A Turning Point In Israel's Relationship With God
How The Israelites' Relationship With God Was Restored
Rabbi David Block
Welcome to Parshat Chukat.
This week, we learn about Moses's sin of hitting the rock when God told him to speak to it.
In past years, we at Aleph Beta have often focused on the event itself: Why did Moses hit the rock? What's the difference between hitting and speaking? Was the sin SO bad that Moses deserved to be banned from entering Israel for it? These are real questions, and check the links below for the videos where we discuss them. But there's another aspect of the story that often gets overlooked. And that's what happened right before Moses hit the rock... what precipitated needing to speak to or hit the rock in the first place?
You guessed it, it's another complaint, the nation of Israel complain that there is no water.
How Can We Describe the Israelites' Relationship with God?Over the past few weeks, we've watched them complain over and over, and we keep asking, how can they continue to complain after everything God had done for them?
But this week, it gets even stranger, because...we've actually heard these exact complaints before – many times! They moaned about food and water three times in Exodus, and then, they cried over food again, earlier in Numbers! Don't they see that each time they cry out to God, He provides for them? Shouldn't they have learned their lesson by now?
If they've run out of water, they shouldn't whine, they should pray! God hasn't let them down yet! Did they forget that God has always taken care of them? And, after this chutzpah, you would assume God would be angry. Enough already, stop complaining! But shockingly, God acquiesces. He tells Moses to supply the people with water, as if Israel's complaining was justified. What's going on?
Join us as we explore the baffling story of Israel's complaints, this week on the Parsha Experiment.
Hi, I'm David Block, and welcome to the Parsha Experiment.
We think that the key to unlocking this mystery may be in the context of this story. Last week's parsha, Korach, ended on a somber note. After sinning over and over, Israel finally accepted their fate. They said to Moses: הֵן גָּוַעְנוּ אָבַדְנוּ – look, we're going to perish, we're lost. כֻּלָּנוּ אָבָדְנוּ – we're all lost. And that's precisely what happened. According to most commentators, that's the last story of the Torah that deals with that generation of Israel. The next story – our parsha – actually takes place 40 years later. Now, the people of Israel are a new people, Generation B. They weren't the ones who complained any of the earlier times.
As we've spoken about in Parsha Experiment for the past few weeks, the nation – the people who were Generation A – struggled with the challenges of being reliant on God. That's why they complained so much, they were scared to give up control, and rely completely on God. And they failed, and God decided that they won't get to enter the land of Israel. But now, we have a new Generation, Generation B, who gets to start from scratch. They have to learn the lesson that their parents never did, that all that they have is from God, and they have to trust Him completely. Can they do it?
A Chance for the Israelites to Restore their Relationship with GodIt seems to start off tragically. In the very first story featuring Generation B, וַיָּרֶב הָעָם, עִם-מֹשֶׁה – the people argued with Moses. Moses, why have you taken us out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place? Reading this, we're so disappointed. This is exactly how Generation A sinned. It seems like Generation B will replay the sin of their parents, trying to control their own fate, and not trusting God to take care of them.
But it's not too late for them. Just like God gave Generation A several chances to learn their lesson, God, too, will give them several chances. Maybe Generation B will understand what their parents couldn't, that the people of Israel must cede control, and completely put their trust in God. So God doesn't punish or chastise Generation B for complaining, He uses this moment to provide for them! He instructs Moses to speak to the rock so that it will supply water to the whole nation, and in doing so, nudge the people, don't worry. I'm here for you. Trust me, and I'll take care of you forever. And now, we are left hanging. Will it work? Will the people learn the lesson that their parents never did?
The next story seems to give us the answer. וַיִּשְׁמַע הַכְּנַעֲנִי מֶלֶךְ-עֲרָד, יֹשֵׁב הַנֶּגֶב, כִּי בָּא יִשְׂרָאֵל, דֶּרֶךְ הָאֲתָרִים; – the Canaanite king of Arad heard Israel was coming –וַיִּלָּחֶם, בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיִּשְׁבְּ מִמֶּנּוּ שֶׁבִי – and he waged war with Israel and took captives. So the people of Israel are in dire straights; they're in battle with a nation far mightier than their own, and some of their people have already been taken captive. What are they to do?
Well, they have a precedent to look to: 39 years ago, when their parents considered the prospect of fighting the Canaanite nations after the report of the spies, they lost it. They mourned their fate, lost faith in God, complained to Moses and Aaron that they even wanted to return to Egypt rather than enter the land of Israel! And now their children are faced with an even worse situation – not a future clash with Canaan; they're already in battle, and they're losing! If Generation B is anything like Generation A, now is the perfect time to lose resolve.
But look at what happens next.
How Did the Israelites Grow their Relationship with God?וַיִּדַּר יִשְׂרָאֵל נֶדֶר לַיהוָה – Israel made a vow with God, וַיֹּאמַר: אִם-נָתֹן תִּתֵּן אֶת-הָעָם הַזֶּה, בְּיָדִי – and they said: if you deliver this nation into our hands, וְהַחֲרַמְתִּי, אֶת-עָרֵיהֶם – we'll take the spoils of these cities and dedicate them to You, as the commentators explain. This is a groundbreaking moment for Israel. They don't whine about their circumstances.They don't throw up their hands and say, "let's go back to Egypt!" They approach God, and say, please help us.
And, come to think of it, who is glaringly missing from this narrative? Moses. They don't complain to Moses, they don't blame him, like they did in Korach, and like they did when they don't have water, earlier in our parsha. The people turn directly to God.
They finally recognize that their failure or success is all dependent on God, and God alone. It seems that Generation B succeeded. They learned the lesson that their parents never did. Because look at what happens next: וַיִּשְׁמַע יְהוָה בְּקוֹל יִשְׂרָאֵל, – God heard Israel's voice, וַיִּתֵּן אֶת-הַכְּנַעֲנִי – and he delivered Canaan into their hands. God listened, and took care of them, as He always promised to do, as long as they trust Him.
It really feels like the tides of Bamidbar are turning. Until now, the stories have been disastrous and tragic. Over and over again, the people sinned by pushing God out of the picture, and each time they were faced with calamitous consequences. But Generation B is figuring it out! The people are coming closer and closer to God, they're making Him front and center. And in return, God helps them defeat the superior Canaanite army
But then, disaster strikes. The people start traveling again, and וַיְדַבֵּר הָעָם, בֵּאלֹהִים וּבְמֹשֶׁה – the people speak with God and with Moses, לָמָה הֶעֱלִיתֻנוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם, לָמוּת בַּמִּדְבָּר: Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the desert, ,כִּי אֵין לֶחֶם, וְאֵין מַיִם for we have no bread or water. What? Again? After Generation B finally recognized God and got the message, they're back to complaining, and acting like Generation A! How is this possible?
But look again at the first line, because maybe it's not the same as Generation A. Look at that word: דבר. It means to speak, to have a conversation. In the past, we've seen very different verbs: וילונו – the people complained, וירב – they argued or fought. But now, it's וידבר – they spoke. Already, something is different. They're complaining, yes, but it seems to be a lesser form. And something else is different. In their complaints, Generation A had always spoken to Moses, and hadn't communicated directly to God. But here, with Generation B, the people don't just turn to Moses. Yes, they turn to him as their leader, but first and foremost, they turn to God. The trend that started in the battles with Canaan in the last story continue: They're recognizing God and communicating with Him.
But while the people properly channeled their issues to God, still, they did complain. And, while they spoke with God, they still did include Moses, instead of speaking with God alone.
As a result, וַיְשַׁלַּח יְהוָה בָּעָם, אֵת הַנְּחָשִׁים הַשְּׂרָפִים, and the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, וַיְנַשְּׁכוּ, אֶת-הָעָם, and they bit the people, וַיָּמָת עַם-רָב, מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל, and many people of Israel died. So how do the people respond?
Again, they are tested! Will Generation B respond the way their parents did? Or will they acknowledge that they messed up?
Clues on How to Revive Our Relationship with GodLook what they do: וַיָּבֹא הָעָם אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, The people came to Moses and said: חָטָאנוּ – we have sinned. כִּי-דִבַּרְנוּ בַיהוָה וָבָךְ – we have spoken against God and against you. And they continue: הִתְפַּלֵּל אֶל-יְהוָה, וְיָסֵר מֵעָלֵינוּ אֶת-הַנָּחָשׁ – Moses, pray to God and have Him remove the snakes from us!
Generation B did what their parents couldn't! They see that God is in control! But, while the people recognized that they sinned, they made the same mistake again. They asked Moses to pray to God for them. They should have cried out to God directly, like they did after the war, in the very last story. So, God does acquiesce to the people, but He doesn't stop the plague, and remove the snakes. He tells Moses to do something odd – עֲשֵׂה לְךָ שָׂרָף, וְשִׂים אֹתוֹ, עַל-נֵס – "make a fiery serpent and place it on a pole, a neis, וְהָיָה, כָּל-הַנָּשׁוּךְ, וְרָאָה אֹתוֹ, וָחָי – and anyone who was bitten can look at it and live.
Does that remind you of anything? Where else have we seen something that was raised up by Moses, and through it came national divine protection from an attack? Way back in Exodus, when Generation A was battling with Amalek, Israel was successful only so long as Moses kept his hands raised up to God; as if to say, so long as the people recognize that their strength – that everything – comes from God, they'll actually have that strength. And now, Generation B experiences the same thing.
Restoring Our Relationship with GodIn this story, they're slowly learning that message, that God is their strength, that all that they have is from God. And God caps it all by reinforcing that point: so long as you look up, and recognize that your successes and failures, your sustenance and guidance, is all sourced back to Me, you'll be fine. I'll take care of you.
Parshat Chukat marks a turning point in the history of people of Israel. Generally, when we read Numbers, we always look at failures. We get caught up with Israel's complaints, with Moses' tragic mistake. But we miss what is perhaps the most beautiful and instructive part of the story: the new generation turns it around.
After the snakes story, we hear anecdotes about Israel's military success. And it's not just there as historical data. The Torah is highlighting the stark contrast between the past generation and this one. One was ultimately punished terribly, and the other was successful in all they did. And the difference in fate rested one simple point.
This new generation understood what we, today, are meant to learn as well – that all strength is from God. And that's all God was waiting for.