Light from the Sidra

Chukat (‘Decree’)

Torah: Numbers 19:1–22:1. Haftarah: Judges 11:1–33


We’ve all done it. We’ve said or done things in anger and afterwards wished with all our hearts we could go back in time and undo it. We’ve been talked into agreements we were obliged to keep without, as it were, reading the small print. We’ve foolishly made promises we didn’t think would be such a big deal until the time came for us to put our money where our mouths were. We simply had no idea when we committed ourselves what we were getting ourselves into.

Imagine how Moses must have felt when, in Numbers 20, after he could take no more of Israel’s moaning, groaning and backbiting, he was told by God that he wasn’t going into the Promised Land. The previous couple of years had been best of times and the worst of times for him. Being called by God at the age of eighty to leave the relatively quiet pastoral life of Midian to go head to head with the king of the greatest superpower in the ancient Middle East must have been quite a shock to the system for an old man. But during the course of the next year Moses saw God work a series of miracles unprecedented in human history. Nevertheless, even after Israel walked through the Red Sea and heard the voice of God at Sinai they continued to rebel until the most humble and meek man on the face of the earth (Num 12:3) reached the end of his rope and, in a fit of temper, struck the rock God had told him to speak to: ‘The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle”.’

Instead of speaking, Moses hit the rock with his rod, as he did in Exodus 17:6: ‘“Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel.’

The people had once again blamed Moses for bringing them to a place without water. Instead of praying to God or asking Moses to pray for them, they complained. Perhaps Moses was so angry with them that he didn’t listen carefully to all the Lord told him (he would later write in Deuteronomy 8:3 that ‘man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD’) but whatever the reason for striking the rock, he did not sanctify the name of God before Israel.

Rashi observes that ‘it was said in the presence of all Israel, so Scripture does not spare him because of the sanctification of the Name… to sanctify Me For had you spoken to the rock and it had given forth [water], I would have been sanctified in the eyes of the congregation. They would have said, “If this rock, which neither speaks nor hears, and does not require sustenance, fulfills the word of the Omnipresent, how much more should we!”’

It might seem to us a small thing that Moses hit the rock. After all, God did provide water for the people. Striking the rock had the desired effect and water poured out of the rock in abundance but God had told Moses to simply speak to it. Instead, Moses struck the stone with his rod. The greatest of all sins is to fail to sanctify God and Moses paid the price for his failure. This is why Jesus taught his followers to pray above all else that God’s name would be hallowed and that his will may be done on earth as it is done by the angels in heaven.

Moses partially obeyed God but partial obedience of God is as bad as disobedience. But it is so easy to do what seems right but to miss the mark, as we see in the Haftarah. The period of the Shoftim, the Judges, was characterised by the indictment, ‘Everyone did what was right in his own eyes,’ a phrase found in Judges 17:6 and 21:25. But the phrase is also found in Deuteronomy 12:8: ‘You shall not do according to all that we are doing here today, everyone doing whatever is right in his own eyes…’ Moses certainly did what was right in his own eyes at Meribah.

Judging by his response to the Ammonite king’s claim that Israel had stolen his land, Jephthah appears to have had a knowledge of the book of Numbers and Deuteronomy. Nevertheless, in one vital area, at least, Jephthah’s understanding of Torah was deeply flawed. He made a rash vow to sacrifice as a burnt offering whatever came out of the doors of his house.

First of all, it was not for Jephthah to offer burnt offerings; that was the role of the priests. Secondly, it seems that Jephthah was clearly aware that a human – a servant or family member – might be the first to meet him when he returned in victory. It was clearly a stupid decision and God, who forbids murder, would have forgiven him if he had repented of the vow taken in haste and offered a prescribed burnt offering in the place of his daughter.

All of which goes to show that it is possible to be too religious. ‘To obey is better than sacrifice,’ Samuel told Saul. What God requires is wholehearted trust, not in what seems right to us but in what he has revealed.

In the last couple of days, a Hasidic friend of mine has written to tell me that the Tanakh says Christians are the enemies of the Jews. After pointing out that I’ve read the Tanakh through every year since 1968 and that I’ve never come across a verse that says anything like that (and how could the Tanakh say that when it was completed 300 years before there were any Christians?) he told me it is the Jewish commentaries that say believers in Jesus are the enemies of the Jews. There’s often a world of difference between what the Bible says and what commentators say about the Bible.

Both Jews and Christians need to remember that man does not live by bread alone or by the commentators alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of HaShem.

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