Parashat Chukat: Exile of the I: the Sin of Man, the Nation, and the Land

  • Rav Itamar Eldar
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

by Rav Itamar Eldar

Yeshivat Har Etzion


PArAshat Chukat


Exile of the I: the sin of man, the nation, and the land



            In this week's parasha, we read the tragic story of Mei Meriva, in the wake of which, as Scripture testifies, Moshe and Aharon forfeit their right to enter the land of Israel. In the wake of this incident, God says to Moshe and Aharon as follows:


And the Lord spoke to Moshe and Aharon, Because you did not believe in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this congregation in to the land which I have given them. It is the water of Meriva; because the children of Israel strove with the Lord, and He was sanctified by them. (Bamidbar 20:12-13)


            According to these verses, Moshe and Aharon were punished because "they did not believe in God, to sanctify Him in the eyes of the children of Israel." This expression leaves a heavy cloud around the sin of Moshe and Aharon.


Already the classical biblical commentators disagreed about this matter. Rashi writes as follows:


"To sanctify Me" – For had you spoken to the rock and it had brought forth water I would have been sanctified before the whole congregation, for they would have said: What is the case with this rock which cannot speak and cannot hear and needs no maintenance? It fulfills the bidding of the Omnipresent God! How much more should we do so? (Rashi, ad loc., v. 12)


            The Ramban cites the position of Rashi and also the positions of other commentators and thinkers, and then rejects them.[1]


            One of the possibilities that he brings is the view of the Rambam:


Rabbi Moshe (end of the fourth chapter of Shemone Perakim) proposed an explanation, saying that Moshe Rabbenu, may peace be upon him, sinned by inclining toward anger, when he said, "Hear now, you rebels." God, blessed be He, was pedantic about him that a man like him should become angry before the congregation of the people of Israel in a situation where anger is inappropriate. Anything like that in such a person involves a desecration of God's name, because people learned from all his movements and words, through them hoping to achieve success in this world and in the world-to-come. How then did anger appear in him, it being one of the evil elements, coming only from an evil trait of the soul's traits? (Ramban, ad loc., v. 8)


            The sin, according to Rashi, focuses on God and the manner in which Moshe sanctified or failed to sanctify His name. In contrast, according to the Rambam as cited by the Ramban, the sin focuses on the Jewish people and the manner in which Moshe addressed them. The words, "Hear now, you rebels," contends the Rambam, express rage and anger, and as such they are unbefitting a righteous leader like Moshe Rabbenu, and for that he was punished.


            Chassidic thought, in its usual manner, dealt with these questions, and through these questions arrived at certain fundamental conclusions regarding the day-to-day service of God on the part of the individual and the community.




            R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev writes as follows:


"And you shall speak unto the rock"… Because you did not believe in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel." Rashi and the Ramban disagree about Moshe's sin. One explains that he said to Israel, "Hear now, etc.," and the other explains that he struck the rock. It seems that they are saying the same thing, for the one was the cause of the other. For there are two aspects of one who reproaches Israel that they should do the will of the Creator, blessed be He. The one who reproaches with positive words, that is to say, one who tells every man of Israel about his elevated level and the place of the source of his soul, that the soul of Israel is truly hewn from above the Throne of Glory, and the great pleasure that the Creator, blessed be He, derives, as it were, from the mitzvot of each man of Israel, and the great joy in all the worlds when a man of Israel performs the bidding of the Creator in this world. With this reproach, he inclines the heart of the people of Israel to do the will of the Creator, blessed be He, each man of Israel accepting upon himself the yoke of the heavenly kingdom. There is also one who reproaches Israel with harsh and humiliating words, to the point that they are compelled to do the will of the Creator. The difference between them is that the one who reproaches Israel with positive [words] raises the soul of Israel higher and higher, relating at all times the righteousness and greatness of Israel, how great is their power above. He is fit to be a leader of Israel. And the one who reproaches Israel with harsh words is not of this aspect. Now when one reproaches Israel with positive words and always tells of the greatness and righteousness of Israel, then all the created things in the world must perform of their own accord the will of Israel for which they had been created, namely for the sake of Israel. But if he does not relate and elevate the righteousness of Israel, then he must compel each created being with great force to do that for which it had been created, that is, to do the will of Israel. Now, Moshe said here, "Hear now, you rebels," reproaching Israel with harsh words, and thus he was forced to strike the rock to do that for which it had been created. For had he elevated Israel, as stated above, as had been the intention of the Holy One, blessed be He, "And you shall speak unto the rock," then he would have said to the rock: You who were created for the sake of Israel, and they being at a high level, you must do that for which you had been created, namely, to issue forth water for Israel. But now that he reproached Israel with harsh words, "Hear now, you rebels," he had to strike the rock in order that it perform the will of Israel. Thus, the one caused the other, and there is one explanation for it. This is alluded to by "Because you did not believe in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel." For one who reproaches Israel with positive words can also cause the people to acquire this understanding. And this is the allusion in the words: "To sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel." As our Sages of blessed memory have said: "The eyes of the congregation" – the sages of the congregation, for they too will reach this understanding. (Kedushat Levi, Chukkat)


            R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev combines the two explanations that we saw above, but first he tries to distinguish between them.


            The first, the position of the Ramban (the view of the Rambam is cited by the Ramban) relates to the reproach with which Moshe rebuked Israel.


            The second, according to Rashi, relates to the issue of the sanctification of God's name and Moshe's decision to strike the rock, rather than talk to it.


            Included among the Torah's commandments is the mitzva of giving reproach, but there are various levels of fulfilling this mitzva. The simplest and perhaps the best known is reproach with harsh words. The reproacher criticizes, accuses, and sometimes even humiliates the one in need of reproach. The higher manner of reproach, teaches us R. Levi Yitzchak, the defender of Israel, involves reproaching with pleasantness, love and words of favor, emphasizing the good and the positive in the person. R. Levi Yitzchak, however, wishes to reach a deeper understanding of this distinction, starting with the spiritual place of the sinner in need of reproach.


            R. Levi Yitzchak's underlying assumption in his discussion of the issue of reproach is that man's root is planted in the house of God, and his soul is hewn from the Throne of Glory. This is the basic assumption and this is the foundation. The trust that R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev places in man gives sin (chet) its profound meaning – in the sense of hachta'a, "missing the mark." Man's natural place is on the righteous path, doing good and fulfilling the yearnings of his soul that was hewn from the Throne of Glory and planted in the house of God. From the moment that a person sins, he no longer fulfills his soul's desires; he misses the target, the objective, the realization of his potential. When a person sins, he becomes alienated from himself, his root and source. A person turns away from good, and adheres to evil, and while he is immersed in evil, he does not feel the self-alienation, the inner denial, the lack of self in his actions.


            Someone who reproaches another person with harsh words, with critical and humiliating remarks, that is to say, who embarrasses him and causes him to feel bad with respect to his sin, may perhaps force the person to cut himself off from the sin, but this the sinner does by compulsion and against his will. He does not internalize the change, but the words of the reproacher and the dark picture of sin painted by him, do not allow him to rest. He recoils, he is embarrassed, and perhaps he is even afraid to return to his sin.


            This process, teaches us R. Levi Yitzchak, is a type of coercion, and the significance of this coercion is alienation. The person acts, but not out of an inner drive, but rather out of forced external pressure. A deterring reproach creates an experience of compulsion, in which a person may perhaps act in the correct manner, but not out of the correct motivation. His actions do not reflect himself, there existing a wide gap between what is happening inside and outside. The outside forces dominate and the inside forces submit in shame and fear of the reproacher's torrent.


            R. Levi Yitzchak, with his infinite trust in the individual Jew, maintains that there is no need whatsoever to "convince" a person to repent from sin. All that is necessary, teaches us R. Levi Yitzchak, is once again to remind him who he is. Once again to stir up within him those slumbering forces, that love and yearning that is planted so deeply within him, and merely seeks release from the kelipot in the midst of which they lie and are concealed. All that is necessary is to remind a person who he is, and through that reminder, that person will choose the good on his own. Sin and evil need not be mentioned, they need not be condemned, and there is no reason to warn a person about them. The full trust that R. Levi Yitzchak places in man, allows him to pass over the action, and focus on restoring a person to himself, to his potential, and to the root from which he was hewn, and in that way, the hearts will not be drawn after the actions, but rather the actions will be drawn after the heart.


This is a process that involves no coercion and no external pressure, but only inner flowing and a clear expression of the essence that becomes more and more revealed. Religious action, teaches us R. Levi Yitzchak incidentally, is not compelled action – or in modern terms, there is no religious coercion. If a person does not like his religious actions, it means that they do not flow from within him. Pure and inner religious action is done with love, out of a natural flowing, out of a desire to realize all of one's yearnings. Any remaining gap between one's actions and one's inner identification attests to the fact that there is still a stretch of road to be taken to the root of one's soul.




            A true leader, a distinguished educator, a sensitive parent does not reproach with compulsion and anger, but rather he tries to direct his flock to its pure and inner inclination. The concept of reproach changes and turns its inner directing and assisted contemplation.


            The sin of the educator who follows the path of harsh reproach is twofold. First, he does not exploit the opportunity to allow the sinner to return to himself, and reveal his inner inclination from which he had become distant. Additionally, he is guilty of the sin of creating a world of duality, in which external occurrences do not correspond to the inner world, and more importantly do not flow from it. One's heart and actions are strangers, and when this strangeness is constant, the actions are like idolatry (avoda zara, "strange service").


            R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev teaches us, however, that this sin has another far-reaching ramification, and that this error does not end in the realm of teaching and guidance. Moshe Rabbenu's first sin was the sin of harsh reproach, "Hear now, you rebels," and from this followed of necessity the second sin, striking the rock instead of talking to it.


            If thus far we have spoken about R. Levi Yitzchak's absolute trust in man, now R. Levi Yitzchak extends this trust to all of creation. In a perfect world there is no coercion and no war. There is no need to strike rocks in order for water to stream forth from them, and there is no need to take out bread from the earth with the sweat of our brow. Everything, teaches us R. Levi Yitzchak, has a purpose and an objective, and when the world is perfect, everything does what it is supposed to do. R. Nachman of Breslov expresses the same idea in one of his deep and complex stories, based on the famous legend about the son of the king and the son of the maidservant who were exchanged. In the course of the story, the real son of the king arrives in a special place, and there he demands that the kingdom be returned to him. He must, however, meet certain conditions, one of them being that he must enter a certain garden and repair it. Thus relates R. Nachman inspired by his amazing imagination:


There is a table near the bed, and on the table stands a lamp.

From the throne, well-trodden walled paths go forth… These paths extend throughout the entire land. No one understands the meaning of the throne with all its details and the paths. This, then, will be your test. See if you can understand the significance of the throne and everything associated with it.

They showed him the throne and he saw that it was extremely tall… He went over to the throne and gazed at it. As he contemplated the throne, he realized that it was made of the same type of wood as the box [or instrument, that the forest man had given him.] He gazed further, and saw that a rose was missing from the top of the throne. If the rose were in the throne, then the throne would have the same power as the box, [which would produce music whenever it was placed on any animal or bird].

Then he gazed even more and noticed that the rose missing from the top of the throne was lying at the bottom of the throne. He would have to take it and place it on top, and then the throne would have the same power as the box. The late king had devised each detail with such wisdom that no person could understand its significance until an extraordinarily wise person came along, who would understand the concept. He would then know how to exchange and arrange all things correctly.

[He then saw that] the same was true of the bed. He understood that it had to be moved slightly from the place where it stood. The table also had to be moved somewhat, and the lamp likewise had to have its position adjusted. The birds and animals also had to be moved to different places. Thus, a bird would have to be taken from one place and set in another place. The same was true of all the animals. The king had cleverly disguised everything so that only a very wise person would be able to contemplate it and then rearrange it correctly.

The same was true of the lion which stood [where the path emerged]. It had to be stood in a different place. This was true of all [the beasts on the paths].

[The son] gave instructions that everything be rearranged properly; to take the rose from the bottom, and insert it on top. Everything else was also rearranged in proper order.

[All the animals and birds] then began to sing a very wonderful melody. Each one functioned properly.

[The son] was then given the kingdom. (Sippurei R. Nachman, The Exchanged Children)


            R. Nachman teaches us that the garden is a wonderful place, but nothing works because nothing is in its proper place. The real son of the king, who is on a long and fundamental journey to inner understanding and revelation – inasmuch as he is the son of a king, reveals that the world is stuck and is not advancing, and that everything requires struggle and battle, and this is only because nothing is in its proper place. When everything is moved around a little and placed in proper order, everything begins to play a wonderful melody.


            The wonderful melody is a recurring metaphor in R. Nachman's writings for a harmonious world in which everyone, as in a philharmonic orchestra, knows his place and his role, and wholeheartedly wishes to fill them with no deviation or opposition. The conductor - in this case the son of the king, and in the case of the real world, man - must learn how to bring all the musicians to play the song that is appropriate for them, how to cause them to want to act in a manner that is appropriate for them.


            The son of the king in R. Nachman's story used no coercion, he did not fight, he did not struggle, he simply contemplated. R. Nachman teaches us that when the world is stuck, and when there is a need to struggle, things are not in their proper places, and they must be moved.[2]


            R. Levi Yitzchak teaches us another principle, namely, that a person's consciousness in relation to himself, in relation to his inner life and in relation to the source of his soul, radiates upon the world with which he comes into contact. The ground rebels against man because of his sin and because of his alienation from his inner self. The animal world struggles against him and does not do what is appropriate for it to do because of man's struggle with himself. The world of nature and the changing weather force man to fight against them, and do not serve him as befits them, because man himself denies his destiny and self.


            Here we come to the role of the son of the king according to the school of R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. If falls upon him to return to himself, to his place, and thus the world will also give of its strength. There is no need to strike the rock in order for it to fulfill its role and provide water for the people of Israel seeking to realize their destiny as they journey to the promised land. Speech alone, which comes to remind and arouse the entire world including the mighty rock standing before Moshe, has the power to stir up the "desire" of the rock - to the extent that it is possible to speak about desire with respect to the inanimate world - to realize its destiny and provide water for Israel.


R. Levi Yitzchak teaches us that when Moshe sinned with the sin of alienation in the consciousness of Israel, and when Israel entered the world of coercion and compulsion, the entire world played the same melody. The external world that man wishes to harness on his behalf answers him in accordance with his identification with the objective towards which he is striving. When he becomes alienated from the objective, when it comes from the outside, when it does not flow from some inner-natural point, the world around him also does not hurry to join and act with the same naturalness.


The garden within which we live does not submit itself to the son of the maidservant who dons royal garments, even if those garments are comprised of shiningly white tzitziyot and a long and flowing beard. God searches the heart, and so too the entire world seeks out the heart. Only to the son of the king, whose inside is like his outside, and who is driven by his inner inclination, will the world submit itself with love and desire in order to realize the objective for which it had been fashioned – to help the son of the king rule and to reveal the perfect kingdom.


R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev and R. Nachman of Breslov provide us with a compass and indicative tools regarding the level of correlation between our acts and our inner selves. Coercion and compulsion, war and struggle, result from alienation and externalization, and characterize the difficult situation of Mei Meriva. Instead of song and harmony, the harsh notes of coercion and compulsion were sounded – "Hear now, you rebels," as well as the noises of war and struggle – striking the rock. In such a place there is duality and alienation between inside and outside, between action and heart.




            R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev and R. Nachman of Breslov provide us - as leaders, as teachers and even as parents - with important guidance how to rescue the garden from the state in which it is stuck. How to redeem man, the nation and the land from their exile, and from their alienation from their inner selves. Not with external royal splendor, even if this splendor is the splendor of holiness. Not with external objectives and goals, even if they are permeated with words of holiness, like, one must draw near to God, one must observe Torah and mitzvot, one must perfect character traits. Not with career-oriented aspirations, even those directed to a place of holiness: to be a great rabbi, to be a Torah scholar, to grow in Torah. All these, when they come from the outside, when they do not flow from an inner and essential search, when they lack the quest for the self, they are like vinegar for the thirsty.


            Thus writes also R. Kook in what may be described as the fundamental statement of the world of education and leadership:


The I in exile, the inner and essential I, of the individual and the collective, reveals its inner self only in accordance with its holiness and purity, in accordance with its supernal might, permeated with the pure light of heavenly splendor, that burns within him. We sinned with our fathers, the sin of the first man, who became alienated from himself, turning to the serpent, and losing himself. He did not know how to give a clear answer to the question, "where are you," because he did not know his own soul, because he had lost his true self, through the sin of bowing down to a foreign god. Israel sinned by going after a foreign God, abandoning its self, forsaking good. The earth sinned, denying its self, restricting its strength, following objectives and goals, not giving all its hidden strength so that the taste of the tree should be as the taste of its fruit, raising its eye outward, to think about fates and careers. The moon complained, lost its inner aspects, its joy with its lot, it dreamed of external royal splendor. Thus the world goes and sinks in the loss of the self of everyone, individual and collective. Learned teachers come, look at externals, and even they distract themselves from the I, adding straw to the fire, giving the thirsty vinegar to drink, fattening minds and hearts with everything that is outside of them, and the I is forgotten. And since there is no I, there is no He, and all the more so, no You. The breath of our nostrils the anointed of God, this is his might, his great splendor, it is not outside of us, it is the breath of our nostrils. We will seek the God of our fathers and of King David, we will fear God and His goodness. Our I we will seek, we will search for and find our selves, removing all foreign gods, everything that is strange. And you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt to be for you a God, I am the Lord. (Shemone Kevatzim 3, 24)


            R. Kook warns against idolatry, providing the concept with an exciting paraphrase. When a person engages in service, even the service of God, that is alien to him; when his God, even if He is the God of hosts, the God of Israel, is alien to him - there is exile, exile of the self, and where there is no I, there is no He, and all the more so, there is no You.


            The point of departure for this profound understanding, teaches us R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, is faith. When we believe that "the breath of our nostrils the anointed of God" is not outside of us, as R. Kook writes, but rather it flows from within us, and it is the inner I, we seek ourselves. And when we believe that, we will also try to direct the sinners and those who have veered from the path to their "I," to "the breath of our nostrils the anointed of God," that reveals itself in every one of us. Then there will be no need to become angry or to threaten, and certainly not to strike.


When we reveal the I within us, the nation will also return to itself, and the land will once again give its strength, and permit the full manifestation of the I. At that time, "the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea" (Yeshayahu 11:9).


Let us conclude with the words of the prophet Yirmiyahu, who brought the world that wonderful vision, the manifestation of which R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, R. Nachman of Breslov, and R. Kook tried to direct:


Behold, days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Yehuda: not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which covenant of Mine they broke, although I was their master, says the Lord; but this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord; I will put My Torah in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be My people, and they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest of them says the Lord, for I will forgive their iniquity and I will remember their sin no more. (Yirmiyahu 31:30-33)




[1] The Ramban rejects Rashi's opinion, arguing that the command to take the staff testifies to God's intention that Moshe should strike the rock. And furthermore, causing the rock to provide water through striking is no less miraculous than causing it to provide water through speech.


[2] In order to fully understand the meaning of the "moving" in R. Nachman's story, one must study the entire story, and examine the specific context in which it appears.


(Translated by David Strauss)