always the dilemma for a good leader. Rabbi Silverstein notes: After over forty years as leader of the people, Moshe’s job was no easier than when he started. Should he bow to the popular will, right or wrong, or should he do what he thought was right, regardless of popular sentiment. The answer to this question, as we know from our own day, is not an easy one. This led the author of this midrash to quote a verse from Job: “Who traps the clever in their own wiles…” (Job 5:13) Sometimes, neither option assures a successful outcome.

Here Professor Kalmanofsky agrees: Given the symbiotic relationship between leaders and their communities, it makes sense that leaders be measured by their impact on their communities. Religious leaders in particular should be measured by their ability to create holy communities that are bound by shared values that transcend human experience. Religious leaders should inspire their communities to look beyond themselves to have faith in a greater power and a stronger moral force. 

This has been the struggle over the past year and a half during this pandemic. Rabbis all over the country had to balance the needs of the people with the requirements of Jewish Law. What would help us hold on to a holy community and what will destroy all that we have built? Would people come back to synagogues if they can pray at home in front of their computer? If using a computer on Shabbat is only permitted in a time of danger, in a time of pandemic, when will that danger pass and the rules about not using a computer go back into effect? Will it be possible to put that genie back into the bottle? Is the mark of a good leader the ability to bring people back to synagogue? Will a lifetime of good works be erased if the congregation can’t find their way back to synagogue?

Sometimes we put too much on the shoulders of our leaders. A synagogue president can’t make people love a synagogue so much that they will promptly pay their dues. A Rabbi can’t inspire holiness every day in every person. A teacher can’t make every student understand a lesson the first time it is taught. Leadership is not about the day to day events that make up an organization’s life. It is not about what happens every day in the life of a people. Leadership is about the long game. It is about making a difference over the course of a life. I don’t worry about whether or not someone remembers my sermon at the end of the day. I know I am successful when they look back on their life and realize that something I said made a difference in how they lived their lives. 

Maybe Moses was not successful on that fateful day when he failed to speak to the rock. Maybe it is unfair that he was judged on that event, and it cancelled out the lifetime of good work he had done on behalf of the people. But in the end, when we look back on the life of Moses, we realize that the Torah he gave us, the example he set of humility, the bravery of standing up to Pharoah, the way he argued on behalf of his people before God whenever they sinned, how he overcame his disabilities to lead Israel out of Egypt - all of that is remembered today. In spite of the one sin, Moses changed the course of Western Civilization.

Moses was a leader, a moral example, and a hero to our people. He was also human. We are all the beneficiaries of his profound humanness and his powerful heroism. This sad note in his life did not diminish his stature.

Now that is a leadership story that can be a lesson to us all. May we see the success of our lives over the course of our lifetime as we say …. Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Mon, April 15 2024 7 Nisan 5784