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Torah from around the world: Rabbi Mark Goldsmith

Rabbi Mark Goldsmith of Alyth wrote on Parashat Chukkat (Numbers 19:1 – 22:1) for the World Union for Progressive Judaism’s ‘Torah from Around the World’ feature.

Over the past few weeks in Britain we have been celebrating Queen Elizabeth’s ninetieth Birthday. I say over the past few weeks because the Queen gets two birthdays every year, one her chronological birthday on 21st April and the other, called her official birthday, which is celebrated by the nation on a Saturday in June, when the weather is likely to be better for the official birthday-marking parade called the “Trooping of the Colour”. Many synagogues, ours included, will be marking the Queen’s birthday this year with a special prayer for her welfare. We will single her out and mention her by name.

This year, as every year, her official birthday will also include the issuing of her honours list, elevating a number of people to a peerage, knighting others so that they will thereafter carry the title of Sir or Lady, and enrolling yet more in the time-honoured orders which give them letters after their name such as MBE or OBE.

Jews always figure in some numbers in the Queen’s birthday honours list, as we contribute strongly to British society. Their name is also singled out and pride in their achievements shared with the nation. There is a tale of a British Jew who was waiting in line to be knighted by the Queen. He was to kneel in front of her and recite a sentence in Latin when she taps him on the shoulders with her sword. However, when his turn came, he panicked in the excitement of the moment and forgot the Latin. Then, thinking fast, he recited the only other sentence he knew in a foreign language, which he remembered from the Passover seder:

“Ma nishtana ha layla ha zeh mi kol ha laylot, your Majesty”

Puzzled, Her Majesty turned to her advisor and whispered, “Why is this knight different from all other knights?”

The Passover Haggadah tells the story of the Exodus from Egypt without, traditionally, a single mention of the name of the unfortunate hero of our Torah portion (Chukkat) – Moses. He had led the Children of Israel for a terrible forty years through the wilderness. Throughout the journey they had moaned at him that they did not have enough to drink or to eat. Several times the Children of Israel told Moses that they would have preferred to remain in slavery in Egypt rather than to be wandering through the desert, even if they were on the way to their Promised Land.

In Chukkat, soon after Moses’ sister Miriam dies, she who, in Midrash, was followed by a well of sweet water wherever she went, the water runs out, so the moaning begins again in earnest. Moses loses his temper and hits the water-giving rock. Immediately he is told by God that now he will not be the one leading the children of Israel into the Promised Land.

Moses’ dismissal seems so unfair on the face of it, after forty years of loyal, hard-working service to the Children of Israel and to God, that the Rabbis had to try to work out why God’s reaction is, on the face of it, so extreme. Rashi said that Moses was dismissed from leadership because he disobeyed God publicly, an example that God simply could not allow to continue. Moses hit the rock in anger and did not speak to it as God had commanded him (Numbers 20:8). Maimonides says that Moses simply lost the characteristics of a good leader. He, so to speak, “lost his cool” in front of the Israelites in his accusatory anger and so no longer would have the credibility needed as a leader of hundreds of thousands through difficult terrain and military campaigns. Nachmanides says that the problem was that he and Aaron said “Shall we get water for you from out of this rock” – we Moses and Aaron, not God. By ascribing the miracle to themselves they went a major step too far. Moses could no longer be the inspirational leader and nor could his name be mentioned in the Haggadah lest people think that it was Moses who brought us up out of Egyptian slavery and not God.

We will never know the one authoritative reason which makes Moses’ removal from the privilege of leading the Children of Israel into the Promised Land fair and reasonable, but what we do know is something far more profound. It is what our Torah tells us Moses did next, when he knew that his dream was shattered, that his role was lost. Right after the incident at the rock the Torah continues: “And Moses sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom, Thus said your brother Israel, You know all the adversity that has befallen us… Let us pass, I pray you, through your country… And Edom said to him, You shall not pass by me, lest I come out against you with the sword.” (Numbers Chapter 20:14)

Right after hearing that he was to lose the role that had made him the leader of all of the Jewish people of the time, Moses went right back to work, straight into the tasks at hand. The Torah could have told us of a long and protracted period of mourning for his mistake, about Moses’ regrets and begging God to relent, but this did not happen. Moses went straight on to give further life to the Jewish people and continued to do so for sixteen more chapters of the book of Numbers, a whole campaign to bring them to the borders of the Promised Land, and then thirty-four chapters of the book of Deuteronomy reminding them what to do when they entered.

Judaism affirms life. Moses returned immediately to the task after hearing he would no longer be the leader into the Promised Land. World Union for Progressive Judaism communities bring back life to Jewish communities which our people had all but given up on, in the smaller cities of Britain, in Spain, in Eastern Europe and Shanghai – to name a few. Each of us, individually, have to deal with disappointments when we find, perhaps, that we are not the one to lead where we might have wished – yet we don’t give up on the task, even if it will no longer make our name great.

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