Did someone say Kiddush? My mouth is watering already…. Ever wonder why the delicious reception after Shabbat morning services is called “sanctification” or Kiddush? Each week, we acknowledge the sanctity of Shabbat over wine and elaborate Sabbath meals. In this way, we bring additional holiness to the day that celebrates God’s creation of the beautiful world which we humbly inhabit and trust in His desire to sustain us and all of creation.
In this week’s Torah reading, we find the story of Moses and Aaron’s great sin. The story is only seven verses long and is found right in the middle of a parasha otherwise filled with exciting conquests and interesting rituals. But on these seven lines of scripture are written countless pages of commentary.
The commentary raises one major question: What crime did Moses and Aaron commit? The Torah seems to consider it an egregious sin, but what did they actually do wrong? They are accused of publicly exhibiting doubt in God:
“Because you have not trusted Me to sanctify Me… (Numbers 20:12)”
Moses and Aaron are being accused of not sanctifying God because of their behavior. A careful examination of the brief passages in the Torah shows that the answer is anything but clear. There is certainly room for speculation, a task in which the commentators dutifully engaged.
The people complain after Miriam, sister of Moses, dies. Morale begins to dive again and the people complain to Moses that they are thirsty. God tells Moses to take his staff and Aaron, assemble the people, and “speak to the rock before their eyes and the rock will give its water.” Moses took his rod, as he was commanded, and he assembled the people before the rock and he said to the people; “Listen up you rebels! Shall we get water from this rock?” Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff and out came the water (Numbers 20: 1-11). As punishment, God informs Moses and Aaron that they are to die before the Children of Israel actually cross into the Land of Israel. Despite their leadership of the people all the way from Egypt, Moses and Aaron themselves would not actually see the promised land.
Moses and Aaron, who dedicated their entire lives to taking care of God’s people, leading them from Egypt through all of the trials and ordeals in the desert, are now informed that they will not be permitted to complete the last step of their journey. This begs the aforementioned question: What could they possibly have done to deserve such harsh criticism and severe punishment?
This question intrigues the commentators and each one has a turn at trying to explain this incident. Some scholars (Rashi), explain that Moses’ mistake was striking the rock and not speaking to it as God had commanded. Others argue that of course Moses was supposed to strike the rock – that’s why God commanded him to take the staff in the first place. The real reason for the divine punishment is because Moses struck the rock twice instead of only once, thereby showing a lack of faith in God.
Maimonides argues that Moses struck the rock and spoke to it, just as he was commanded by God, but he went wrong when he became so incensed with the people for their whining and complaining that in his rage he insulted them by calling them an uncomplimentary name (morim ““ rebels). Since when do good leaders call their followers names? This is why he was punished. The Ramban, however, explains that the sin was asking the question, “Will this rock give water?” (20:10). Instead of phrasing it as a statement, as God had commanded, exclaiming that the rock will give water.
Some of our most trusted teachers and reliable commentators are unable to clearly define the original crime, yet Moses and Aaron were punished heavily. I posit that this shows one of the most beautiful teachings of our faith – an acknowledgment that everyone has equal access to our texts and that all opinions, when offered with respect, are welcome and add value to our colorful tradition.
The common denominator between all of the cited explanations is that Moses and Aaron acted in a way other than what God had commanded – they simply disagree over which part of His word was violated. While we can’t exactly agree on the exact violation, the consensus is that Moses and Aaron missed an opportunity to strengthen people’s faith in God. This is an allegory for what happens to all of us, all too frequently. People we care about are sometimes hurt by our words or actions and we don’t know exactly what we did to cause such offense. We must make a constant effort to consistently seek opportunities to sanctify God’s name. We achieve this by always speaking courteously to others, displaying a generally cheerful and happy demeanor, avoiding Leshon Harah (evil speech about others), and providing tokens of kindness that may seem small to us, but make other people’s day and help to affirm their faith and trust in God.
On a daily basis, we are susceptible to the same mindset that Moses was at Mei Merivah – so wrapped up in our own busy lives and thoughts that, while we have an opportunity to do something good for someone else (something that may even strengthen that person’s faith in God), we bungle it because we are too centered on ourselves. We end up externalizing our own internal feelings. We may not even realize that our words and actions are affecting others at all, causing a disconnect in our interpersonal relationships.
In the same way that we make an effort to sanctify the Shabbat by reveling in the miracles of creation over wine and delicious food, we also have the opportunity to sanctify God’s holy name by constantly examining our actions and words down to the most minute detail. This is a daily struggle for each of us: to recognize the countless opportunities we have each and every day to perform acts of kindness, known in our tradition as kiddushei Hashem, sanctification of God’s holy name. May the lessons of the parahsa remain with us throughout the week, may we disagree with others out of love in ways that bring us closer to one another and closer to God, and may our efforts to be generally kind and inclusive achieve true kiddush Hashem.