We often get too complacent in our readings of the Torah. Such is the case with this week’s portion, easily one of my favorites (due in large measure to its impenetrability and obscurity). Examples of moral discomfort or outrage, along with too cursory a reading, doom many people to not confronting the crucial questions that stare us in the face, blunting our rational minds and our ethical hearts. But the Torah — and we, ourselves — deserve better! Up until this juncture in the Book of Numbers (Bamidbar), various Israelites have challenged Moses, unsuccessfully, as the putative leader of the nation in their desert travels between Egypt and the Promised Land of Canaan. His ingenuity, his earnestness and humility, and his leadership skills always manage to bring him through each crisis not merely unscathed, but often stronger in the eyes of the people, as sometimes might happen in a candidates’ debate.
Now, however, after many revolts, we learn that being in proximity to a dead body forces a distancing from the holiness of the sanctuary that only an inexplicable and irrational ritual — using a purely red cow and fresh “living” water — can dispel. Such a fate befalls Moses when his sister Miriam dies and there is a concurrent lack of water! What is even the finest leader to do?
Some people will no doubt recall the midrashic connection of the two ideas: that the miraculous well of water that has accompanied the people on their travels due to Miriam’s merit dried up upon her death. One version of this text, quoted by Rabbi Gedalya Shor in his Or Gedalyahu, explains that three miracles were sustained by the three leaders of the generation of the desert: Miriam’s spring of water, Aaron’s Clouds of Glory (that protected and guided them), and the manna that fed them in honor of Moses. These were special gifts to the Israelites for the duration of their wanderings, but became unnecessary as the desert generation gave way to those about to enter the landX.
A leader with his wits about him might look at the death of Miriam and the disappearance of the water as a positive sign that their long trek in the wilderness is coming to its conclusion, and they’ll soon set foot in their own homeland. But Moses, after all, is human, too. When the people kvetch at him as he is sitting shiva for his older sister, he snaps back at them and his fate is sealed: “Listen here, you rebels, shall we bring you water out of this rock?” Instead of speaking to the rock, as God had instructed, he hits the rock, bringing forth copious water for the people and their animals. A good outcome for a leader, no?
God becomes angry at Moses and Aaron, telling them that because of what they did, they would die with the generation that left Egypt and would never set foot in the Promised Land. This is seen by most people as a punishment, and in some sense unfair. Moses got the people water, from a rock, keeping them alive, miraculously. Problem solved, leadership accomplished!
What do we miss when we analyze the situation this way? Rabbi Meir Simcha ha-Kohen of Dvinsk points out the rather unusual wording in the verse where God commands Moses to provide water: “ve-dibartem el ha-sela le-eineihem — Speak to the rock so they can see (Num- bers 20:8).” Just as in the revelation at Mount Sinai, this miracle is to take place by the people seeing the sounds of speech. Just as in that moment, the human senses become overloaded at the divine voice and a synesthesia occurs whereby one type of sensory information is perceived by a different sense pathway by everyone there. This is a sure sign that God is speaking, even though the voice is emanating from Moses’ throat. Performing the miracle of bringing water to the people is not enough! Yes, leaders must “produce” and “accomplish.” Yes, the miraculous support to address the peoples’ needs must be met. But not, says Rabbi Meir Simcha, “by any means necessary.”
A miracle that provides for the people is not enough, even if it is a miracle. Providing food and water for an entire nation is, indeed, a miracle. It’s something that God accomplishes day in and day out (see Ashrei: “You open your hand and provide for every living being that which satisfies it.”) But a leader who opens his mouth and does not emanate a Divine voice detracts from the people’s perception of the truth. And that is inexcusable!
It is neither Moses nor his magical staff that bring about the quite unexpected miracle. It is always, as originally, the voice of God speaking through the leader that must be demonstrated. When a politician’s voice only reflects him — or herself — all the greater perspective and opportunities are forfeit and the leader has failed to lead. It is an impossible standard, but one that all great mayors and presidents have embodied. We should expect no less of those who would deign to lead us: “(S)he opens her mouth with wisdom, and Torah of lovingkindness is on her tongue.” Absent that, every moment that passes hides and thus destroys a potential Sinai, bringing darkness to the world.