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Parashat Chukat -The Unadulterated Transmission of Torah Rav Jeremy Koolyk

Parashat Chukat -The Unadulterated Transmission of Torah Rav Jeremy Koolyk

The heartrending episode of Parashat Chukat is, of course, that of Mei Meriva, the Waters of Strife. Moshe is instructed to draw forth water from a stone using speech, but in some way he deviates from the plan. The episode ends painfully with Moshe being informed that he is denied entry into the Land of Israel. What exactly was Moshe’s sin and why did it deserve such harsh punishment? Much ink has been spilled on this topic; indeed, the Or Hachaim summarizes no less than ten different opinions on the matter before offering his own explanation, and the list does not end there. Let us focus on one of these approaches and what we can learn from it. The Rambam in his introduction to Pirkei Avot1 addresses this issue. He does not identify Moshe’s mistake as hitting the rock instead of speaking to it (Rashi) or as giving the impression that he was an independent miracle worker (Ramban). Rather, according to the Rambam, the key to understanding Moshe’s sin lies not in his action but in his demeanor. Instead of addressing the nation calmly, Moshe angrily refers to them as “Morim,” “rebellious ones.” This anger was problematic on two levels. First, in general anger is a toxic character trait and it was a Chilul Hashem for a person of Moshe’s stature to display anger. Second, and perhaps more significantly, Moshe, in his capacity of messenger of Hashem, misrepresented Hashem’s reaction to the people’s request for water. In truth, Hashem had merely instructed Moshe to produce water for the thirsty nation and their animals but did not intimate that He was angry with their request. By allowing himself to get angry, Moshe caused the people to mistakenly think that God was angry with them. What was so significant about this misrepresentation? Rav Ya’akov Kamenetzky explains that Moshe Rabbeinu had the unparalleled task of transmitting God’s Torah to the Jewish nation. His incomparable level of prophecy and his unique humility were instrumental in Moshe becoming the ultimate conduit for the transmission of Torah. It was essential, of course, that the Torah reach the people in its purest form, without any admixture of the medium through which it was transmitted.

Shemona Perakim, Chapter 4. 2 Emet Leya’akov Shemot 19:3. Thus, any deviation on the part of Moshe from Hashem’s instruction, however slight, had the potential to cast doubt on the authenticity of the Torah. If in representing God, Moshe inserted his own feelings of anger which were not shared by God, what else may have been included in the Torah which Moshe imparted which did not in fact have a Divine source? It was for this reason, explains Rav Kamenetzky, that it was critical for Moshe to receive the severest of punishments. Hashem made it abundantly clear that this episode was a one-off exception, but in general Moshe had acted as a perfect conduit, imparting the Torah in a wholly pristine way. What can we learn from all this? Rav Safra used to refer to his teachers as “Moshe.” We may not be Moshe Rabbeinu, but every one of us acts as a teacher at times, as friends, neighbors, and especially as parents. Part of a teacher’s job is to offer critique, to return the student to the path of Hashem. We can learn from Moshe’s mistake how careful we must be to distinguish between the necessary rebuke itself and our own feelings and emotions.

When we mix our own frustrations into the message of Hashem, we risk leaving the impression that Hashem is very angry with them, or that they are beyond redemption. Ultimately, we run the risk of weakening the chain of Mesorah (tradition), as our students begin to wonder where in their instruction the Word of God ends and the word of the teacher begins. Hashem should help us acquire the proper intuition and self-restraint to be faithful conduits of His Torah!

 Shabbat Shalom Umevorach – Rav Jeremy Koolyk

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