Parashat Hukkat

July 5, 2011 | Filed in: Bamidbar, Divrei Torah, News

By Simon Rosenbach

Many years ago, a friend proposed that we write a book: Management Lessons From the Torah. We never wrote the book, but this week’s parashah provides a fascinating management lesson. It involves the waters of Merivah.

We all know the story. The Israelites encamped at Kadesh and, as usual, started to complain. This time, they complained that here they were, stuck in the desert, and there was no water.

As usual, Moses went to the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, to consult God. As usual, God provided instructions. In this case, God told Moses to order a rock to produce water, and it would.

But by this time, Moses had had enough. Forty years of whining had exhausted even his great patience, and he did not follow God’s instructions. Instead, Moses struck the rock with his staff, and broke the rock in some fashion, and water began to flow.

Now, no good deed goes unpunished, and Moses’ reward for providing the people with water was to be forbidden to enter the land of Canaan. So far, I trust, I haven’t told you anything that you don’t already know.

So people ask, How could God have been so cruel? How could God punish Moses in this way? Moses, who, so far as we can tell from the Torah, had little time for friends and family and sought no diversions, but instead devoted every bit of his energy to his thankless flock in an effort to get them into Canaan. How could God have done such a thing to the most deserving of all men? Well, I’m going to tell you how, and the explanation will not be conventional. You might not even like it.

Deuteronomy 34:7 notwithstanding (“[Moses’] eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated”), the simple but sad truth is that the job description had changed, and Moses was no longer the right man for the new job. The job had been: mold a people. Moses by the force of his personality (and, of course, with the support of God, always handy if you want your position to prevail) took a rag-tag bunch of former slaves and shaped them and their children into a people with a common culture and a common religion. But now the job was: conquer Canaan, and although Moses was an inspiration, he was not the military strategist.

Let’s go back to Parashat Shelah Lekha. Moses chose chieftains as his spies, and only two of them were military men: Joshua and Caleb. We know that these people were prominent members of the community, because their names were preserved for us. Yet, when Joshua chose spies, he chose two anonymous people. This may mean that Joshua chose military prowess instead of prominence; Joshua was a soldier.

A people can have only one leader, and if Joshua was going to be the leader, Moses could not be a competitor. What to do?

Moses gave his heart and soul to the building of the nation, and God could hardly say to him, “I’m sorry, Moses, but I have concluded that you’re not the man to lead this next stage of the journey.” Such a dismissal would have been an insult, and Moses would not have accepted the characterization. So God did something brilliant. He found a reason that Moses could understand and accept: Moses could not enter the land because he would have proven that the people could disobey God and nevertheless be rewarded.

Unwavering obedience to God was something that Moses had been preaching and demanding for 40 years, and he had seen many people, including many prominent people, punished for not giving that unwavering obedience. God could not in good conscience tell Moses that he was no longer up to the task. But were God to say (and God did indeed say) to Moses, “You failed to give unwavering obedience and your actions caused the people to doubt me,” that message was one that Moses could understand and accept.

There comes a time in every loyal, hard-working servant’s life when he is no longer able to perform. Management Lessons From the Torah tells us, however, that we must treat such people with dignity. We can’t tell them that they are too old, or that their skills have eroded. We must strive to find a reason that these hard-working and loyal servants will understand and accept as the reasons for our great thanks and their own departure. If this approach was good enough for God, it is good enough for us.


Simon Rosenbach is a rabbinical student at The Academy for Jewish Religion.