Rav Bar Oz* (From Strength to Strength)
Jewish Thought in the Age of Corona
by Rabbi Jeremy Barras
One of the most puzzling incidents in the Torah is the scene in the Book of Numbers in which Moses is told to speak to a rock by G-d in order that water should rush forth from it. Instead of speaking to the rock, Moses strikes the rock with a staff to illicit the water for the people. We then learn that because Moses did not follow G-d’s instructions in front of the people as he received them, he would pass away before the Children of Israel entered into the Land of Israel, and he and his brother Aaron would never be permitted to enter the Land. Many are puzzled as to why the punishment for a seemingly light transgression would be so harsh, and there are many different rabbinic opinions as to why this story plays out in the Torah in the manner that it does.
Before we investigate one possible solution, let us first consider what precedes Moses’ sin. Only a few verses earlier, Moses’ sister Miriam passes away. Moses had a special relationship with her dating back to his very first days when Miriam protected him, placed him in a basket and remained by the riverbed to ensure that Moses would be safe in the basket. She was like a mother figure in many ways to Moses in his childhood, and her death certainly had to have been a major blow to him. It was also a major blow to the Jewish people, for as Rashi explains, it was because of her merit that Israel had water to drink while they were in the wilderness. Immediately after her death, the water sources dry up, and the Children of Israel come and complain forthwith to Moses. They do not mention a word about Miriam, nor do they acknowledge his mourning at all. They have on their minds only their own needs, and they ignore Moses completely.
In Judaism we are taught that we are not expected to act rationally while we are in mourning. We are expected to make mistakes because we cannot think clearly, and that is why others are tasked with caring for us during the shiva period. Moses, however, is not forgiven for a mistake he makes during his mourning period, and this seems incongruous with Jewish law.
A kabbalistic approach may help us resolve the issue. It is taught that what actually happened that caused Moses to hit the rock in the face of the complaints of Israel while he was mourning, was a detachment of his soul from its unique connection with G-d. The weight of the world had overcome him and for that moment the special prophetic relationship he had with the Almighty evaporated. This led him to sin and dishonor G-d’s will in the face of the nation. One might fairly conclude that certainly the punishment does not fit the crime as other rabbis attempt to do. But one idea we might consider in our day and age is that for Moses, the weight of the world was simply too much for him to bear. This is how we might feel today amid the tumult and upheaval of Corona and divisiveness in our society. It was once stated, “when the weight of the world is too much too bear, put it down for a while.” The world we live in today is a lot to bear, and we must take efforts not to allow it to overcome us. For a brief moment, Moses lost sight of the Promised Land, and it derailed his ability to ever get there. For us as well, the Promised Land of a medical miracle will eventually be upon us. In the meantime, let us not cease looking forward to when that day is here.
* The Barras family name was created during the Ellis Island Experience. Originally it was Bar Oz, meaning strength in Hebrew.