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Holding on to the Vision

  • Holding on to the Vision

    Chukat, Numbers 19:1−22:1
D'var Torah By: 

The shadow of death hovers over Parashat Chukat. (Numbers 19:1-22:1) The parashah begins with the instructions for the ritual slaughter of a heifer and the necessity for purgation after contact with a dead body. It concludes with the death of Aaron the High Priest and the slaughter by the Israelites of the Bashanites. At its center is the end of a leader's patience with the people he was fated to lead.

Moses' noble vision of the independence and the moral imagination that God has willed for the people-and that they must learn to exercise-has been obliterated by their rude countervision, which leads him to despair of their ability to fulfill the destiny he has striven to help them attain. And so at Kadesh, in a fit of exasperation and loss of faith in the people's worth and the sanctity of his own mission, Moses, the master prophet, pounds on the rock to appease his sullen, misguided critics, thereby betraying his own high vision.

Does this sad episode reflect only a world of ancient myth? In our own contemporary world, do we know anything about high vision forsaken and of a leadership provoked or trapped into denying its own mission?

It seems to me that the dilemma Moses faces and is fazed by at Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin is not so remote from our own experience. We have seen a president of the United States profess an ardor to protect the most vulnerable among his people and then agree to "welfare reform," the demolition of a welfare system that, whatever its imperfections, had assured the most vulnerable Americans of at least a modicum of support. We have heard him pronounce a eulogy for "big government" when he surely knows that if federal power were diminished, government by corporate fiat would expand greatly. Has not the president's own high vision succumbed to the countervision of his critics?

And in Israel fifty years after the vision set forth in its declaration of independence, we have seen a prime minister profess commitment to a peace process that, obsessed as he appears to be with his own political insecurity, he has acted time and again to discourage.

Moses, our tradition tells us, emerged from the shadow, braving his shame and God's anger to lead his unruly people forward. Our tradition also tells us that he persevered in leading them within sight of the Promised Land, although himself was debarred from entering it. The damage his leadership had sustained at Kadesh meant that for him there would be no Promised Land. Even so, his name and deeds have lived on after him, scarcely tarnished, a glowing inheritance of countless later generations. Although flawed, he mustered sufficient rehabilitation to be remembered as Moshe Rabbenu, our Teacher Moses.

What legacy will the leaders of our generation leave behind them? They would do well to meditate on the challenge our Teacher Moses offered for his transgression in the wilderness of Zin. Maybe for our leaders, it is not too late.

The Perils of Leadership
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi Morley T. Feinstein

Ah, the perils of leadership! My teacher Dr. Stanley Chyet has described well the challenges and difficulties faced by Moses as the leader of the Jewish people. Because of his failure to overcome these difficulties, Moses and Aaron were punished by not being permitted to enter the Land of Israel in this week's Torah portion Chukat.

Had Moses lost his faith? Did he embarrass God? Did he forget that he was God's appointed messenger, the chosen one of the Israelites? Did he abdicate as the leader of the Jewish people? Moses' anger certainly got the best of him: Rather than speaking to the rock, as required by God, Moses raised his hand and struck the rock, not once but twice with his rod.

What is the reasoning offered by God? "Because [ya'an] you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore [lachen] you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them." (Numbers 20:12) Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests that there is a link between the two terms because (ya'an) and therefore (lachen). Because Moses had a momentary weakness of faith-emunah-the two leaders of the nation suffered the same fate as one that was meted out to the generation of the wilderness. The latter were sentenced to die because they lacked faith throughout their journey. And because of a terrible momentary weakness, a lack of strength and commitment, a lapse of patience, Moses and his brother Aaron suffered the same fate.

This is related to the nearly impenetrable mitzvah of the red heifer, which appears at the beginning of the portion. The ashes of the red cow are used to purify the impure but make the pure impure. In order to effect this purification, the priest takes "cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson stuff". (Numbers 19:6) The Italian commentator Sforno teaches that cedar wood symbolizes pride and arrogance; hyssop, a plant that grows very low to the ground, symbolizes humility; scarlet or crimson color is combined with cedarwood and hyssop to symbolize that both arrogance and humility are sinful. The Talmud (Sotah 5a) suggests that a scholar who has too much pride is as sinful as one who has no pride. For Sforno, this applies especially to one who must exercise leadership on behalf of the people. A delicate balance is required to stand between God and the Children of Israel, to listen to both of them, and to chart a proper course.

In our day, too, it continues to be difficult to find leaders who are willing to come forward and help us in our synagogues and agencies. Theirs is the responsibility to lead this generation of Jews. Prior to the beginning of a new year for the Jewish people and for our leaders at the rudder of our synagogues, we would be wise to heed the words of Dr. Eugene Borowitz: "We seek a leadership construed not primarily in terms of the accomplishment of plans, but equally in terms of its humanizing effect on the people being led."

  1. Were Moses and Aaron punished unfairly?
  2. Did their punishment match their crime?
  3. Do we have a separate standard for leaders today?
  4. What kind of leader are you?
Reference Materials: 

Chukat, Numbers 19:1-22:1
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,145-1,164; Revised Edition, pp. 1,022-1,042
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp.  915–936

When do we read Chukat

2021, June 19
9 Tammuz, 5781
2022, July 9
10 Tammuz, 5782
2024, July 13
7 Tammuz, 5784
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