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(Preliminary note: as I began writing this D'var Torah, I soon realized that it was ballooning into something much longer and in-depth than I'd intended. I've therefore decided to split it up into two parts. I'll be posting Part 1 today, as the regular D'var Torah, and Part 2 sometime early next week as a "bonus" discussion for any who are interested...) :D

Torah reading: Numbers chapters 19 to 22:1 and Numbers 28:9-15
Haftarah: Isaiah chapter 66

Reading over this week's parsha, I was struck by the recurring themes of water and of control/power/leadership -- in particular, control over the water supply, a motif which seemed to come up in nearly every section of the reading. A quick summary follows (with references to these motifs highlighted):

- First, God gives the Israelites instructions for how to make the water of cleansing -- a process, of course, controlled by the priesthood and, indirectly, God.
- In the next chapter, Miriam -- part of the original trio of leaders, along with Moses and Aaron -- dies and suddenly the Israelites have no water. They begin to grumble once more, and God tells Moses to go speak to the rock and it will produce water. But Moses disobeys God's instructions by striking the rock with his staff. Water gushes forth, but Moses and Aaron are reprimanded: because they did not do as God commanded, they will not lead the Israelites into the Promised Land.
- The Israelites then set out and encounter two foreign nations. Twice they request to pass through their land, promising that they "will not go through any field or vineyard, or drink water from any well. We will travel along the King’s Highway and not turn to the right or to the left until we have passed through your territory." They reiterate  that "if we or our livestock drink any of your water, we will pay for it," but they are nonetheless denied passage. The second time this happens, the Amorites attack Israel, who manages to defeat their army and capture their cities.
- In between the two incidents, Aaron dies and his son Eleazar becomes High Priest. The Israelites travel in the wilderness and once more are running short on water and food. When they complain about the manna that God has sent them, they are struck with a plague of venomous serpents and are only healed when Moses, on God's orders, constructs a bronze serpent on a pole for them to look at.
- Finally, they arrive at Moab and God provides a well for them, whereupon the Israelites joyfully burst into a song of thanksgiving.

This recurring motif truly hammered home to me the importance of water: how central to life it is, and how we in the developed world nearly always take it for granted. To the nomadic Israelites and their fellow nations living in such an arid climate, control over the water supply must have been more important than anything else: gold, livestock, or even land. (The novel Dune also comes to mind, as does the recent shocking news that Detroit has turned off the water supply for thousands of residents, prompting appeals to the UN -- which has recognized water and sanitation as a basic human right.)

I'm going to focus in on just one incident, however: Moses and the rock. What about Moses' action was so sinful that -- after so many years of faithful and dedicated leadership -- it warranted such a severe punishment? How could God be so cruel as to bar Moses from the Promised Land for one tiny lapse of self-control? In fact, commentators have debated this issue for hundreds of years. Despite this, I'm going to try to provide one more interesting (and, I think, original) angle on the question. Today, in Part 1, I'll be discussing the struggle for power and authority taking place beneath the surface in this story.

Follow me below the splashy orange fountain for more.

Returning once more to the theme of power and control over water, it's interesting to note the very calm, emotionally neutral language that God uses in his instructions to Moses:

“Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink.”
There's no hint of condemnation here. The Israelites, after all, are making a fair request; it's impossible for human beings to survive without water (let alone the substantial herds of livestock that, given the many laws involving sacrifice, must have been present!) However, the language that Moses employs makes for quite a contrast with God's calm tone.
"[Moses] and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff." [Highlighting is mine.]
In two short verses, Moses asserts his and Aaron's authority not once but six times!

- "Listen" is obviously a (rather rudely phrased) command.
- "You rebels" automatically casts the Israelites as rebellious traitors against (as Moses sees it) his and Aaron's absolute authority.
- "Must" has a distinct overtone of "Do we really have to…" as if to imply, "Look at all the work we go to, just because you won't shut up any other way. You'd better be grateful."
- Raising his arm and striking the rock with his staff -- not once but twice -- are all actions intended to demonstrate authority not only over the rock but the people of Israel. Rabbi Sacks has an interesting discussion of this, and argues that the heart of Moses' sin lies here:

"The remarkable fact about Moses and the rock is the way he observes precedent. Almost forty years earlier, in similar circumstances, G-d had told him to take his staff and strike the rock….What [Moses] failed to understand was that time had changed in one essential detail. He was facing a new generation. The people he confronted the first time were those who had spent much of their lives as slaves in Egypt. Those he now faced were born in freedom in the wilderness.

There is one critical difference between slaves and free human beings. Slaves respond to orders. Free people do not. They must be educated, informed, instructed, taught – for if not, they will not learn to take responsibility. Slaves understand that a stick is used for striking. That is how slave-masters compel obedience….But free human beings must not be struck. They respond, not to power but persuasion. They need to be spoken to. What Moses failed to hear – indeed to understand – was that the difference between G-d’s command then and now (“strike the rock” and “speak to the rock”) was of the essence. The symbolism in each case was precisely calibrated to the mentalities of two different generations. You strike a slave, but speak to a free person."

Moses is on a power trip. Obviously, both the Israelite leaders are badly out of touch with their people. (One can probably assume that, at any rate, Moses and Aaron were not lacking for water!) Perhaps, too, Moses and Aaron are still grieving the loss of their sister, and the "grumbling" of the Israelites -- really a request for the bare necessities of life -- is simply the last straw.

However, there's one final aspect of Moses' speech that -- to my mind -- truly reveals the full extent of his ego here:

"[Moses] and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff." [Highlighting is mine.]
"Must we bring you water?" Apparently Moses has forgotten exactly who's providing the water here. Somehow, his role as God's chosen leader has caused him to identify himself with God, or at least as having God's power to turn rocks into springs of water. By asserting his authority and striking the rock commandingly, rather than speaking to it as God instructed him to do, he usurps God's prerogative and presumes to take control of the water supply -- indirectly, trying to control his people and even God!

However, I think there's a final interesting layer to this story. Rabbi Sacks' commentary reminded me of some recent reading I've done...

Ah, but that would be giving too much away. :D See you next week for Part 2!

Shabbat Shalom!

Originally posted to Street Prophets on Fri Jun 27, 2014 at 12:15 PM PDT.

Also republished by Elders of Zion and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (14+ / 0-)

    "We are stardust, we are golden, and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden." (Joni Mitchell)

    by Eowyn9 on Fri Jun 27, 2014 at 12:15:36 PM PDT

  •  Thanks for a fascinating (6+ / 0-)

    discussion. I agree with Rabbi Sacks, God has changed his command to suit the new situation, which Moses cannot recognize. (I also think the whole book of Deuteronomy is castigating the people for the sins of their ancestors and their descendants. But that's another conversation.) This shows why Moses is not the right person to lead the Israelites into the promised land, although it's generally said that a military leader is now necessary, not a teacher.

    I have had my water turned off before, living in the desert, and it's no fun at all. Water is still an issue in the promised land several thousand years later.

    I look forward to the second installment.

    We need a world in which we ask "What's happened to you?" more and "What's wrong with you?" less. (From a comment by Kossack nerafinator)

    by ramara on Fri Jun 27, 2014 at 01:50:34 PM PDT

    •  Indeed -- and it's been repeatedly speculated (4+ / 0-)

      that the major wars of the 21st century will be fought over water, particularly given the impacts of climate change.

      "We are stardust, we are golden, and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden." (Joni Mitchell)

      by Eowyn9 on Fri Jun 27, 2014 at 04:14:55 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  He who controls the water controls the land (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        In Egypt where the Sons of Israel had spent the last half millenia the irrigation necessary to share out the inundation made the deserts bloom.

        In walking the metes and bounds of Edom Israel does indeed go from well to well, and from well to brook and from brook to river and from river to sea, but the important thing about the stations of the Exodus is that they define a territory.

        Now Israel has been fighting its neighbors over water since Canaan was an Egyptian province, and you can compare the campaign accounts of the 18th Dynasty Egyptians with the towns mentioned in Joshuah's conquest without missing a beat or a battle, but the march around Edom is fascinating in its details of each region.


        "la vida no vale nada un lugar solita" "The Limits of Control Jim Jarmusch

        by rktect on Sat Jun 28, 2014 at 09:27:03 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Edited to fix a couple small typos :) (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ramara, thanatokephaloides

    Aaron, not Abraham -- arrrghh!

    "We are stardust, we are golden, and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden." (Joni Mitchell)

    by Eowyn9 on Fri Jun 27, 2014 at 04:13:35 PM PDT

  •  I've always wondered why God let the (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Eowyn9, ramara

    water flow, since Moses did not request it in the proper way.

    Mother Teresa: "If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other."

    by Amber6541 on Sat Jun 28, 2014 at 06:34:11 AM PDT

    •  I think it was for the people's benefit. (3+ / 0-)

      After all, they'd made a reasonable request for water, and God had already decided to honor that request. Moses' little temper tantrum was an issue between him and God, not between God and the people, and Moses/Aaron paid the price for this mistake. To deny them water because of Moses' swollen ego would have been cruel, to say the least.

      "We are stardust, we are golden, and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden." (Joni Mitchell)

      by Eowyn9 on Sat Jun 28, 2014 at 06:49:44 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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