In a sefer where each parsha is packed with episodes integral to Jewish history, Parshas Chukas stands out. This parsha contains the deaths of both Aharon and Miriam, two of the leaders of the nation, as well as the cause of the eventual death of Moshe, the greatest leader we ever had. This parsha represents a shift in the path the nation will follow from here on out.
The cause of Moshe’s death is a well-known story of his hitting a rock to get water out if it. Almost every commentator has their own take on this story, exactly what happened, exactly what was expected of Moshe, and where he went wrong. The basic story is that after Miriam’s death, the Bnei Yisrael complained about the lack of water in the desert. Moshe and Aharon daven to Hashem to help them. Hashem responds that Moshe should take his staff and go out to the rock. At that time, he should speak to the rock in front of the people, and the water will flow forth.
However, instead of speaking to the rock, Moshe hits it with the staff. It worked, the water came flowing out, but since he didn’t do it exactly as Hashem told him to, Hashem considered it a lack of faith. It was even worse since this act took place in front of the entire nation, as it resulted in a tremendous opportunity to sanctify Hashem’s name ruined. Because of this, Moshe would not lead Bnei Yisrael into Eretz Yisrael.
Like we mentioned before, while the above is the basic story as found in the Torah, every commentary has a different take on the different elements of the story. Let’s examine one such element.
The Kli Yakar asks a simple but important question on this story. If Hashem meant for Moshe to just speak to the rock, what was the purpose of bringing the staff? In fact, Moshe had previously used his stick to get water (See Shemos 15); it seems an easy mistake to make to assume that he needed the staff in order to do the same thing again.
In order to answer this question, the Kli Yakar brings a Chizkuni who explains that this staff that Moshe took was not his staff that he used in Mitzrayim and by Krias Yam Suf. Instead, this was the staff of Aharon. In Parshas Korach, in order to prove that Aharon was the rightful Kohen, Hashem had the Nasi of each tribe place a staff in water inside the Mishkan. Whichever staff would sprout flowers, they would know that that person was the rightful Kohen. As we know, Aharon’s staff was the only one to flower. And while the pasuk tells us that each person came and took their staff, Hashem told Moshe to leave Aharon’s staff there in the Mishkan. It would serve as a reminder to everyone that his claim to the Kehunah was completely legitimate. This is why when Moshe takes the staff here to bring it to the rock, it says he took it “from in front of Hashem” (20:9).
Why did he need to take Aharon’s staff instead of his own? The Kli Yakar explains that this staff was very similar to the stone they were about to approach. This staff was completely dry with absolutely no moisture within it, but Hashem performed a miracle and the staff sprouted beautiful flowers. Hashem brought water into a place where no water existed. Similarly, Hashem asked Moshe to bring this staff to the rock, not to hit the rock, but as an example. Just like Hashem made this dry staff give forth water to sprout flowers, so too this dry rock could overflow with water, enough for the entire nation. As long as Hashem willed it, it could and would happen.
This alone was what was required to teach Bnei Yisrael to have the proper faith in Hashem, Moshe wasn’t supposed to use the staff itself. However, for whatever reason, Moshe misunderstood the instructions given to him, and that’s when the trouble began for him.
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