I do "magic" for preschoolers at our Kabbalat Shabbat. I make a Kiddush cup drink the wine. I fill a blank coloring book with colored pictures. I make a lightbulb glow in my hand.
In Parashat Chukat, Moses also performs "magic." When the people cry out that they are without water in the desert, God tells Moses to speak to a rock. But Moses does not speak to it, he strikes it: "Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank." (Numbers 20:11) That feat makes my pouring wine out of a newspaper look pretty tame.
God then tells Moses that because he struck the rock, he will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land. Why such a dire consequence for so small an incident? The p'shat, or simple answer, is in the text: "Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them." (Numbers 20:12) God punishes Moses because Moses tried to make the "trick" his instead of God's. The point was to increase trust in God, not awe for Moses.
But there's something more.
Before Moses strikes the rock, he says to the people: "Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?" (Numbers 20:10) He is angry and frustrated. These people are impossible! When the ten spies reported that the people could never conquer the Promised Land, the people panicked and refused to go farther. Later, three of them—Korach, Datham, and Abiram—openly challenged Moses' leadership. Moses is clearly fed up with this band of ex-slaves.
Perhaps that is precisely the point: Moses cannot lead them into the Land of Israel because he has contempt for them. He no longer respects them. He can give them water but not dignity. He can lead them, but he does not love them.
When performing "magic" tricks, I have two choices: I can try to bewilder the audience and emphasize my own special power or I can have them "say the magic words" or "find" the lost wine or make the lightbulb glow. I can make them my partners or my puppets.
There are many leadership roles in life. A parent is a leader of his or her children. A husband and wife are the leaders of a household. Employers are leaders, as are teachers and officials and camp counselors. But no matter how good they are at "making magic," if they treat their "audience" with contempt, they are not fit to lead.
Moses reminds us that even the wisest and most capable leaders can lose their patience and respect for their children, workers, students, or constituents. And when they do, everyone suffers.
Eventually, Moses overcame his frustration, swallowed his disappointment, and did his best for the people until his death. We remember him, we honor him, and we learn from his example, his teachings, and his mistakes.
Questions for Discussion
- Did being called "rebels" add to or detract from the people's appreciation of what Moses had done for them?
- Can a person who has no respect for his or her followers truly lead them?
- How does this issue relate to the rabbis' teaching that to humiliate someone publicly is as bad as shedding blood? Does this also apply to teachers and parents and employers? What about political leaders?
- Is the quality of the relationship between employer and employee important or does only the quality of the work count?
- How does the popular idea of "empowering" apply to this story and the lesson it suggests?
- Do people tend to respond by acting the way in which their leaders say they are acting?
Rabbi Harry K. Danziger is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Israel in Memphis, TN.