‘And Moses and Aaron gathered the kahal (assemblage) and said to them, ‘Listen now, rebels, from this rock shall we extract water for you?’ And Moses …. struck the rock twice with his staff, and abundant water emerged to give drink to the eidah (community)” [Numbers 20:10–11].

Moses entered the stage of Jewish history by striking an Egyptian taskmaster who was beating an Israelite slave [Exodus 2:11-12]. His striking of the rock in Chukat precipitates his exit from the stage.

His first “striking” was done out of love for his people, an act of courage and self-sacrifice that forced him to flee the House of Pharaoh. “Striking” the rock, however—which, in reality, was directed at the Israelites whom he called “rebels” — was an expression of deep frustration with a nation that defied his teachings and fomented rebellion after rebellion, undermining his and God’s authority. What happened to cause Moses to lash out at his beloved nation?

Candlelighting // Readings
Shabbat Candles: 8:13 p.m.
Torah: Num. 19:1-22:1
Haftarah: Judges 11:1-33:1
Havdalah: 9:21 p.m.

Rav Yaakov Moshe Harlap (1883-1951), distinguishes between two nouns for the people, kahal (assemblage) and eidah (community). A kahal consists of the many individuals who gather together, the separate and disparate persons who make up a crowd.

An eidah is guided by a specific uniting purpose, such as individuals forming a religious community united by a commitment to generational continuity.   The continued survival of the nation of Israel in accordance with the Divine covenant, despite exile and persecution, serves as eloquent testimony to the reality and truth of God’s presence and Israel’s mission: humanity perfected in a world redeemed.

With this background, let us take a fresh look at our Biblical portion. Immediately following Miriam’s death, the desert wells dry up and the Israelites assemble as a crowd of disparate rabble (vayikahalu) in complaint against Moses and Aaron. In response, God addresses Moses: “Take the staff, and you and Aaron assemble the community (hak’hel et ha’eidah). Speak to the rock in their presence and it will give forth its water. You will thereby bring forth water from the rock and allow the community (ha’eidah) and their beasts to drink” [Num.20:8].

Please take note that Moses is told by God to assemble the eidah (community). However, “Moses and Aaron assembled the kahal (assemblage) in front of the rock” [Num. 20:10]. They, the leaders, had lost the vision of Israel as an eidah, a witness-community!

What a literal reading is teaching us is that God wanted Moses to look at the motley complainers and beyond that to the eidim (witnesses) of the Divine. Moses was thereby supposed to appreciate the great potential of this people: that standing before him were the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, and the parents of David, and the righteous Messiah.

God expected Moses to see through the angry mob and inspiringly extract from deep within them the faith of their forebears and the glory of their descendants. But Moses, disappointed and disgruntled, personally devastated by their “ingratitude,” could only see a congregation of kvetching individuals.

He had lost sight of the community of Israel and could only see the assemblage of Israel; he spoke to what was in front of him instead of to their potential, instead of to the noble individuals who comprised historic Israel. And so Moses became incapable of speaking with love; he could only strike out in anger. Given this attitude, Moses cannot continue to lead the nation towards the fulfillment of its historic destiny.

Many years ago, I had the unique pleasure and privilege of spending an unforgettable Shabbat with one of the great scholars of the 20th century, Rabbi Dr. Charles Chavel, z”l. I could not resist asking him how, despite serving as rabbi of a congregation, he nevertheless found the time to be so prolific in Jewish scholarship, producing special editions and commentaries on Rashi and Ramban, as well as responses to difficult Talmudic questions asked by Rabbi Akiva Eiger.

“I always had small congregations,” he told me, “small in number and sometimes even small in soul. After a difficult board meeting with Mr. Goldberg and Mrs. Schwartz, I yearned for the company of profound minds and deep perspectives. Who could be greater antidotes to small-minded and mean-spirited individuals than Ramban and Rabbi Akiva Eiger?”

Rabbi Chavel understood the secret; he had the capacity to look beyond the assemblage and see the community. He realized that, in the final analysis, his “small congregations” were inspired and spawned by Ramban and Rabbi Akiva Eiger, by Moses and Aaron, by Abraham our Father and Sarah our Mother. This is the perspective with which we must, each of us, view our present-day Jewish communities, as well!