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Parashat Chukat

The Captive Flock

There is a famous israeli joke about an El Al plane that landed at Ben Gurion during the winter. As the plane landed, the captain's voice came over the loudspeaker as usual saying, "Ladies and gentlemen welcome to Tel Aviv. Please remain in your places with your seat belts fastened until the plane comes to a complete halt at the terminal." And a few seconds later he added: "El Al wishes a Happy Chanukah to those standing in the aisle...and a Merry Christmas to those who are still in their places".


It's well known that we are a people who lack patience. We are far from perfect. We not only want to be first getting off the plane, but we also want to be first to get on the bus, first on line at the supermarket and first to make the left turn when the light turns green. From time of the generation that left Egypt, we are a people lacking patience. A similar thing happened to them. When they were there, they wanted to leave. When they left, they wanted to return.

Perhaps the very night we hurriedly packed our suitcases and left Egypt before the dough had a chance to rise left its mark on our collective memory. It appears that since that night we have the basic feeling that we must hurry, that there isn't enough time...and as we all know, sometimes we pay a heavy price for our impatience.

Tens of explanations have been given about Moshe's sin of hitting the rock in Parashat Chukat. There are those who say that Moshe hit the rock twice instead of once. There are those who say that Moshe lost his balance and hit the rock instead of speaking to it. There are all kinds of explanations accusing Moshe of being unable to control his passions and losing his patience when he should have been setting a personal example for the people.

I don't like these explanations. How is it possible to understand the severity of the punishment that Moshe received after this sin? Did G-d really notify Moshe that his mission had ended just because Moshe had lost his patience? Why did G-d decree that Moshe could not bring his people to the Promised Land?

There is a midrash in Midrash Tanhuma that supplies an answer to the question and throws light upon the events of the sin at the "Waters of Contention" (Mei Merivah).

When Moshe begged to enter the Land, the midrash brings G-d's answer. G-d said to Moshe: On what grounds do you want to come into the Land? Like the parable of the shepherd who tended the flocks of the king and the sheep were captured. The shepherd requested entrance to the main hall of the king and the king said, "People will say that you are responsible for the sheep's capture. At this point G-d said to Moshe: "Your greatness is that you have taken the 600,000 out of bondage. But you have buried them in the desert and will bring into the land a different generation! This being so, people will think that the generation of the desert have no share in the World to Come! No, better be beside them, and you shall in the time to come enter with them" (Tanhuma, Chukat).

Professor Y. Leibowitz of blessed memory, analyzes this midrash brilliantly and adds a parable of his own about the fate of a captain whose ship sinks at sea. In the maritime world, says Leibowitz, it is customary that when a ship sinks at sea, even if the catastrophe was caused by external forces over which the captain had no control, he cannot leave the ship until the last of the passengers is saved, and if not he must go down with the ship. Professor Leinbowitz adds, "Moshe Rabennu did not succeed in his mission because of flaws in himself or in his leadership, the flaw lay in that "crooked and perverse generation" (Dueteronomy 32:5). This whole generation was condemned to die in the wilderness, but their leader also lost his right to lead and his verdict was the identical with that of his charges...the fate of a leader cannot be separated from the fate of his charges...and the failures of the generation denies the right of leadership from their leader".

It is really irrelevant to try to clarify who was guilty in the episode of Mei Merivah. The nature of the sin is also unimportant. The important thing here is that the fate of the leader and the fate of the led are identical and it is impossible to separate them, for good or for bad. It is impossible to cut a leader off from his people in the same way that a shepherd cannot be detached from his flock or the captain from his ship. They either go together hand in hand, or else they go nowhere. One has no existence without the other.

Weekly Torah Portion

Old Hebrew Prayer Book
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