Miriam dies while the Israelites are camped in the wilderness of Tzin in this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat (Law). Then the people complain, once again, that Moses brought them from Egypt into the wilderness only so they and their livestock would die of hunger and thirst.1 Moses and Aaron both throw themselves on their faces. (See last week’s post, Korach: Face Down.)
And God spoke to Moses, saying: “Take the staff and assemble the community, you and your brother Aaron. Vedibartem to the rock, before their eyes, and it will give its water. Vehotzeita for them water from the rock, vehishkita the community and their livestock.” (Numbers/Bemidbar 20:7-8)
vedibartem (וְדִבַּרְתֶּם) = and you (plural) shall speak (i.e. both Moses and Aaron shall speak).
vehotzeita (וְהוֹצֵאתָ) = and you (singular) shall bring forth (i.e. Moses shall bring forth).
vehishkita (וְהִשְׁקִיתָ) = and you (singular) shall provide drink to.
God apparently wants Moses and Aaron to use the staff only to assemble the community, not to trigger the miracle—unlike 39 years before, when God told Moses to bring water from a rock by striking it with his staff. 2
Once the people are assembled, (both) Moses and Aaron are supposed to speak to the rock. As a result, Moses (alone) will bring forth water. Did a careless scribe mix up the plural and singular verb suffixes? Or is God making a deliberate distinction between what both brothers should do and what only Moses is responsible for?
And Moses took the staff from in front of God, as [God] had commanded him. (Numbers 20:9)
Only Moses takes the staff “from in front of God”, i.e. out of the Tent of Meeting. This is the staff with Aaron’s name written on it. In the previous Torah portion, Korach, the leader of each tribe lends his staff to Moses, who writes the leader’s name on it. 3 Moses leaves the twelve staffs in the Tent of Meeting overnight (Numbers 17:17-21). In the morning, Aaron’s staff has bloomed and produced almonds, proving that God has chosen him (Numbers 17:22-23). (See my post Korach: Early and Late Bloomers.)
Moses returns the unaltered staffs to the tribe leaders, but follows God’s instructions to put Aaron’s staff back in the Tent as a sign for the “children of mutineers”—the next generation. (Numbers 17:25). Showing the complainers this staff would remind them that God gave authority to the tribe of Levi, whose leaders are Aaron and Moses.
And Moses and Aaron assembled the assembly in front of the rock, and he said to them: “Listen up, mutineers! Shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?” (Numbers 20:10)
Moses brings out the staff, but both Moses and Aaron assemble the Israelites, as instructed. Next both Moses and Aaron are supposed to speak to the rock. Instead, Moses speaks to the Israelites. Losing his patience, he implies that he and Aaron have the power to bring water out of the rock. He does not mention God.
And Moses raised his hand and he struck the rock twice with his staff. And abundant water came forth, and the community and their livestock drank. (Numbers 20:11)
Instead of speaking to the rock, Moses hits it with the staff—just as he did at another waterless camp 39 years earlier, following God’s directions.4 Now God has changed the directions, but Moses does what worked last time. The Torah now says it is his staff.
Why does the miracle occur anyway? Maybe the staff retains some power from its miraculous blossoming in the Torah portion Korach. 12th-century rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra suggested that Moses has become able to do small miracles by himself. Or maybe God is covering for Moses, so the people will continue to follow him.
But will the people follow Moses because he is God’s prophet, or because they believe he has power of his own? Even though God let the miracle proceed, God is not amused.
And God said to Moses and to Aaron: “Because lo he-emantem in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Israelites, therefore lo taviyu this assembly to the land that I have given to them.” (Numbers/Bemidbar 20:12)
lo he-emantem (לֺא הֶאֱמַנְתֶּם) = you (plural) did not believe, have faith, put trust.
lo taviyu (לֺא תָבִיאוּ) = you (plural) shall not lead.
Only Moses hits the rock, yet God accuses both men of failing to trust God and therefore failing to increase the Israelites’ awe of God. So God decrees the same punishment for both Moses and Aaron.
Commentators have generated many different reasons why God decides to punish Moses. (David Kasher presented 18 of them in his ParshaNut post on Chukkat in 2015.) But why does God also punish Aaron?
Here is what we know about Aaron’s actions during this episode:
1) When the Israelites complain, both Moses and Aaron throw themselves on their faces. Although God addresses Moses, commentators assume that Aaron also heard God’s instructions.
2) After Moses brings the staff with Aaron’s name on it out of the Tent of Meeting, both Moses and Aaron assemble the people in front of the rock, as instructed.
3) Aaron stands by silently as Moses says: “Listen up, mutineers! Shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?” Unlike Moses, Aaron does not lose his temper. He does not say that he and Moses will make a miracle. On the other hand, he fails to mention God’s name after Moses omits it.
4) Aaron watches silently while Moses strikes the rock twice with Aaron’s staff. He does not try to stop Moses. He does not speak to the rock himself, even though God asked him, as well as Moses, to do so.
Apparently God blames him for his silence and inaction. God refrained from punishing Aaron after he made the Golden Calf 5, but now God punishes him for doing nothing.
God announces Aaron’s immanent death later in this week’s Torah portion:
God said to Moses and to Aaron at Mount Hor, on the border of the land of Edom: “Aaron will be gathered to his people [here]; for he will not come into the land that I have given to the Israelites, because meritem My word concerning the water at Merivah.” (Numbers 20:23-24)
meritem (מְרִיתֶם) = you (plural) mutinied against, rebelled against. (A form of the word that Moses called the Israelites: morim, מֺרִים = mutineers, rebels.)
Moses mutinies through his speech to the Israelites and through his action in hitting the rock. Aaron mutinies through silence and inaction.
Who can blame Aaron for letting the great prophet Moses take the lead, as usual, and making no effort to correct him?
God can, and does.
In my own life, I often wonder when to speak up and when to be silent. Writing a letter to your congressman is not like sitting next to a person in authority who is doing the wrong thing—perhaps while holding a staff with your name on it. This Torah portion demonstrates that if you know what is right, then you must speak up, or you are equally guilty.
But how and when to speak is seldom clear.
May all of us 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.
(An earlier version of this essay was published in June, 2010.)
1 When the Israelites camp at Refidim, between the Reed Sea and Mount Sinai, they complain that there is no water, and that Moses brought them from Egypt into the wilderness only so they and their livestock would die of thirst (Exodus/Shemot 17:1-3).
2 At Refidim, when the Israelites complain about the lack of water, God tells Moses to hit a rock, using “your staff with which you struck the Nile” (Exodus 17:5). This is also the staff God uses to perform a demonstration miracle at the burning bush (Exodus 4:2-4), and both Moses and Aaron use to trigger God’s miracles in Egypt (Exodus 7:9-10:13) and the parting of the Reed Sea (Exodus 14:16).
After everyone drinks the water from the rock at Refidim, the people name the spot Massah-u-Merivah, “Trial and Strife” (Exodus 17:7). In this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat, God identifies the new spot where Moses hits the rock as Merivah, “strife” (Numbers 20:13, 20:24).
3 After Refidim (Exodus 17:5), no staff is mentioned until the Torah portion Korach. The Torah does not say whether Aaron’s staff in the portion Korach is the same as the staff both brothers used in the book of Exodus.
4 Exodus 17:6.
5 Exodus 32:1-6.
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