Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Chukath

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Chukath 5759/1999

Two Episodes Concerning Water

Menahem Ben-Yashar

Dept. of Bible

There are two episodes in the Torah about water being provided miraculously to quench the people's thirst, one in Parshat Hukkat (Num. 20:1-11), and one in Be-Shalah (Exodus 17:1-7). They have many elements in common: the people's thirst in the wilderness, the people's complaints, Moses' prayers,[1] G-d's instruction to Moses, the miracle of water coming out of a rock, and the place being given a name that has the root merivah, quarrel, in it. These findings have led Bible scholars to express the view that both passages relate to one and the same event. R. Joseph Bekhor-Shor, a 12th century exegete from France,[2] explained this duplication as a general statement and its detailed description. In Exodus, as the wandering through the wilderness began, Scripture gives a general account of how G-d cared for His people and provided them water, manna and quail; whereas in Numbers the story is told in detail; each in its time and place. This view, which apparently was shared by other unnamed commentators,[3] has been refuted by several classical Jewish commentators,[4] on the basis of prominent differences in the details of the two events: the first took place at Mount Horeb in the Wilderness of Sinai, and the second, on the borders of the land of Edom; the first took place before the eyes of the elders, whereas the second was witnessed by the entire congregation; in the first Moses was commanded to strike the rock, in the second, to speak.[5] This argument, however, does not hold for more or less critical modern exegetical approaches that maintain that the two accounts in the Torah are two versions that evolved from a single tradition.[6] As for us, we have but to see the words of the Torah as they are and understand them in their context.

It appears that the Torah recounts two distinct events. Cassuto's comment is well-put:[7] "By repeating the episode with different details, at the beginning and towards the end of the years in the wilderness, a certain literary harmony is created, indicating that G-d cared for His people throughout the entire period in the wilderness." Indeed, the unique character of each event is best understood through its context. The special nature of the story in Exodus 17 has already been explained by Nahmanides on this passage, and with greater detail and precision by Abarbanel on the same. The Israelites thirsted for water at Rephidim, which was their last station before Mount Horeb in the wilderness of Sinai (Ex. 19:2). Therefore G-d did not cause water to flow on the spot, but rather commanded Moses and the elders, "Pass before the people," (Ex. 17:5) in other words, proceed ahead before the people to the next station,[8] to Mount Horeb, and there strike the rock before the eyes of the elders. For the elders, the wise men of the community, it sufficed to witness the relatively small miracle of striking the rock, which perhaps is not even an obvious miracle but only G-d's grace, showing Moses a hidden watercourse under a thin layer of stone, such as exist in deserts.[9] From there the water flowed down to the thirsty people at Rephidim, being the "brook that comes down from the mountain" (Deut. 9:21), poetically described in Ps. 78:15-16 and 105:41.

Thus this is the second stage of revelation upon Mount Sinai. At the first stage the Divine Presence was revealed there to Moses alone; he was told that this revelation was but a preliminary one in anticipation of the entire people becoming servants of the Lord there at a future time (Ex. 3:12). During the second stage, which is a sort of interim event, Moses and the elders arrived at the mountain ahead of the people. The people, tired and weary from thirst, could not come the mountain so the water came to them. They were so tired and weary that Amalek took advantage of the situation, coupled with the absence of all the leaders from the camp, and attacked the Israelites; therein lay their principal sin (Deut. 25:17-18).

Water is given the Israelites from Sinai even before the Torah is given to them, for "Water is none else than Torah" (Bava Kama 82a). The Lord's concern for maintaining the physical welfare of his people takes precedence over, and is a necessary precondition to, instilling life in the soul of Israel through the Torah. Since the holy mountain at Sinai is the harbinger and prototype of the Temple Mount in Zion, so too a spring is destined to issue forth from Zion, bringing blessing to the people and land of Israel, as described in the prophets Joel (4:18), Zechariah (13:1; 14:8), and in Ezekiel (47:1-12) in a detailed picturesque passage. Continuing the metaphor, just as Moses prayed to G-d at Horeb, and the people battled against Amalek at Rephidim and were delivered (Ex. 17:8-13), so too in the future, "May He send you help from the sanctuary, and sustain you from Zion" (Ps. 20:3; also 50:2-3; 110:2). And further, just as Moses and the elders, waiting at Mount Sinai for the people to arrive, brought a gentile into the service of the Lord (Ex. 18:1-12), so too in the future the Torah will go out from Zion to all the nations (Is. 2:1-4; Micah 4:1-3; Zech. 8:20-23, 14:16). We may add that just as Moses learned about setting up the legal system at Sinai (Ex. 19:12-27), so too Jerusalem will be called "City of Righteousness, Faithful City" (Is. 1:26; also cf. Deut. 17:8-9; Is. 2).

Quite a different situation is depicted in Parshat Hukkat. The Israelites were encamped at Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin, far from Mount Sinai. Therefore it would have been befitting for Moses to sanctify the name of G-d by an outstanding and obvious miracle, i.e., by obtaining water from a rock by means of speaking, just as by G-d's word, in ten sayings, the world was created (Avot 5.1). Here the staff of the Lord in Moses' hand symbolizes his acting as G-d's emissary, while G-d is the one performing the miracle. However, just as generals often prepare to fight the previous battle, Moses was drawn into following the precedent set at Horeb and hit the rock. Perhaps he was misled by G-d commanding him to take the staff with him,[10] and perhaps, as the commentaries emphasize, his error was also due to his wrath at the people, who came to Moses with serious complaints (20:3-5); wrath which was manifest both in his harsh and misleading words, "Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?" (v. 10), and in his deed, striking the rock twice.[11]

Moses and Aaron were punished for not properly sanctifying G-d as they had been commanded, yet nevertheless a miracle took place here before the eyes of the people, and they and their flocks had plenty of water. Thus, as Rashbam and after him also Hizkuni interpreted, "through which He affirmed His sanctity" (Num. 20:13) means through this water.[12]

Now, it may be that the minor and imperfect sanctification of G-d which we see here is made more concrete towards the end of Parshat Hukkat in the song, "Spring up, O well--sing to it-- / The well which the chieftains dug, / Which the nobles of the people started / With maces, with their own staffs" (Num. 21:17-18). This song differs from all other songs of the Israelites in the Pentateuch and indeed in the entire Bible, in that all the other songs praise G-d, whereas this song praises "chieftains" and "nobles," glorifying mortal men. On the basis of his geographical interpretation of the journeys of the Israelites, Rashbam (v. 14) believes this song to be about the well at Kadesh, where Moses erred and was punished.

Now we can understand what happened: Moses, and with him Aaron, struck the rock forcefully (twice!) and obtained water from it; and it was to them, to Moses and Aaron, that the people sang: chieftains and nobles of the people dug us a well, with their maces and staff. They sang to men of flesh and blood, not to the Creator.[13] Yet all the same, "He affirmed His sanctity" through this water.


[1] Provided we understand the words, "and fell on their faces," (20:6) as meaning prayer, as Ibn Ezra interprets them. Thus it is rendered in interpolation in the Vulgate, as well.

[2] Also called R. Joseph of Orleans, one of the Tosafists; cf. his commentary on Num. 20:8.

[3] According to Ibn Ezra, cf. his comments on Num. 20:8: "Many have mistakenly said, ... and they are uncomprehending."

[4] Ibn Ezra and Hizkuni on Num. 20:8; obliquely indicated by Nahmanides, loc. sit. 13.

[5] There are some commentators, however, who maintain that in Parshat Hukkat as well Moses was commanded to strike the rock since, after all, he was commanded to take his staff, and that his sin lay in something else, in the way his anger was manifested.

[6] Cf. Y. Licht, Perush al Sefer Be-Midbar [11-21], Jerusalem 1991, p. 196.

[7] M. D. Cassuto, Perush al Sefer Shemot, Jerusalem 1952, p. 141.

[8] This meaning of "pass before" also occurs in Gen. 32:17, 34:14, and I Sam. 9:27.

[9] Cf. Cassuto (n. 7), pp. 140-141. In his opinion (p. 127) this was also the case at Marah (Ex. 15:25), and similarly, with G-d's instruction to Hagar concerning the well of water (Gen. 21:19).

[10] The staff is not always taken in order to strike something or perform any other direct action with it; cf. Ex. 14:15; 17:9; 21:26-27.

[11] V. 11. Apparently the verb used here, va-yakh, indicates forceful striking, as opposed to the verb used in Exodus 17:6, ve-hikita, which denotes no more than symbolic striking, making contact with the rock.

[12] However, Nahmanides interprets va-yikkadesh bam, "through which He affirmed His sanctity," to mean through the children of Israel.

[13] Rashbam himself does not draw this conclusion from his identification of the two wells in Parshat Hukkat. This is because of his understanding of va-yikkadesh bam (see previous note), since there was indeed sanctification of G-d. Identification of the two wells, the one at Kadesh and the one in the song, as the same dates back to the Sages (Tanhuma, Buber ed., Hukkat 47-48), but it is based on assuming that Moses' well, as the continuation of "Miriam's well," miraculously moved along with the Israelites through the wilderness (according to Tosefta (Liberman ed.): Sukkah 4.11, p. 268; Sotah 4.2, p. 168). Note that Rashbam is consistent in his unique understanding of va-yikkadesh bam, which differs from the generally accepted view of the Sages and most Jewish exegetes (that G-d is sanctified by dealing strictly in judging those close to Him); he interprets the phrase be-krovai ekadesh, "Through those near to Me I show Myself holy" (Lev. 10:3), similarly.

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