Instead of Knocking Down, Build People Up
PLEASE NOTE: Because of the timing of the end of Shavuot, Chukat is the Parsha this week in Israel and next week in the Diaspora. For Parshat Korach (this week in the Diaspora) please click here.
Miriam, Mei Merivah & Esav
Parshas Chukas picks up at the 40th year of the Jews’ sojourn in the desert (Ibn Ezra). The nation is getting very close to the end of their journey, and we read in these final parshios of Bamidbar some of the growing pains involved in getting ready for the nation’s imminent entry into Eretz Israel.
After Miriam dies, the events of Mei Merivah, where Moshe drew water from the rock, transpire (ch. 20). While unclear from the passages, Moshe and Aharon did something very wrong in Hashem’s view, and were therefore punished with being denied entry into the Promised Land. Immediately after the story of Mei Merivah, we read that Moshe sent emissaries from Kadesh, where the Jews were encamped, to the King of Edom, asking him for passage through his land (20:14). The King of Edom flatly refused and even threatened war if the Jews would attempt to tread on his soil. Because Edom were the descendants of Esav, our mishpacha, Hashem had instructed Moshe (as detailed in Deut. 2:2-6) that we could not provoke or in any way intimidate Esav’s descendants, and so we had to retreat. Our question is: why are these two stories connected? Why does the Torah connect the story of Moshe’s and Aharon’s failure at Mei Merivah to the story of having to circumvent Esav’s land?
The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:15) answers this question by stating that this underscores Moshe’s piety, with a parable: Revuen entrusts his friend Shimon to invest his life savings. Shimon ends up losing all of Reuven’s money. The normal reaction of Reuven would be to seek to avoid Shimon and have nothing to do with him. But Moshe was different; even though he was punished because of the Jewish people, this didn’t stop him from loving them and wishing to take care of them. Even though he could not enter Eretz Israel, this would not stop him from trying to get them there as quickly and directly as possible, even if it meant ingratiating himself to the hostile Edomites. This Midrash is a beautiful message which contains a valuable lesson in leadership.
The Impact of Mei Merivah on the People
We offer a different possible connection. We can learn the nature of Moshe’s and Aharon’s sin by looking at the aftereffects and how the sin impacted Bnei Israel. Let’s examine the passages carefully: The story starts with “Moshe” first sending a message via proxies (20:17): “Let us pass through your land; we will not pass through field or vineyard, nor will we drink any well water. We will only walk on the king’s road. We will not veer to the right or left until after we pass through your land.” King of Edom refuses, saying (20:18), “You will not pass through me, lest I come out against you with the sword.”
But then, the story continues with not “Moshe,” but this time “Bnei Israel” sending a second petition (20:19): “Bnei Israel said to him: Let us pass through your back roads. If we drink any of your water, we’ll pay for it. It’s no big deal: I’ll just pass through by foot.” Why the second request? And, why in the first request did Moshe insist that they wouldn’t drink any water, but in the second request Bnei Israel said that whatever water they’d drink they’d pay for?
Here is where we learn about the demoralizing effect upon the people at Mei Merivah. Hashem had instructed Moshe to speak to the rock and it would miraculously flow its water. This was meant to be a lesson to the Jewish people, that at this stage of their development and maturation, now in their 40th year, they had truly grown up. Just as a mature child should be reasoned with and not brow-beaten, the Jews were now fully developed and ready to enter the Promised Land. But instead, Moshe struck the rock. This gave the Jewish people the false impression that they were still childlike and undeveloped. This made them feel unprepared and unconfident about their future. They weren’t even sure how long the water would continue to flow from the rock.
Insecurity in Bnei Yisrael
Moshe made his request on behalf of the princely Jewish people: “Let us pass through your land. We are the people of miracles and do not require any of your water, since we’ll be traveling with our own miraculous water supply. We are an exalted nation, who should only travel on the ‘King’s road,’ the path for sophisticates and aristocrats.” When the King of Edom refused, the rest of Bnei Israel thought that maybe if they made a more humble request they’d stand a better chance. They didn’t esteem themselves in the same way as Moshe had portrayed them. They therefore requested, “At least grant us passage through your back roads. We might need water on the way (since we’re not confident that our miraculous water supply will hold out), but we promise to pay for whatever we take. It’s no big deal to let a humble group such as ours walk through in this way!”
Sensing their lack of confidence in that second request, the King of Edom not only threatened them, but this time actually came out with an army, ready to attack. It was this weakness and lack of confidence that Moshe had signaled to the Jewish people which made it impossible for him to lead them into and conquer the Land, since he still saw the nation as his child-like students. Bnei Israel needed a new leader who would instill within them the confidence they needed to be great conquerors. This is why the story of Mei Merivah precedes our story; it is to demonstrate why Hashem was so harsh with Moshe and Aharon in denying them entry in Eretz Israel. Here is a concrete example of how their action at Mei Merivah left the people insecure and unconfident.
Confidence and Lack of
The Torah provides us with a very tangible lesson in how to build up our children and others under our influence. If we signal to them that we lack confidence in them, they will lack confidence in themselves. We should try our best to build our children up and express to them our confidence in their abilities. When children and young adults have low self-esteem, they feel unloved and unhappy with themselves. They fear taking risks, which is necessary for achieving excellence. We should instead give them a message of, “You can do it!” and then step aside so that they have the space to spread their wings.
Some have suggested that we live in an over-coddling age, where our children are smothered by their parents. They become “snowflakes” who are easily hurt and cannot tolerate confrontation and dissenting ideas. This not only engenders intolerance; it also signals to our children that we don’t have the confidence that they can handle adversity and take on formidable situations in life. There is no greater disservice to our children than making them feel that they can’t handle the world on their own.
May our children realize the confidence they need to be successful adults and successful servants of G-d. May we all have the confidence in ourselves and our people to realize together the Redemption, bb”a.