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Thursday, 29 June, 2017 - 4:30 pm

During wartime, a Jew would come to the country’s border with a wheelbarrow full of dirt. The border guard looked at the man’s papers and all was in order for him to cross. The guard suspecting that  the man was smuggling some sort of contraband in the wheelbarrow., took a shovel, poked around in the dirt, but found nothing. The man was allowed to cross.

The next week, the Jew once again came to the border with a wheelbarrow full of dirt. Again, the border guard found that the papers were in order and dug through the dirt, but still found nothing. And again, the man was allowed to cross.  Week after week, it was the same story: Man approaches the border with wheelbarrow full of dirt. Guard finds nothing of interest and the man crosses.

At the end of the war, the guard sees the man and asks him: “Look, I know you were smuggling something across the border, but I could never find a thing hidden in the dirt. What were you smuggling all those years?”

The man answered: “Wheelbarrows.”

It remains one of the most disturbing stories in all of Torah. Moses the faithful shepherd, who has led the Israelites for forty years, is told that he will not live to cross the Jordan and enter the Promised Land.

At last, the moment had arrived. Most of the older generation had already passed on. Even the beloved Miriam was no more. By now, the young nation of Israel was finally ready to enter the Promised Land, under the leadership of Moses. But an incident occurred that would transform the nation's destiny.

"The congregation had no water," the weekly Torah portion Chukat relates, "so they assembled against Moses and Aaron. The people quarreled with Moses, saying, 'If only we had died with the death of our brothers before the Lord. it is not a place for seeds, or for fig trees, grapevines or pomegranate trees, and there is no water to drink'…

"G-d spoke to Moses, saying, 'Take the staff and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and speak to the rock in their presence so that it will give forth its water. You shall bring forth water from the rock, and give the congregation and their livestock to drink.'

"Moses took the staff from before the Lord as He had commanded him. Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock, and he said to them, 'Now listen, you rebels, can we draw water for you from this rock?'

"Moses raised his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, when an abundance of water gushed forth, and the congregation and their livestock drank.

"G-d said to Moses and Aaron, 'Since you did not have faith in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the Land which I have given them.'"

The story is deeply perplexing. What exactly was Moses' and Aaron's sin? A subtle examination of the text reveals the nature of Moses' and Aaron's transgression. G-d told Moses to speak to the rock. Instead, Moses struck the rock. It was this error of Moses that prevented him from entering the Holy Land.

Yet, this explanation leaves us with many more questions. Here are a few of them.

1) What compelled Moses to sin? If G-d instructed him to speak to the rock, why did he choose to strike it?

2) Why was Moses punished so severely for this sin? Does it really make a difference whether you communicate to a rock verbally or by force? What is more, because of Moses’ prayers, G-d forgave the Israelites. Could he not forgive Moses?

3) G-d tells Moses to take the stick. If he was not supposed to use it, why tell him to take it? Was this a set up?

There is sixth question, perhaps the strongest of all. Forty years earlier, shortly after the Egyptian exodus, a similar incident occurred. But in that instance, G-d expressed His desire that Moses actually strike the rock  .  Why did G-d change His mind this time? 

The  Midrash, known as Yalkut Shimoni, makes the following comment: "Speak to the rock, do not strike it. G-d told Moses, 'when a child is young, the educator may [at times] be forceful with the lad in order to teach him. . When the child grows into adulthood, however, the educator must rebuke him only verbally. Similarly, when the rock was but a 'small child,' I instructed you to strike it; but now [after 40 years when it has grown larger] you must only speak to it. Teach it a chapter of Torah and it will produce water."
This a strange Midrash. What is the comparison between a rock and a child? And how are you supposed to teach a rock a chapter of Torah? 
It is of course, a psychological and moral tale about how to educate and refine human "rocks" so that they can produce water.

Almost forty years earlier, in similar circumstances, G-d had told him to take his staff and strike the rock. Now too, G-d told him to take his staff. Evidently Moses inferred that he was being told to act this time as he had before, which is what he does. He strikes the rock. What he failed to understand was that time had changed in one essential detail. He was facing a new generation. The people he confronted the first time were those who had spent much of their lives as slaves in Egypt. Those he now faced were born in freedom in the wilderness.

There is one critical difference between slaves and free human beings. Slaves respond to orders. Free people do not. They must be educated, informed, instructed, and taught – for if not, they will not absorb the message, nor will they learn to take responsibility. Slaves understand that a stick is used for striking. That is how slave-masters compel obedience. Indeed that was Moses’ first encounter with his people, when he saw an Egyptian beating an Israelite. But free human beings must not be struck. They respond, not to power, but persuasion. They need to be spoken to.

The difference between G-d’s command then and now (“strike the rock” and “speak to the rock”) was of the essence. The symbolism in each case was precisely calibrated to the mentalities of two different generations. You strike a slave, but speak to a free person.

G-d tells Moses, take the stick but do not use it. In the words of the Midrash above, “Now you must speak to it, teach it a chapter of Torah and it will produce water." The Jews have come a long way. The model of smiting must be replaced with the model of teaching and inspiring.

At that critical juncture, Moses was unable to metamorphose himself. Moses, who came to identify so deeply with the generation he painstakingly liberated from Egyptian genocide and slavery and worked incessantly for their development as a free and holy people, could not easily "change his skin" and assume a new model of leadership. Moses, calling the people "rebels," struck the rock. He continued to employ the method of rebuke and strength. And he struck it twice, because when you attempt to change things through pressure, rather than by persuasion, you must always do it more than once.

This demonstrated that Moses was not the person to take the new generation into its land. Moses belonged to the older generation. Because of his profound love and attachment to that generation — about whom he told G-d that should He not forgive them, He could erase Moses' name from the Torah — Moses did not want to perceive the transformation that had taken place in the young generation of Jews who had come of age. That is why G-d told Moses, "You did not have faith in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel." Instead of trusting G-d's assessment of the new generation, and exposing their elevated spiritual status, Moses diminished their moral level, creating a crock in their profound and mature relationship with G-d.

Moses' place, it turned out, was in desert with his beloved people, these heroic souls who began the march from slavery to freedom, but could not complete it because of the horrific pain they have endured.

The world renowned novelist Herman Wouk once asked the Rebbe – this was back in the 50’s – “Do you really believe that you can tell young American Jews what to do?”

And the Rebbe responded: The American youth can’t be told to do anything; they can be explained to do everything.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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