Torah | Why is Aaron in hot water after Moses hits the rock

Chukat

Numbers 19:1–22:1

Judges 11:1–33

Have you ever been grocery shopping, simply going about your business, and you come across sibling rivalry in full bloom in the canned food aisle? There you are, scrolling through your app, reviewing your shopping list, hoping you haven’t forgotten anything, and there they are: two squabbling siblings. One child is giving the other a really hard time, and the parent turns around to see what is going on. Which kid should get in trouble? Often it’s the one who is being picked on, not the instigator.

Siblings will often go to any end to get a parent to blame a brother or sister. I will never forget a story often told about my niece, who during her toddler years, when asked about a smell emanating from her dirty diaper, said “I didn’t do it — my brother did!”

In this week’s parashah, God blames Moses for hitting the rock twice when God commanded him to simply speak to it. All Moses wanted to do was to produce a little drinking water for the cranky and thirsty Israelites. While Moses doesn’t frame Aaron or blame him, it seems that Aaron was somehow implicated in Moses’ wrongdoing just by being there and making the choices he made.

God holds both of them accountable. God says, “Because you didn’t trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, you (plural) shall not lead this congregation in the land that I have given them” (Numbers 20:12). Why does the Torah say “you” in the plural form? What does it tell us about responsibility?

The commentators say that this plural form of “you” acknowledges the dramatic reality that they were both present. They ask, “What does this mean for Aaron?”

Some would say that it was Aaron’s responsibility to mitigate the hand of Moses. After all, as Moses’ brother, it seems like Aaron would have found himself in many different situations where he would temper Moses’ choices and vice versa. Aaron should have stopped Moses and he didn’t.

On the other hand, the commentators note that the first time Moses hit the rock, Aaron probably couldn’t stop it. Perhaps it took him by surprise. But what about the second time Moses struck it? When Aaron didn’t interfere by preventing Moses from hitting the rock the second time, it was as if he agreed with Moses’ action. Silence or lack of action is acquiescence. Aaron could have changed the course of this tense scene and subsequently changed the course of biblical narrative. What would it have looked like if Moses could have led the Israelites into the land and been spared such a harsh punishment from God?

The Torah tells us in Leviticus that we should not stand idly by when we see wrongdoing. It is our responsibility to intervene and to prevent wrong from happening at all. Jewish tradition teaches Kol Yisrael aravim zeh bazeh — we are all responsible for each other. Yes, we are our sibling’s keeper.

But this is far easier said than done. Who hasn’t seen an opportune moment quickly pass, when we could have acted with courage but sadly didn’t? Sometimes we can’t act fast enough, or we are really afraid to speak up, to act. What is the potent fear that holds us back from acting? Do we wisely invest time and energy in our fellow human beings by taking the time to get involved? Do we wonder, “What will they think?”

This interpretation of Moses striking the rock implores us to ask ourselves: What do I see in the world that I can truly affect? What do I have the power to change? Can I muster the courage to speak out against wrongdoing in the world? And perhaps even prevent it from happening?

May we all be blessed with the moral courage to intervene and the common sense to know when we can be effective in doing so. We never know, when by mustering the courage and taking the time, we may just change the world.


Rabbi Susan Leider
is the senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. She can be reached at sleider@kolshofar.org.

Rabbi Susan Leider
Rabbi Susan Leider

Rabbi Susan Leider is the senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. She can be reached at sleider@kolshofar.org.