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Hukkat, Complaints and Tears

Moses, the greatest hero in the Torah and perhaps the Bible, is not allowed to enter the Promised Land. Why? The answer is discovered in this week’s portion.

The people were once again complaining. This time they were screaming for water. “There is not even water to drink!” God instructs Moses to order a rock to provide water. Instead Moses twice hits the rock in anger. He shouts at the people, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” (Numbers 20)

What was Moses’ great sin? How could his actions deserve the punishment of never crossing the Jordan and walking into the land of Israel? For centuries commentators have argued about Moses’ actions. The story affords opportunities for many different interpretations.

Some commentators, most notably the medieval scholar Rashi, suggest that Moses’ sin was that he did not listen to God’s instructions exactly. God told Moses to order the rock to provide water. Instead Moses hits the rock, not only once but twice. This episode proves, according to this line of thinking, that when God gives a command we must follow it to the letter.

Others suggest it was instead that Moses takes credit for God’s miracle when he said, “Shall we get water?” Moses, who is often praised for his humility, was anything but humble. Hubris was his sin. Still others, among them Nachmanides, suggest that he called the people “rebels,” thus widening the gap between the leader and his followers. Moses loses his patience and becomes angry at the Israelites who he is meant to shepherd and inspire. This story thus illustrates a failure of leadership.

I would, however, like to suggest an alternative interpretation. The opening verse of the chapter reads: “The Israelites arrived at the wilderness of Zin… Miriam died there and was buried there.” Miriam is of course Moses’ sister. The Torah here suggests a clue to understanding Moses’ behavior.

Moses is a mourner. And what do the people do in response? They complain. If we see Moses as a mourner and in the midst of mourning the death of his only sister, his anger becomes understandable, his hitting of the rock should become forgivable.

Shiva can often be extraordinarily demanding of mourners. For days mourners become guests in their own home. Strangers congregate in places where they remember eating and laughing with family members now gone. Their absence becomes palpable. It can appear as if strangers vie to take their place. People gather in the kitchen and dining room. They make small talk. They discuss the weather or a recent Mets or Jets loss (or the occasional win). One can see the look emerging on mourners’ faces. “My sister just died and all you want to do is talk about is how come there is not enough to drink.” The Torah affirms: “There is not even water to drink!”

No one from among the community offers even a word of compassion. No one asks Moses about his sister Miriam. No one tells stories about her, reminding him of the beautiful songs she sang when the people crossed the sea. No one even jokes with him about the time she criticized his wife Zipporah. In the moment of his grief he might have even welcomed that remembrance. He would have been receptive to hearing any story about his sister. Such stories add flesh to memories.

Instead they speak only of the mundane. They shy away from confronting the grief standing before them. Where is their rachmanis?

And so Moses gets angry. He is human. He hits an inanimate rock. Anger is the first stage of mourning. In order to move towards acceptance one must travel through anger. The stories friends offer help accompany the mourner as they journey through their tears, as they march away from anger. They take hold of any and all remembrances.

Perhaps these verses illustrates not Moses’ failure but instead the people’s, and even I dare say, God’s. Where is their sympathy? Where is the God of compassion? Where is the understanding? Our leader is in mourning. And all they can do is talk about food and drinks. And all God can do is offer strict judgments.

Where is the necessary rachmanis?

Perhaps the story is a reminder that only compassion can transform grief.

And out of rock flowed copious tears.