Parashat Hukat 5773 (on God’s presence in human affairs)

Devar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar

In the middle of our parasha, overshadowed by: the ritual of the red hefer, the deaths of Moses’ siblings, the sin of striking the rock, the plague of serpents, tales of diplomacy and war, the narrative pauses to include… a really short song, recounting what happened earlier in the parasha when the people needed water:

This song is interjected into a passage listing the stages of the journey.

 וּמִשָּׁם, בְּאֵרָה:  הִוא הַבְּאֵר, אֲשֶׁר אָמַר ה` לְמֹשֶׁה, אֱסֹף אֶת-הָעָם, וְאֶתְּנָה לָהֶם מָיִם. אָז יָשִׁיר יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֶת-הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת:  עֲלִי בְאֵר, עֱנוּ-לָהּ. בְּאֵר חֲפָרוּהָ שָׂרִים, כָּרוּהָ נְדִיבֵי הָעָם, בִּמְחֹקֵק, בְּמִשְׁעֲנֹתָם; וּמִמִּדְבָּר, מַתָּנָה.

And from there to Be’er, which is the well where God said to Moses: gather the people and I will give them water. So Israel sang this song: Spring up, well, sing to it:  the well that princes dug; the nobles of the people started it, with the scepter, with their canes. And from Midbar to Mattanah. (Num 21:16-18)

…and so the list continues.

According to Rashi and other commentators, the “princes” and “nobles” are Moses and Aaron, In this song, they are glorified for bringing water from the rock with the staff. But according to Rashi using the staff was exactly what they were not meant to be doing,

Rashi explains that God tells them:

שאילו דברתם אל הסלע והוציא הייתי מקודש לעיני העדה

Because if you had spoken to the rock, and it had given forth [water], I would have been sanctified in the eyes of the community. (Rashi on 20:12)

And according to the view of Rabenu Hananel, cited approvingly by the Ramban, the highlighting of Moses and Aaron’s agency, as opposed to God’s own, was the reason that God was angry with them:

The sin was in saying ‘from this rock “notzi lakhem mayim”– “we will bring out water for you”’, and it would have been fitting for them to have said “yotzi hashem lakhem mayim”  — “God will bring out water for you”… and perhaps the people thought that Moses and Aaron in their wisdom brought them water from this rock. (Ramban on 20:1)

This concern is validated in our text, when God is not even mentioned in the actual song that the Israelites apparently sung! In this account, Moses and Aaron, the princes, the nobles, created the well themselves, with their staff!  So why are we treated to this rendition of the story? It seems odd that the Torah would include this song that emphasises the very mistake that Moshe and Aaron made, with no overt condemnation.

Apart from being in verse, this passage contains some other linguistic differences from the earlier telling of the story. Before the song, it is explained that God told Moses “esof et ha am” — “gather the people”, (21:16) whereas earlier God instructed Moshe and Aaron: “hakhel et ha-eda” — “assemble the community.” (20:8)

Though it is clear that they are referring to the same action, there is a hint that the purpose of the act differs. “Gather the people” is a mundane, perhaps political, expression. “Esof,”, “gather” is a general-purpose word, used for objects as much as for people, with no particular reason implied. Whereas the word “hakhel”, “assemble”, especially with “the community”, more often signifies something of transcendent importance, of religious significance: giving laws of shabbat, inaugurating the ritual service of the priests and of the Levites, hearing the word of God directly, or the Torah being read aloud.

In the song itself, instead of “mateh”, the default word uses for Moses’ staff, instead we get “mishenet”, “cane”-  which is only used one other time in chumash, to describe a recovering injured person who leans on their walking stick (Ex 21:19) and “mehokek”, scepter, also only found one other time in chumash, (Gen 49:10) in the foretelling that Judah’s descendants will be kings.

Whereas a “mateh” is used by shepherds and wonder-workers, a symbol of care and supernatural authority, the cane is for physical support, and the scepter is a symbol of political power. (In the Book of Samuel (1 Sam 8:7), the establishment of the kingship is, in fact, understood as a rejection of God’s authority).

From the choice of words, this serves as a dramatic clarification of why Moses and Aaron were punished so severely. By their actions and words, they transformed this story from what could have been a spiritual, elevated act of God, into a political act by two men.

So, again, why is this missed opportunity emphasised here, without comment?

This parasha really sets into motion the leadership transition for the people. First, Miriam dies, then Moses and Aaron are informed that they won’t make it to the land. A little later, Aaron dies.

Rabbi Dov Linzer of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah connects this theme to our song, which:

opens not with “az yashir Moshe”, “then Moshe sang” (Shemot 15:1), but rather “az yashir Yisrael,” then Israel sang (Bamidbar 21:17).

He notes that the first of the parasha’s diplomatic vignettes features Moses sending the emissaries to Edom: which ends with the Israelites being denied passage through their land, and having to divert their journey. In the subsequent three encounters, it is “Israel” who is in charge, not Moses, whether or not emissaries are sent in advance. And in each of these cases the other nations cede to Israel in battle.

This is a necessary transformation for the people. Soon, they will no longer be under the direct protection of God, as is the case in the wilderness, but will be moving towards a more independent existence in the Land of Israel.

Bible scholar Richard Elliott Friedman claims that the story of the Tenakh as a whole is the that of the chronologically progressive “Disappearance of God”. We started with only God, in the first words of the Torah, then in Gan Eden, people walked with God, Moses spoke with God, the prophets had visions, Elijah goes to Sinai and experiences something, but hears only “kol demama” the sound of silence, and finally, in the Book of Esther, God goes unmentioned.

With the projected death of Moses, who spoke with God “face to face, as a person speaks to their fellow” (Ex 33:10), this narrative takes a leap forward, and the people had better be ready for it. This song emphasises the people’s acceptance of the new paradigm, where strong leaders of Israelites must function without such clear intervention from God.

Next week, I’m taking a trip to Israel, so Zionism has been on my mind. A major goal for a very important faction of early Zionists was the “normalisation” of the Jewish people.The 19th Century European ideal was that a nation exists in a land, and the strangeness of the Jewish people was that we had none. By gaining a sovereign homeland, the Jewish people would become like other nations.

This same wish — to be like other nations — is also expressed by the people who ask Samuel to appoint a king.(1 Sam 8:5) The normalisation of the modern Jewish people seems parallel to the the decreasing reliance on God of the Biblical Israelites. The question is, is the inevitable end of the Jewish story complete alienation from God, or, is complete secularization the end of the Zionist project?

The Talmud teaches that at the mincha offering on shabbat, one of three songs from the Torah was sung in the Temple each week:

  • Az Yashir Moshe – the first half of the song of the Sea

  • Mi khamokha – The second half of the song of the sea

  • Az Yashir Yisrael – in our parasha. (BT Rosh Hashana 31a)

The Song of the Sea has a greater contrast with our song than just that is is sung by Moses as opposed to Israel. It is entirely about God’s agency in saving the people. God is ish milhama, a warrior,  fighting on behalf of Israel; all they do is walk through the Sea.

Az yashir Yisrael, as we have noted, is about human leaders providing for their people.

Mi Khamokha, the second part of the Song of the Sea, maintains the perspective of complete divine agency from the first part, but is mostly not about the crossing of the Sea itself. In fact, it describes the fear that this miracle inspired on the nations in the vicinity of the Land of Israel, including Edom and Moav, who Israel encounters in our parasha.

The vision of a people who are constantly expecting God to intercede in human affairs is certainly not attractive — whether in the world of the Tenakh, or those such as the former Chief Rabbi of Israel (R’ Mordechai Eliyahu) who declared that the Gaza disengagement “would not happen”, so sure was he of God’s intervention.  

Rather, the intermediate stage of mi khamokha points us to a path between this and absolute estrangement from God. When the people do encounter these other nations in the parasha, their experiences must be informed by the religious past, even as it differs qualitatively from their present.

For us too, at a personal or a national level, we can use the narrative of Torah to inform our lives, without expecting God to be with us in the same way that God was there for Moses. When we act, we can be motivated by Torah. When we succeed, we can express thanks to God. When we mourn, God can be a source of comfort for us. Even without the immediate, dramatic, Presence of God, we can strive to live a life inspired by Torah.