Chukat: Leadership on the rocks

Chukat: Leadership on the rocks

My friends and I at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin always looked forward to the two-night, three-day canoe trip on the Ontonagon River in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

When finally we were the oldest division in camp, the climactic feature of our river adventure was our encounter with a large rock – called simply “The Rock” in camp lore – that protruded so high above the water that our instructions not to hit it, but to go around it instead, seemed superfluous. As campers we felt invincible. We were sure that nothing dangerous could occur if we sideswiped or (heaven forbid!) hit the rock head on. Our counselors, on the other hands, always worried – were the campers heeding the instructions? Were they being careful?

My last year as a counselor on the trip, whether this happened by design, a false sense of invulnerability, or simply a lack of listening to instruction (perhaps lack of clarity in giving the instruction as well), almost all the campers hit the rock, crushing some of the canoes like tin cans, capsizing others. Debris and flip flops cascaded down the river with the current. Everyone turned out to be all right. No one was injured. But I remember standing at the top of the river, looking down at the logjam of canoes and the sprawling bodies in orange life jackets, and thinking: “Were our instructions really not clear? Why did they hit the rock?”

We will never understand why Moshe disregards God’s instructions. In this week’s parasha, God gives Moshe instructions to aid him in responding to the cries of the thirsty Israelites crying for water. God tells Moshe to take his staff, and to speak to the rock in the presence of all the Israelites. Doing that would have brought forth water. Instead of following these seemingly explicit directions, Moshe instead hits the rock twice. Water springs forth. God punishes Moshe for his actions by not allowing him to lead the people into Israel.

The severity of Moshe’s punishment causes us to look much more closely at his transgression. Is he punished for not following God’s directives exactly as ordered – because he hit the rock instead of speaking to it? Perhaps, as Rashi suggests, he was confused – in Exodus 17:6, when he was asked to quench the thirst of the people, God instructs Moshe to hit the rock, but here he is to speak to it. We all have been in that position where we are instructed to do something and get confused, based on earlier similar episodes. He also could have been distracted by the whining masses.

But lack of faith in God is the reason for Moshe’s punishment, not simply sheer disobedience. Ramban, quoting Rabeinu Hananel and moving in a different direction from Rashi, argues that the Moshe’s use of the plural form “we” (when he asks the gathering mass, “Now listen, you rebels, can we draw water for you from this rock?”) attributes the miracle to Moshe as an equal partner and not simply to God. Others may view Moshe’s choice of words in speaking with the gathered group as one of impatience. He was showing an attitude unbefitting a leader.

What remains clear is that Moshe is publicly admonished and not allowed to guide the Israelites onward. Despite his grand leadership throughout the journey from slavery to freedom, Moshe stands as an example to us that the pedestal upon which we raise our leaders can crumble ever so quickly from beneath. His fate serves as a reminder that details are important, and that process and how we perform are just as important as the outcome.