Chukkat: The Guilt of Silence

April 13, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Posted in Chukkat | Leave a comment

(This blog was first posted on June 8, 2010.)

I’m publishing this blog early, before I go on vacation.  The Torah portion for the week of June 13-19 this year is Chukkat (Law), in which immediately after the death of Miriam, the children of Israel revert to the kind of complaining the previous generation of Israelites did in the book of Exodus: that Moses brought them into the wilderness to die of hunger and thirst.

And God spoke to Moshe, saying: “Take the staff and gather the community, you and your brother Aharon, and you (plural) shall speak to the rock (rock outcropping), before their eyes, and it will give its water.  Thus you (singular) will bring forth for them water from the rock, and you (singular) will give drink to the community and their livestock.”

And Moshe took his staff from before God, as He had commanded him.  And Moshe and Aharon assembled the congregation in front of the rock, and he said to them: “Listen up, mutineers!  Shall we bring forth water for you from out of this rock?”  And Moshe raised his hand high and beat the rock with his staff twice.  And abundant water came forth, and the community and their livestock drank.

But God said to Moshe and to Aharon: “Because you (plural) did not trust Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you (plural) will not bring this congregation to the land that I have given to them.”  (Numbers/Bemidbar 20:7-12)

God said to Moshe and to Aharon … “Aharon will be gathered to his people; for he will not enter the land that I gave to the Children of Israel, because of your (plural) mutiny against My word concerning the water of Merivah (strife).”  (Numbers 20:23-24)

ha-moriym = those who mutiny, rebel, obstinately disobey, are refractory, are contrary, are insubordinate

What awful thing did Moses and Aaron do that led to God’s statement that they would die without entering the promised land?

Commentators over the centuries has generated a number of possible reasons why Moses was punished.  One of my favorites is that when Moses took the staff, he realized that the people were still as mutinous as the last time he used the staff, 40 years ago at Merivah of Horev, when God told him to strike a rock to get water.  Overcome with bitterness, Moses forgot God’s orders and struck the rock as he had done near Horev, instead of using the new technology and speaking to the rock.  Thus, at Merivah of Kadesh, he frustrated God’s plan to replace physical power with the power of words.

Or perhaps Moses’ mistake was not paying close attention to God’s instructions to take the staff, but speak to the rock.  Not paying attention when God is speaking is highly disrespectful.

But why was Aaron punished?  He did help Moses assemble the congregation in front of the rock, as God had instructed them.  But he did not lose his temper.  He did not claim to be the source of the miracle.  He did not beat the rock.  Yet God blames Aaron as well as Moses for not trusting God and for not sanctifying God in the eyes of the Israelites.  And when the Israelites reach Mount Hor, and God announces Aaron will die there, he accuses both Moses and Aaron of mutiny, using the same word that Moses used to accuse the Israelites before he beat the rock.

Aaron is guilty of failing to speak to the rock and failing to mention God’s name.  God does ask both Moses and Aaron to speak to the rock, using the plural suffix for “you”, before switching back to the singular.  But Aaron has never been asked to initiate a miracle before.  How can he be blamed for letting the great prophet Moses take the lead, as usual?

Apparently God blames him for his silence.  This is ironic, since God first recruited Aaron as a spokesperson for Moses.  But after they cross the Reed Sea, Aaron speaks only for himself.  The last time he speaks in the Torah is when he pleads with Moses to intercede with God to heal their sister Miriam (Numbers 12:11-12).  Aaron does not speak again, even when God announces his immanent death.

Yet God apparently expects Aaron, as well as Moses, to speak to the rock and to give God credit for the miracle.  And even if Aaron does not have time to speak to the rock before Moses hits it, he still could speak up afterward to attribute the miracle to God.  Aaron dies outside the promised land because he remained silent.

In my own life, I often wonder when to speak up and when to be silent, particularly when someone in authority makes a mistake.  This Torah portion demonstrates that if you know with certainty what is correct (as Aaron does, because he heard God’s instructions), then you must speak up.  But how and when to speak is not always so clear.

May all of us who witness a fellow person’s mistake be blessed with the ability to know when the situation is so urgent and important we must speak immediately, in public; when it is better to wait and speak in private or at another time; and when it is better to be silent.



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