Drash on Parashat Chukat
Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky
Beit Shalom Synagogue, Adelaide, SA
A time to stay, and a time to go
This week’s Torah portion jumps 38 years into the future from the previous week, finding the Israelites poised to finally enter the land of Canaan. All sources of water have disappeared, and the people begin to complain to Moses in a way that must sound to him exactly like the complaints of their parents’ generation from years earlier. God instructs him to speak to a rock to entice it to yield water, but instead Moses takes his staff and strikes the rock. It works: water flows from the rock. But God then scolds Moses, saying, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.”
Moses can almost certainly be forgiven for his actions: he knows from past experience that hitting rocks yields water. God has instructed him to bring along his staff when speaking to the rock, and it doesn’t require much imagination to see how seeing the staff nearby might tempt him to strike the rock when the people’s ceaseless complaints drive him to distraction. He has endured this people for 40 years—why now does God deprive him of the richly-deserved reward of leading the people to the promised land?
It was my teacher Tivkva Frymer-Kensky z”l who answered the question in a way I found very persuasive: Moses is punished not for what he does, but for what he says. Just before he strikes the rock, Moses bellows at the people, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” Dr. Frymer-Kensky points out that Moses’ words are completely inappropriate to this moment: Moses is very close to the end of his life, and now that the generation of slaves have died, it is time for him to consider how the people will carry on once he is gone. What is required is for him to empower the people to take responsibility for their own lives. But with his words, he communicates exactly the opposite message: he suggests to the Israelites that they must continue to rely on him for both leadership and sustenance. The people may be ready to move on, but he is not. And so God decides, perhaps with great reluctance, that the decision must be taken out of his hands.
The issue of succession planning is one that affects many of our communities. Experience shows that healthy communities are ones that are constantly raising up future leaders and allowing longtime volunteers to step back when it is time to do so. But it can be very tempting just to stick with the status quo and allow leaders to remain in their positions for years or even decades. I was amazed to discover on a visit to the Orthodox Adelaide Hebrew Congregation that a single man served as its president for the better part of 70 years! I smiled imagining his yearly speech at Kol Nidre: “I’m not getting any younger, and it’s time for someone to step up and take my place!” Or, perhaps, he was one of those leaders who never appreciated that one of his core responsibilities was to assure that there would be a future generation of leaders. Moses failed to make that happen until God forced his hand. Only then does he finally appreciate that Joshua, his assistant over many years, is exactly the right person for the job.