Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Hukkat 5769/ 27 May 2009

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. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



"Recite one chapter over it, and it will bring forth water"


Rabbi Judah Zoldan


Midrasha for Women


1. To Hit or to Speak?

A rock cannot bring forth water, whether one strikes it or whether one speaks to it.  Obtaining water out of a rock is always a miracle.  Nevertheless, when the Israelites had just left Egypt and the people were complaining about the lack of water, Moses was commanded to strike the rock in order to bring forth water (Ex. 17:6), whereas in this week’s reading, forty years later, Moses was commanded to take his staff in hand but not to hit the rock, rather to speak to it so that it would bring forth water (Num. 20:8).  What was the difference between these two events?  Yalkut Shimoni (Parashat Hukkat, par. 763) observes:

Order the rock (Num. 20:8) it says, not “strike it.”  He said to him:   when a child is small, his rabbi beats him to teach him, but when he has grown, he reproves him with words.   Thus the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses:  When this rock was small, you struck it, as it is written, “Strike the rock” (Ex. 17:6).   But now, you must “order the rock.”   Recite one chapter over it, and it will bring forth water.

 2. Hands-On Education

At the time of the exodus from Egypt, the Israelite people were in their infancy and had to be shown the Lord's active presence in the world by overt miracles in which Moses' staff or outstretched hand were recognized as the outward expression of the hand of the Holy One, blessed be He.  Moses also behaved similarly with respect to the Egyptians.  His staff turned into a snake and back to a staff, and his hand became afflicted with leprosy and then restored to health.  A staff or hand were used to bring several of the plagues against the Egyptians (blood, frogs, lice, hail and locusts), a staff was used in parting the water of the Reed Sea, and a hand was used to bring the water back.   Moses raised his hand in the battle against Amalek so that all eyes would be cast heavenward.   By the time of the Song on the Sea everyone acknowledged the Lord and trusted in Him and in His servant Moses:   “Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power, Your right hand, O Lord, shatters the foe!… You put out Your right hand … through the might of Your arm” (Ex. 15:6-16).

3. Speaking About the Rock

Forty years later, as the Israelites were about to enter the land, the people had reached maturity.  Thus Moses had to take his staff in hand and speak to the rock (el ha-sela) in the sense of al ha- sela (= about the rock; Saadiah Gaon and Nahmanides on Num. 20:8); speaking to one another, studying and internalizing, conversing and listening.   In the wake of these things fresh pure water would be brought forth, furthering the people and raising them to greater spiritual heights and faith.  Thus Maharal describes the significance of the Lord's requirement that Moses speak to the rock, not strike it (Maharal, Gur Arye, Num. 20:12):

The Lord, blessed be His name, wished all present to be drawn to perform the will of the Lord, obeying His will of their own accord, not by coercion, and in such a way Israel would also follow the will of G-d joyfully on their own.  Therefore He told them to talk to the rock, for when things are done by the force of speech, then actions are done willingly and joyfully; and this is the essence of faith.

The great aspiration is for faith in the Lord, prayer and observance of the commandments to be done willingly, with understanding and joy, and not by pressure and coercion.  The time had come for the Israelite people to rise to this level ( Natziv, Ha'amek Davar, loc. sit.):

The Holy One, blessed be He, wanted Moses and Aaron to teach the people how they should behave in future generations in the Land of Israel, trusting that things could be done even without the strength and might of Moses, through the prayers of the multitude.

Moses, however, did not obey the Lord's command ( Maharal, loc. sit.):

Moses did the opposite, striking the rock twice; he also was angry, saying “Listen, you rebels” (Num. 20:10).   This happened “because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people” (Num. 20:12), for had you spoken and they been drawn to follow the Lord, blessed be He, willingly, then holiness would have been exhibited before the eyes of Israel and they would have been drawn after it as well.

4. Teacher and pupil, parents and children

The sin committed at the Waters of Meribah (i.e., “Quarrel”) left its mark on the world of education, on relations between teachers and pupils and between parents and children.   It is hard to persuade the young, to explain to them and to reach understanding of deep ideas.   Therefore at this stage parents and educators must sometimes establish facts by wielding their authority, on the assumption that when the time is ripe the person being educated will come to understand that it was all for the best and was the correct thing to do.   Later, at a more mature age, the parent/educator is called upon to explain and convey messages through words, although sometimes one has the feeling she/he is speaking to a hard rock, to a heart of stone.  Then the teacher might suddenly burst into anger, sometimes even resorting to harsh discipline, although the objective is sublime – namely, to teach proper behavior and good deeds, values and ethics.  For all that the objective might be positive, one cannot ignore the residue of bitterness left by anger and harsh discipline (Rav Kook, Orot ha-Kodesh 4, p. 500):

The root of it all was the sin committed at the Waters of Meribah and Moses’ anger, saying Listen, you rebels, which led to striking the rock, instead of the good will and pacification that should have been present in speaking.  And therefore, mixed in with guidance towards faith and understanding the fine points of Torah, we have strictness and force to the extent that father and son, rabbi and disciple, sitting together and studying Torah, become hostile one to the other.  And even if in the end they ultimately love one another (Kiddushin 30b), nevertheless the impression of temporary hostility never disappears entirely but always leaves a detrimental residue.

Anger and strictness in the world of education come from the sin at the Waters of Meribah.   Of course, one surely needs nerves of steel to lead a people who, after forty years in the wilderness during which time one has been teaching them Torah, as well as explaining to them their destiny and role as the chosen people, demand water and complain, “Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates?  There is not even water to drink!” (Num. 20:5).

This ingrained trait to flare up in anger must be corrected and anger and severity reduced as much as possible, especially insofar as teaching and education are concerned.  Anger and a strict regimen characterized the study of Torah in exile (Sanhedrin 24a):

 I got two staffs, one of which I named Favor [Heb. no‘am] and the other Unity [Heb. hovlim] (Zech. 11:7) – Favor refers to the disciples of the Sages in the Land of Israel, who make the study of Halakhah pleasant to one another (from the root n-‘-m).  Unity refers to the disciples of Sages in Babylonia, who take jibes at one another (from the root h-v-l) in the study of Halakhah.

Ravi Kook writes about mending one’s ways so as to avoid anger and severity in education (loc. sit.):

It lies in the very act of Moses opening his mouth, speaking to the rock instead of hitting it as he did the previous time, and the manifestation of teaching loving kindness it its broadest sense, as by rabbinic scholars in recent generations.   This will cause the light of a canopy of peace to begin spreading over Israel, over Jerusalem, and over the multitude of nations, who will come from the ends of the earth because of the Lord of Hosts, G-d of Israel, to whom is peace.

Indeed, methods of education are changing throughout the world, and the well-trodden normative path is to educate towards recognition and identity, towards intellectual and emotional internalizing, and not by force of the rod or the hand.   A preference for such methods goes back to the time of the tannaim (Berakhot 7a):

Rabbi Johanan said:  Better one internalized rebuke in a person’s heart than several floggings.   Reish Lakish said:  It is better than a hundred floggings, for it is written, “A rebuke works on an intelligent man more than one hundred blows on a fool” (Prov. 17:10).

5. Changes for the Good

Rav Kook explains the above-mentioned principles, showing the positive changes that have been taking place in education in Israel and worldwide ( Ein Ayah, Berakhot – Part I, p. 31):

Here the Sages taught us to educate through gentleness, for a person does not become educated through blows, rather by gentleness.  True reverence (yir'ah) is awe for the Divine that comes from the combination of love and faithfulness.   Until recent times pedagogues had not fathomed this, and they taught only by the rod, until the present time, when much experience has proved that we should heed what the Sages instructed us by their divine inspiration.

There is a place for fear of G-d, but this fear is awe whose objective is to attain spiritual heights and become close [to G-d].  Moses was commanded to take his staff in hand but not to use it to strike the rock.   Rather, he was to address words to the rock, to the recalcitrant heart of stone that sometimes stands before us as well, and thus he was to bring forth water from it.  So wherein do Rabbi Johanan and Reish Lakish differ?   Rabbi Johanan speaks of the theory of education, according to which (Rav Kook, loc. sit.):

One ought to try to inculcate ethical instruction by steadily appealing to the pupil’s intellect and cognition rather than hitting; thereby the pupil can be taught to refrain from evil in general and to follow good ways.  Reish Lakish said it is better than one hundred floggings, meaning even in a real situation, when the student went to the bad and committed a serious sin or crime that merited one hundred floggings, even in such a case reproof of the intellect is better, for the spark of intellect in a person will enlighten even the benighted who have already fallen into sin.  It is necessary to elevate them to the level of the wise, so that they be fit to recognize the value of oral reproof in one’s heart.

Even in the most extreme of circumstances words and instruction are preferable to violent blows.   Education that regularly relies on the rod and on fear causes distress to the weak and small who lack backbone, vision, and creativity.  But use of repetition, words, trust, and empowerment of positive aspects are what in the long run will lead to water being drawn forth from the rock, revealing a wealth of positive forces:  "Recite one chapter over it, and it will bring forth water."