Scotched on the Rocks

July 1, 2012 by Rabbi Chaim Ingram
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I remember fondly my first English teacher in high school, Mr. Shinebaum a.h.. On the very first lesson he strode into the classroom, cane in hand, and proceded to instil the “fear of heaven” into us by informing us what Henry (the name of his cane) would do if we would step out of line…writes Rabbi Chaim Ingram.

After that speech, there were never any discipline problems in his class.  And Henry was never used on anyone!  I wonder if, had it been used, our respect for “Shiney” would have remained or, more likely, morphed into fear and antipathy.

Rabbi Chaim Ingram

On the brink of the Promised Land, Moses is told to take his trusted staff, last seen as Rav Hirsch reminds us forty years earlier at Rephidim, and – this time unlike then – to address ha-selah, the rock through speech not through physical impact. Then Am Yisrael, plagued by insecurity and fear of war (see Ex. 13:17), required a show of strength from Moses.  Now, about to encounter Edom whom they were not to provoke (see Deut 2:5) and even the Emorites before whom they were to initially proclaim peace (Num 21:21-2, see also Deut 20;10) they need to also understand the importance of soft talk and diplomacy.

Moses, in striking the rock instead of speaking to it, scotches his opportunity to lead his people to their destiny. What was so particularly inappropriate about this action that it results in such a drastic consequence is something that has puzzled our Torah commentators for three millennia.  I am not proposing to try to solve the puzzle in a parasha essay.  But I would like, if I may, to take a slightly offbeat approach and attempt to offer fresh insight by homing in on the basic and sacred aleph-bet the 22 letters of which are described in Sefer Yetsira as otiyot yesod  “foundation letters …with them He depicted all that was formed and all that would ever be formed”.  A Kabbalistic reading of the opening verse of Genesis isbereshit bara Elokim ET (א-ת) ha-shamyim ve-ET ha-arets. – in the beginning G-D created heavens and earth using the letters of the Aleph-Bet , aleph to taph as the agents of creation.  This ties in with the notion (see Avot  5:1) that the universe was created through the medium of dibur, speech.

May I suggest that the D-vine request of Moses to engage verbally with ha-selah, the rock can be seen on a metaphysical level, utilising to the full the sounds of these very agents of creation, the holy otiyot. This might help explain why ha-selah the rock – i.e. the word “rock”.  It is comprised of three letters, samekh, lamed and ayin. If we write out the names of these letters in full we get סמך  למד  עין.   The middle letters, two mems and a yud, spell out the word mayim, water. In this way will Moses extract mayim min ha-selah,  water from the midst of a rock through addressing the rock by the names of its letters in the most intimate way.  In doing so, Moses will also show the multi-dimensional richness of Torah, showcasing in particular sod, the mystical dimension.

Moses does not do so. For reasons known only to him and his Creator he relinquishes the opportunity to teach Torah on this level. As a result, G-D accuses him of not having promoted and enhanced true faith among the people (surely this is the literal meaning of he’emantem in its hiph’il, causative conjugative construction as per Ramban) and inflicts the harsh but necessary consequence.  A Torah leader who cannot adapt and reshape his authentic Torah message to a new level when required will cease to be effective. Insightfully, R’ Meir Simcha haKohen of Dvinsk,  the Meshekh Chachma,  points out that G-D wanted the nation to be taught that, as well as providing a physical benefit, there is a spiritual, metaphysical blessing in food and water for humans unlike for animals – hence in G-D’s command the little word et separates between ha-eida, the assembly, and be’iram their beasts (Num 20:8).  Because Moses fails to speak to the rock this does not happen and when “the assembly and their beasts drank” (20:11) the et has disappeared – they drink on the same level.  Remarkably it is that very same et that we cited earlier –  א-ת, the aleph to taph of the Hebrew alphabet with which the universe was created. This is the mystical insight that the Bnei Yisrael were denied.

Is it possible, then, that the failing of Moshe Rabeinu, fundamentally, was not one of anger, doubt or disobedience but simply a failure to live up to his exalted title and instruct the people in the esoterics of Torah to the extent required?


2 Responses to “Scotched on the Rocks”
  1. Otto Waldmann says:

    errata: read “…he DID leAd his people…


  2. Otto Waldmann says:

    Most inspiring.
    Now I understand why ther expression ” born leder ” can only exhault the one who so erroneously is …led to believe that he/she has absolute, uncontestable righteousness and the implicit POWER. Implicitely, in fact, we see far too often those inebriated with this false,…misleading, concept, quite incapable of accepting that they are also capable of making mistakes. The only medical support they seek is the one from spin doctors in attempting to “explain” their delusionary, imagined perfection.
    Perhaps the only exception, which does make Moses the inspiring, lasting leading light, is that he did understand in the end that his shorcomings had to pay their toll through the ultimate denial of entering the Heavenly Given land he DID led his people toward.

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