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HITTING ROCK BOTTOM

by Rabbi Elie Cohen    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

At the end of this week's Torah portion, Hashem commands Moses to ascend Mount Nebo to view the land of Israel and then pass away. Hashem reminds Moses that because of his sin of hitting the rock, he will not be permitted to actually enter the Promised Land.

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At the end of this week's Torah portion, Hashem commands Moses to ascend Mount Nebo to view the land of Israel and then pass away. Hashem reminds Moses that because of his sin of hitting the rock, he will not be permitted to actually enter the Promised Land. Hashem thus states, "on account of the fact that you did not sanctify Me in the presence of the Children of Israel [you may not enter the land]" (Deuteronomy 32:51). The implication of the verse is that Moses' sin with the rock was in missing an opportunity to sanctify Hashem.

Rashi, the classic Torah commentator, explains the verse as follows: Hashem had commanded Moses to speak to the rock so that it should produce water. Instead, Moses struck the rock twice. If Moses would have spoken to the rock, as he was commanded, and the water would have emerged, the Jewish people would have learned an important lesson. If a rock, which is not subject to reward and punishment, follows the command of Hashem, certainly we, who are subject to reward and punishment, should comply with Hashem's will. Had Moses spoken to the rock, Hashem would have been sanctified and elevated in the eyes of humanity.

It is interesting to note that this is not the first place where Rashi interprets this missed opportunity for "sanctification". When the incident with the rock actually occurs and is recorded in the Torah, Hashem tells Moses and Aaron, "since you did not trust in Me to sanctify Me before the eyes of the Children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this congregation to the land which I have given them" (Numbers 20:12). There too Rashi explains the missed "sanctification", but in slightly different terms. Rashi states that if Moses would have spoken to the rock, causing it to produce water, the Jewish people would have said that if this rock, which does not speak nor hear and does not need sustenance, fulfills the word of Hashem, certainly we who do speak and hear and do require sustenance, should fulfill the Divine word.

At first glance, Rashi seems to be saying basically the same thing in both places, notwithstanding the slight change. However, after studying his commentary in the original, one gets the strong sense that Rashi is very exacting in his word choice. In fact, one can find many instances throughout Rashi's commentary where in two very distant places he interprets a particular concept using the identical phrase. Thus, it is highly unusual that there be this discrepancy, that in this week's portion Rashi describes the rock as an entity which is not subject to reward and punishment, whereas in the Book of Numbers Rashi refers to the rock as an entity which neither speaks nor hears and does not need sustenance.

In order to resolve this difficulty, we can analyze our own relationship with Hashem. We understand that there is more than one way in which we relate to the Almighty. He is our Creator and the Sustainor of our existence. Above and beyond that, He is our Judge, who rewards and punishes based upon our actions.

Now we can understand the two comments of Rashi. When the event first occurs, Rashi is referring to Hashem as the Creator and Sustainor; thus he points out that we, who need to turn to Hashem for the very abilities to speak, hear, and receive sustenance, should follow G-d's word. After all, He gives us everything that we have and are. In this week's portion, however, Rashi explains that the lesson can be understood on a different level, realizing that Hashem is our Judge. We are rewarded and punished by Him for our actions, and as such we should listen to His directives.

The Talmud states that Man was created and judged on Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment. The Talmud also states that during these Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Hashem is more readily available for us to relate to Him. Let us take advantage of this opportunity to relate to our Creator and our Judge, to be inspired in our actions and thereby to sanctify Him.

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Rabbi Elie Cohen, who grew up in Atlanta and is a graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta, is a teacher at the Columbus Torah Academy in Ohio.

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