Chukat for Tots

Chukat, Numbers 19:1−22:1

D'Var Torah By: Ellen and Peter Allard

Moses and Aaron came away from the congregation to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and fell on their faces. The Presence of Adonai appeared to them, and Adonai spoke to Moses, saying, "You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts."

Moses took the rod from before Adonai, as God had commanded him. Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, "Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?" And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank.

But Adonai said to Moses and Aaron, "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." Those are the Waters of Meribah-meaning that the Israelites quarreled with Adonai-through which God affirmed His sanctity.

-Numbers 20:6-13

Parashat Chukat brings us one of the most memorable stories in the Torah: Moses striking the rock and thereafter not being allowed to enter the Land of Israel. This story is rich and striking in its own right. On a simple reading, it leads to questions about Moses's actions and the consequences or punishment he received. When commanded by God to assemble the Israelites and order the rock to yield water, Moses instead struck the rock two times. And while the rock spurted forth a prodigious amount of water, Moses hadn't followed God's exact command. Perhaps he was frustrated at the whining of the Israelites. Perhaps he was tired. After all, we imagine that 40 years of leading people can be demanding and exhausting. But no matter, he disobeyed God's command and God refused to allow him to continue the journey into the Promised Land.

Like this story, the ideas of discipline and punishment bring up strong opinions and emotions for us as parents and teachers. Loaded with history, uncertainty and the goal of doing the right thing, we are often confronted with a real challenge in figuring out the maze of appropriately and effectively disciplining our young children.

To clarify, when we talk about discipline, we are talking about guiding children to follow rules and behave in ways we have established as appropriate. Punishment is a consequence of not following the rules or of behaving inappropriately. We'd like to suggest that discipline is as vital to children's development as feeding them healthy foods or making sure they get enough exercise. Discipline, as opposed to punishment, is a positive way to help your children grow and develop into the wonderful adults they are to become.

Although Moses and God were not in a parent/child relationship and God was not likely trying to "discipline" Moses, this story helps to illustrate the difference between discipline and punishment. It seems clear that Moses is being punished for his actions. Were the consequences fair? It might appear harsh. This is where we need to sit up and pay attention. God had expectations of Moses. God's command was very clear. Moses disobeyed. Though the rock yielded water (the lack of which the Israelites had been complaining about,) there were consequences to Moses not following God's command.

This parashah and our reaction to reading it highlights the idea that discipline, much more so than punishment is a fitting and appropriate guidance technique for young children. By being proactive and setting clear expectations and consequences you are establishing a strong foundation for guiding your children along the sometimes rocky road of development. You are helping your children learn to trust their environment and you are helping them believe and trust in you as a parent and a teacher. All of this is not to say that the path to discipline is clear, easy or even straightforward. After all, we need to take this theory and apply it to our interactions with our spirited, willful, adorable young children! You will face challenges along the way but you and your children will also reap the rewards of your hard work.

Questions and Ideas for Parents:

  1. Was there a person in your life who set limits for you and helped you to learn to accept consequences?
  2. Has there been a tough lesson in your life that changed you for the better?
  3. How do you feel about the ideas of discipline and punishment?

Questions for Children:

  1. Do you have rules to follow at home? What happens if you don't follow them?
  2. Why is it important to play games by the rules?
  3. What do you know about Moses?
Reference Materials

Pages 1145-1164 in The Torah: A Modern Commentary Revised Edition, by W. Gunther Plaut.