Chukat 2004

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

G‑d said to Moses "Take the staff and gather together the Assembly, you and Aaron your brother, and speak to the rock before their eyes that it should give its waters. You shall bring forth for them water from the rock and give drink to the Assembly and their animals." Moses took the staff from before G‑d as He had commanded him. Moses and Aaron gathered the Congregation before the rock and he said to them "Listen now, O rebels, shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?" Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock with his staff twice, abundant water came forth and the Assembly and their animals drank.
G‑d said to Moses and Aaron, "Because you did not believe in me to sanctify me in the eyes of the Children of Israel, therefore you will not bring this Congregation to the land which I have given them."
(Numbers, 20, 7-12)

No doubt one of the most famous episodes in the exodus saga, this seminal moment in the lives of Moses and Aaron marked their personal and tragic loss in not being able to participate in what would have undoubtedly been the fruition of all they had striven for throughout life - leading the Jewish People into their own land. From a contemporary point of view the details of this tragedy in the lives of these two monumental figures of Jewish history provides us with an understanding of the responsibilities of leadership and of those who follow a leader as well. As I write this Torah column on Friday, May 11th, [2004] when our country formally mourns the death of President Ronald Reagan and, at the same time, is living through a period of political vitriol unprecedented in recent times, it is an imperative for us as Jews and as Americans to consider a Jewish perspective on the responsibilities of those who assume leadership and those who are led. For if we do not have guideposts for both and their interdependency in a free society, the ability to reach the full measure of accomplishment of which the United States is capable will be severely limited.

Moses and Aaron were facing a horrific situation. The People were complaining bitterly, bemoaning their very existence under the leadership of Moses and Aaron. "If only we had perished as our brothers perished before G‑d. Why have you brought the Congregation of G‑d to this wilderness? And why did you have us ascend from Egypt to bring us to this evil place?" This was the sad reality of the leadership of a People that was marked more often than not with rebellion, disillusion and anger. Suffering what may be termed a "slave mentality," the Jewish People, on the one hand, reveled in the breaking of the shackles of Egyptian tyranny which they had endured for so many years yet, on the other hand, feared every new circumstance. Depending upon an unknowable G‑d, led by a leader who was raised in the luxury and grandeur of the house of Pharaoh, the very despot who had humiliated them for centuries, they were quick to turn on Moses and his brother Aaron at every turn, recalling the "good times" they had experienced in Egypt. This reality of the leader-led relationship of this moment in our history was to finally result in tragedy in the wilderness of Zin.

Confronted by the cries and accusations of the People, Moses and Aaron are simply speechless. They turn to their "fortress of strength," the Alm‑ghty, in total desperation "falling on their faces before the tent of meeting."

With G‑d's instruction, yet facing a hostile gathering Moses, in what seems to be totally out of character for him in speaking to the Jewish People gathered at the rock at G‑d's direction, refers to them as Marim, which literally means embittered ones. Instead of speaking to the rock Moses twice hits the rock with his staff thus violating the instruction of G‑d. Aaron for his part remains silent throughout the course of these events.

The Yalkut asks an obvious question: Why does G‑d claim that both Moses and Aaron didn't believe in Him? After all it was Moses who hit the rock. What did Aaron do? From this we learn that one who stands by and allows another to do a wrong is counted as though he had done that wrong himself. Simply, Aaron knew that hitting the rock was against the will of G‑d and remained silent, allowing Moses to act for the both of them. As it says in the Talmud K'dushin, 32A, "When a student sees his Rabbi violating a stricture of Torah, he is required to advise of him of this fact."

The Torah Tmima notes that Moses had committed his violation at the first stroke of his staff. "Why does the Torah note his hitting the rock twice? His violation of G‑d's Will is not compounded by the second stroke. It is to hint at the complicity of Aaron in Moses's actions." One could add that Aaron, who obviously knew his brother quite well, should have realized something was afoot when Moses uncharacteristically referred to the Jews as "embittered ones."

There is a responsibility to speak out when a leader embarks upon an improper path. This is validated by the Talmud. Surely we, citizens of the greatest democracy in the world, understand that for our Republic to truly grow there must be disagreement, must be dialogue.

Yet, what was once the hallmark of our nation has been replaced with character assassination and vitriol at every turn. This past week alone, the attacks mounted against a President who has yet to be laid in his final resting place have been relentless. Casting him as a bigot, a racist, blaming him for situations that he had no ability to control are mounting by the day. These vicious attacks, in many instances completely fictitious claims and distortions of history, detract from the dignity and propriety of a grateful nation showing its respect to a citizen leader who gave eight years of dedicated service to his nation and who, in the course of those years, as every President, accomplished important and valuable achievements on behalf of us all.

The sickening panorama of the present presidential election, again marked by daily character assassination and gross distortions of the truth which now are validated under the rubric of legitimate political "spin," are gnawing away at the very core of our American society.

Never keep silent, our tradition warns, when your leadership is doing wrong. On the other hand, respectful dissent which takes into account the sincerity and decency of one's opponent is the only path that will ultimately lead to the growth and development of society as a whole.

All of us should take a lesson from Ronald Wilson Reagan in this regard. May he rest in peace and may G‑d send comfort to his family and all those who mourn our former President and a great American.