Chukat – A Better Complaint

June 22, 2023

In this week’s Torah portion, we read about the death of Miriam the prophetess, sister of Moses and Aaron. Immediately following her death, the water ceased flowing from the rock (Num.20:1-2). The people complained to Moses. 

The people thus contended with Moses and spoke, saying, “If only we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord! Why then have you brought the Lord’s assembly into this wilderness, for us and our beasts to die here? Why have you made us come up from Egypt, to bring us in to this wretched place? It is not a place of grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, nor is there water to drink.” – Numbers 20:3-5

God told Moses and Aaron to speak to the rock in the presence of the people. The water would begin flowing again. 

Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly before the rock. And he said to them, “Listen now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?” Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod; and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation and their beasts drank. But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you have not believed Me, to treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.” – Numbers 20:10-12

Instead of speaking to the rock as God instructed, Moses hit the rock. Notice that in His rebuke of Moses and Aaron, God makes no mention of hitting the rock. Furthermore, what exactly did God mean that Moses and Aaron did not “treat Me as holy in the sight” of the people of Israel?

To solve this question, we must understand the overall structure of the Book of Numbers. A few weeks ago, we read the story of the spies (ch. 13-14). Because the people lacked faith in God and accepted the negative report of the spies, God decreed that they would spend forty years in the desert during which all those above the age of 20 at the time of the sin, would die. This story took place just over a year after the Exodus. 

Next, we have the rebellion of Korach and his followers (last week’s Torah portion). The Korach rebellion is followed by two sets of laws. First, is a list of the various tithes and gifts due the Levites and priests. This list follows the rebellion because Korach’s argument was that all the people are equally holy and that Moses and Aaron had usurped their special status for themselves (see last week’s column). Reinforcement of the Levitical and priestly hierarchy in the wake of the rebellion makes sense.

These laws are followed by chapter 19, the beginning of this week’s Torah portion. Chapter 19 records the laws of impurity imparted by contact with human death and the ritual procedure for purification from it. Why is this chapter here? It would make more sense to find it in Leviticus along with the other rules of impurities and purification. It almost seems that this chapter was cut out from Leviticus and inserted here. Why?

We can answer this question by paying careful attention to the details of Chapter 20. After the death of Miriam and the scene of the hitting of the rock, we read about Israel traveling toward the promised land. Later in the chapter, we read of the death of Aaron. 

Although not explicitly stated, it is clear that these events took place in the final year of the forty years in the desert. The Bible explicitly states that Aaron died in the fortieth year in the desert (Num.33:38)

To sum up. Numbers 20 took place in the fortieth and final year. The previous story, the Korach rebellion, and its aftermath happened just over a year after the Exodus. In other words, Numbers 19, impurity and purification from human death, appears at the point of transition from the second year to the fortieth. The placement of this section here is now clear. For forty years the children of Israel were camped in the desert, waiting for God’s decree to come to an end. All who were over the age of 20 at the time of the sin of the spies would have to die. None would enter the land except for Joshua and Caleb. As a subtle hint that this era of death and dying was now over, the Torah inserted the rules for purification from death at this precise point.

With all this in mind, let’s return to our original issue. What exactly did Moses and Aaron do wrong? Let’s reread the complaint of the people.

The people thus contended with Moses and spoke, saying, “If only we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord! Why then have you brought the Lord’s assembly into this wilderness, for us and our beasts to die here? Why have you made us come up from Egypt, to bring us in to this wretched place? It is not a place of grain or figs or grapes or pomegranates, nor is there water to drink.” – Numbers 20:3-5

Compare this to an earlier complaint.

the children of Israel wept again and said, “Who will give us meat to eat? We remember the fish which we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic, but now our appetite is gone. There is nothing at all to look at except this manna.” – Numbers 11:4-6

Notice the foods mentioned. In the complaint from Numbers 11, they recalled the foods they ate in Egypt. And as opposed to Numbers 20, there is no mention of God. But here in Numbers 20, grain? Figs? Grapes? Pomegranates? 

This reminds us of the description of the land of Israel in Deuteronomy.

A land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey; – Deuteronomy 8:8

The earlier generation complained that they missed the menu in Egypt. Forty years later the complaint is completely different. Rather than longing for a return to Egypt, this new generation wants to enter the land of Israel! 

Perhaps we can now understand another dimension to Moses’ mistake. When Moses was approached by the people complaining about the lack of water, he understood it as a replay of the complaints of their parents. And he treated the complaints the same way. He called the people “rebels” and he hit the rock, repeating what was done forty years earlier.

What Moses failed to see was this generation was different. They did not want a return to Egypt. They were not afraid to enter the land. They had no lack of faith. In fact, in the next chapter, we read of multiple military victories as they began their approach to the promised land. 

Perhaps God deemed Moses and Aaron unsuitable to lead the nation into the land because they failed to see the strength and faith of this new generation. The lesson is important for all of us. We often make the mistake of seeing new situations through old lenses. We hold on to outdated assumptions and are blinded to positive changes and new realities that God has placed before us. We must trust that God will always raise up exactly who He needs, to lead His people to the promised land.

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is the Executive Director of Israel365 Action and the author of Verses for Zion and Cup of Salvation: A Powerful Journey Through King David's Psalms of Praise. He is a frequent guest on Erick Stakelbeck's The Watchman and a regular contributor to Israel365news.com and The Jerusalem Post.

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is the Executive Director of Israel365 Action and the author of Verses for Zion and Cup of Salvation: A Powerful Journey Through King David's Psalms of Praise. He is a frequent guest on Erick Stakelbeck's The Watchman and a regular contributor to Israel365news.com and The Jerusalem Post.

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