Here’s the d’var Torah which Rabbi Rachel offered yesterday at CBI for parashat Chukat. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)
In the verses we just read, Miriam has just died and the people have no water. God tells Moshe to speak to a rock so that it will yield water for the children of Israel. Moshe, instead, responds with snark: “Listen, you rebels — shall I get water for you out of this rock?” He hits the rock. The rock gives water, but God is not pleased. God says: Because you failed to make Me holy in the eyes of the Israelites, you will not enter the promised land.
Those of you who were here last Shabbat afternoon heard our bat mitzvah’s perspectives on this story. She opened up some classical teachings about the text, but ultimately concluded that from her point of view, this is profoundly unfair.
I can understand that. Moshe may have thought this was pretty unfair, too. First of all, when God spoke to him from the bush which burned but was not consumed and told him to go to Pharaoh, he said “who am I to do such a thing? I stammer. Send someone else.” He didn’t want the leadership position in the first place, but God deployed him anyway.
Then he gave his entire life to leading the people of Israel through the wilderness. The people kvetched and they quarreled and they pushed him to his breaking point. He lost his temper this one time, and for that, he’s denied entry into the place they’ve been yearning to reach?
I have a lot of empathy for this vision of Moshe. How frustrated he must have been. How tired of feeling under-appreciated and undervalued, of deferring whatever his own dreams might have been in order to lead this difficult people. But what happens if we read today’s verses not as a punishment but as a natural shift in generations?
Moshe snaps at the people and hits the rock and God thinks: ahh — I see that you’re approaching the end of your rope. So God gives notice to Moshe: you’ve done amazing things, and I can see that you’re getting weary, and it’s okay — you’ve led the people so very far — you don’t have to lead them all the way. You can place your hands on Joshua and give him some of your spirit. Lean on him (that’s what smicha means), transmit your Torah to him, and then let go. Trust the next chapters of your people’s story to his hands and his heart.
Before the end of his story, Moshe will have the opportunity to stand before the people and remind them of everything they’ve experienced thus far. That’s the book of D’varim / Deuteronomy — the Hebrew name means “Words,” and the Greek name means “Second telling.” Moshe gets to give over his wisdom one final time before he dies, and when he dies, Torah tells us, God buries him.
When I imagine myself in Moshe’s shoes at the end of his life, I imagine gratitude at the opportunity to pause before the end and retell my own story. Moshe stands before the Israelites and speaks the poem of his life, the poem of their lives, giving meaning to everything they have experienced. He has the opportunity to meet death gently, at an advanced age, after having told his story and done the inner work of letting go. We should all be so lucky.
And when I imagine myself in the shoes of Joshua, Moshe’s successor, I imagine gratitude at the opportunity to spend a lifetime learning from the greatest prophet the Jewish people would ever know. I imagine Joshua feeling humbled by the awesome task of trying to take over for Moshe — Moshe, who spoke face-to-face with God, who brought Torah down from Sinai, who presided over the Exodus from an old world to a new one. Never again will there arise a prophet like Moshe. Talk about a hard act to follow.
I hope that Joshua said thank you often enough. I hope he communicated to Moshe how honored he was to be ordained in his lineage, and how much love he felt for the people they were both called to serve, and how deeply he knew that he wouldn’t be leading the people forward from there if Moshe hadn’t gotten them as far as he did.
And I hope that before he died Moshe was able to reflect back on the scene we just read, and maybe to chuckle with a little bit of chagrin, and to feel gratitude that he had such a student to whom he could pass on his gifts. A student who became a colleague, in the end; a successor; maybe even a friend.