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Parshas Chukat - Our Independence. Our Community. Our Song

By Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran

Posted on 07/10/19

Parshas HaShavua Divrei Torah sponsored by
Dr. Shapsy Tajerstein, DPM - Podiatry Care.
(410) 788-6633

You can cage the singer but not the song.


Harry Belafonte




No “one-hit wonder”, the Torah presents us with two great songs.  The first, and most famous is Az Yashir – “Then sang Moshe and B’nei Yisrael this shirah…”, praising the splitting of the yam suf and allowing the Children of Israel to be free at last from their bondage in Mitzrayim.   The second and less well-known song occurs near the end of Chukat.  It is a short song of gratitude for the uninterrupted supply of water (the well!) throughout the forty years sojourn in the desert.  “Then Israel sang this song; ‘Come up, O well, announce it! Well that the princes dug, that the nobles of the people excavated, through a lawgiver, with their staff. A gift from the Wilderness.” The song then traces the path of the well /water that followed the nation, no matter how high the elevation or difficult the terrain. The gift went from the valley to the heights. And from the heights to the valley in the field of Moab, at the top of the peak, overlooking the surface of the wilderness.


As they sang, Israel finally understood that it was impossible for them to have made it without God’s constant and consistent be’er –well – supply of water.  So now, as they are about to enter the Land, they do so singing to God a thank you, much in the way a bride or groom might leave a thank you note to parents before leaving for the Chupah, or the student for his rebbi before graduation. 


All lovely but we must ask, why isn’t Moshe singing this second song?  He was a prominent – a necessary – voice in Az yashir.  Why is his voice silent in this powerful song of gratitude?  Some, including the Midrash Tanchuma, suggest it is because he was punished on account of the well, the very misdeed that led to Moshe not being allowed to enter the Land of Israel.  Perhaps.  But perhaps there is another, more enlightening explanation. 


The Shemen HaTov, notes that Az Yashir was sung at the outset of Israel’s long journey from Mitzrayim.  The Promised Land was a long, hard forty years away.  But the ‘Song of the Well’ was celebrated at the end of that journey. Throughout the years of that long journey, Moshe taught many important lessons, lessons that B’nei Yisrael ultimately and fortunately absorbed.  


When they first escaped Mitzrayim, the people were burdened with a slave mentality.   Hence, Az yashir Moshe and B’nei Yisrael.  But forty years later, after the lessons of Sinai – including more than half of Torah mitzvoth bein adam l’chaveiro – after hardships and joys, with countless lessons of gratitude and appreciation conveyed everywhere in the Torah, it was time to step forward as a proud, independent nation.  It was time for Moshe, as a leader, as judge, as parent and teacher, to step back confident and gratified that the children would move forward and do the right thing in raising their voices to God. 


By this understanding, Moshe’s name not appearing in the Song of the Well is anything but a condemnation; it is a celebration.  Moshe, as the archetypal parent and teacher, has modeled how to raise children and teach students. 


After forty years, Moshe is not hearing a mere repetition of the song he led B’nei Yisrael in singing.  He is hearing a new song.  And that is the greatest joy of any parent or teacher, to hear his or her child or student sing a “new song”, a song that could never have been sung without their love, guidance and faith – faith in the child to one day walk forward as an independent individual!




* * *




As happens so often in Bamidbar, the Israelites are complaining.  This time, they find themselves in the Wilderness of Zin, tired and thirsty. 


“Why have you brought us ... to this wilderness to die there, we and our animals?” they demand of Aaron and Moshe.  Why, why did they bring them “…to this evil place?”  Why did Moshe lead them to this place with no water?


The people are, characteristically, out of control.  They act as though all the events of the previous years had never occurred; as if the miracles and God’s outstretched hand were but an unwelcome dream.  God’s response to such a cruel and selfish cacophony? 


“Take the staff, you and Aaron...and speak to the rock before their eyes and it shall give its water... and give drink to the assembly and to their animals.” 


We know what happens next.  Moshe, after venting his anger and frustration, calling the Israelites rebels, “raised his arm and struck the rock with his staff twice”.  Immediately, “abundant water came forth...”.  Just as quickly, God informs Moshe and Aaron of the consequence “you will not bring this congregation to the Land that I have given them.”


This was the price he would pay for, “…not believing in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel.”


What was his grievous sin that was so terrible?  That he was human?  That he gave expression to his anger and frustration?  For this, he forfeited the dream of entering the Land of Israel?  It makes no sense to our very human minds.  Ramban tells us, “the matter is a great secret of the mysteries of the Torah.”  Our wisest commentators struggle to understand the event and the lesson of it.  After all, when all was said and done, they brought forth water.  God’s hand was clearly evident. 


Could it really make any difference if that result came about from hitting rather than talking? 


Anger is, of course, at the heart of the punishment.  To call the Israelites – hungry, thirsty, frightened – rebels was a step too far.  Rambam, in Shemoneh Perakim, isolates that anger as exactly the difference.  The Sifri (Matot) teaches that because Moshe, “was in a state of anger he therefore erred.” 




Anger will often produce the opposite results of what we may be looking to achieve.  To achieve something, you may on the one hand hit hard... give it a real knockout punch and think that will make it happen or, you may speak, explain, enlighten and try connecting with loving communication. Sivan Rahav-Meir quotes Rabbi Eliyahu Blumenzweig, a hesder yeshiva head in Yeruham:


“In life a person often comes up against a ‘rock,’ a wall that blocks your way…What do you do? You can hit it, but if you really want to get through to the inner strengths, to allow the water stored in the rock to flow out, then you must speak, to explain, to convince, and to forge a connection. … The Jewish people are about to enter the Land of Israel. The way to lead them is about to change and hitting in no longer of any avail. We can apply the same principle in our lives…”.




When the world grows around us, we must take note and learn from it.  There was a time when parents could give orders and children were expected to simply obey.  To a parent of a young person today, such a time must seem like ancient times.  Today’s parents know that to be successful with their children, they must speak with them, respect them appropriately for their age, and engage them thoughtfully.


So too, this lesson was imparted in parashat chukat.  There was a time when Moshe Rabbenu was instructed to “smite the rock” to get water from it.  But decades later, he is told, “Speak ye unto the rock before their eyes, that it gives forth water.”  Do not strike the rock!  Speak to it.


Water is, of course, an allegory to Torah. 


To bring Torah to the next generation, one needs to speak in a way which the younger generation will understand and internalize.  Not with a stick in hand, but with persuasive words and pleasant talk.






Lest we think that “not with a stick in hand, but with persuasive words” was a lesson only for our forefathers in the desert, we see events unfolding in Israel that demand we heed the lesson.  Violent demonstrations are taking place in the Ethiopian community as I write these words, following the killing by a policeman of an unarmed eighteen-year-old Solomon Tekah.


There is much anger and frustration and pain.  How could this community that has dreamed for so long of returning to Zion not vent their feelings and hurts?  But listen to what an Ethiopian activist Damuz Guvzeh says, “We will not be broken, we will not become irrational.  Moshe was sent to lead the nation to Eretz Yisrael. In this week’s parasha Chukat, Hashem told him to speak to the rock, but instead he hit it, and it was therefore decreed that he not enter the land.  In Eretz Yisrael we don’t hit, we only talk.  Only by talking can we reach the Promised Land.


“Within our family, among neighbors, among different groups within our nation - we can only talk. The Ethiopian community safeguarded for thousands of years a faith and a yearning, a heritage. We dreamt, and we fought and paid a huge price to reach our destination. We also went through a long and tough desert to arrive to the Land of our Forefathers. We didn’t dream that it would be like this.”




Violence can never be condoned but we must recognize that the Ethiopian community which miraculously found its way to the Land deserve talking not striking.  They deserve to be sure they are fully integrated and welcomed as a full part of Israel’s Ingathering of Exiles.


Force (koach) always seems more accessible than common sense (moach) but doing so is not the way to enter the Land; it is not the way to engage Torah and receive the waters of life.  The foundation of community, any community, is dialogue; building a chevra can never be done with a fist, only with words. 


As Damuz Guvzeh says, “The young in the community will always remember this. We will be angry, for sure. But we will not allow the anger to win and prevail. We will not break the vessels.”


In honor of our grandson - Joshua David Safran’s bar mitzvah this Shabbat.


Rabbi Safran’s “Something Old, Something New – Pearls from the Torah” available on Amazon