Parshas Chukas features one of the saddest dramas of Moshe Rabbeinu’s life. Bnei Yisrael come to Kadesh and camp there, and Miriam dies. With her death, the well of water that had provided for the people for forty years suddenly dries up. Bnei Yisrael come to Moshe and Aharon and complain about the lack of water, lamenting that they have been brought to the wilderness only to die of thirst and that it would have been better to be killed along with the rest of the generation (20:1-5).
Moshe and Aharon approach the Ohel Moed to daven for guidance, and Hashem tells Moshe to take his staff and speak to the rock that had previously provided water. Moshe and Aharon gather the people in front of the rock, and Moshe asks rhetorically, “Shimu na ha’morim,” listen, you rebels, “ha’min ha’selah hazeh notzi lachem mayim?!” shall we draw water for you from this rock (20:10)?! Moshe hits the rock, twice, and water comes forth for the people. Immediately thereafter, Hashem tells Moshe and Aharon that they will not be allowed to enter Eretz Yisrael, “yaan lo he’emantem bi li’hakdisheini li’einei Bnei Yisrael,” because you did not believe in Me, to sanctify Me before the eyes of Bnei Yisrael” (20:12).
This chain of events is as confusing as it is devastating. When there is no water, what causes the people to lose their cool so quickly and to practically attack Moshe and Aharon? There have been times before now that the nation was without water, and each time, Hashem provided water in the end. What’s making them get so worked up now? Furthermore, why does Moshe not follow Hashem’s instructions to speak to the rock, and instead hits the rock – twice, in fact? And, what is the meaning of Moshe’s rhetorical statement to Bnei Yisrael? Lastly, for what specifically is Moshe punished so severely that he is forbidden to enter Eretz Yisrael?
With the understanding that Bnei Yisrael were on quite a lofty level, and with a profound sense of humility regarding Moshe’s unquestionable righteousness, let us try to understand what went on here.
One of the tools I use most often with my clients is called a behavior chain analysis. This process entails assessing one incident when a client has engaged in a behavior they’re trying to change by unpacking the series of events that led to it. This includes identifying all of the thoughts, feelings, body sensations, and environmental factors or events that occurred in the lead-up to the behavior we’re targeting. Whether we seek to increase or decrease a behavior, alter our emotional state, or reframe our thinking, the idea behind a behavior chain is that almost all lasting change is rooted in an in-depth understanding of what causes our behavior, or put differently, in learning about our internal and external triggers.
As we explore a chain of events to find alternative solutions or identify new ways of coping in similar circumstances in the future, there is one question we must always ask. I call it the Ma Nishtana question (or at least, that’s how I think of it in my head). The question is: what made that day, and that moment, different from all the other days or moments when that target behavior did not occur? What I want to understand and for my clients to consider is, what happened that day that prompted this particular chain of events that may not have happened any other time? And, what made the person more vulnerable that day, more prone to getting hijacked by his or her feelings or urges, or to losing sight of his or her longer-term goals?
These questions allow individuals to identify vulnerability factors, those things that render us more vulnerable to losing control of our emotions or having difficulty using better coping skills. Vulnerability factors can include everything from not getting enough sleep, to having had a fight with someone else earlier in the same day, to feeling physically unwell, or having recently suffered a setback or loss that affects our baseline of distress tolerance. When we can identify the things – events, physical needs, interactions, stressors, thoughts, or feelings – that make us more vulnerable to losing our cool, we stand a much better chance of being able to cope better with stressful events.
In analyzing the storyline of Mei Merivah, there are differences of opinion among the Meforshim regarding the exact nature of where Moshe went wrong. Rashi notes that Moshe is punished because he hit the rock rather than speaking to it, while Ramban counters that because Hashem told Moshe to take his staff, it is possible that either speaking to or hitting the rock would have been acceptable. Rather, Ramban posits that Moshe’s error was in saying “Hamin haselah hazeh notzi lachem mayim,” implying that he and Aharon would be the ones with the power to draw forth the water, rather than emphasizing that the water came miraculously through God’s will alone.
But the Rambam and Ibn Ezra highlight something else entirely. They focus not on Moshe’s behavior, but on his emotions and how he expressed them. Rambam explains that Moshe was punished for getting angry at Bnei Yisrael, for calling them rebels and rebuking them strongly because he was frustrated with them. The Ibn Ezra further notes that Moshe’s anger is evident in his striking the rock twice, which he did out of anger. According to these opinions, Moshe is judged on his lofty level for becoming angry, and as a result, losing control over his actions.
While this explanation sheds some light on the story, it still leaves us with questions. We know that Moshe Rabbeinu was “anav meod mikol ha’adam asher al pnei ha’adama,” the most humble of all men on earth (Bamidbar 12:3). We also know from various Mussar sources that the root of anger is a lack of humility. As such, we are left even more confused! How could Moshe, whose signature trait was humility, be susceptible to anger, the core of which is a lack of humility?
It is evident that something was different about this incident of complaining about water that set it apart from other times that Bnei Yisrael had voiced a grievance before now. Some factor was at play that left Bnei Yisrael reeling, and left Moshe somehow more vulnerable to anger, a trait we rarely associate with Tzadikim of his caliber. Looking back at the chain of events, the answer to our Ma Nishtana question appears in the very first Pasuk of this story. “VaYeishev Ha’Am biKadesh, Va’tamas Sham Miriam,” and the nation settled in Kadesh, and Miriam died there.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l explains that Miriam was one of the most important figures in Moshe Rabbeinu’s life, and as the Midrash notes, it was in her merit that Bnei Yisrael had water until now. Miriam’s loss was a colossal blow to the people, and in particular to their leader, Moshe. On his level, to which we cannot fully relate, Moshe’s grief over the loss of his sister must have been devastating. To some degree, Moshe owed Miriam his very life – twice! Once, as a result of her advocating that their parents stay together, and the second time, due to her watching over him when his mother placed him in the Nile river as a baby. Parallel to Moshe and the men, Miriam led the women in song when they crossed the Yam Suf. She looked out for Moshe and cared about his spiritual wellbeing, as evidenced by her discussing his marriage with their brother Aharon, for which she was punished with Tzoraas. Losing Miriam was a tragedy for all of Bnei Yisrael, but especially for her brother, Moshe.
As such, the people were more vulnerable to their own emotions of fear, and more hyper-aware of their own mortality in the wake of Miriam’s death. Furthermore, as R’ Sacks explains, Moshe’s grief could very well have rendered him more vulnerable to anger, despite the fact that he rarely displayed susceptibility to his emotions in such a manner. Grief is among the most powerful forces in this world. Loss upends our sense of reality and can make us feel small and vulnerable. When we are grieving, we are far more susceptible to other negative emotions, and it is understandable if we find ourselves far less able to respond well to stress. Knowing the things that predispose us to certain emotions or behaviors is the first step in buffering ourselves against them.
Though we exist on an entirely different spiritual plane than these giants, it is still possible to derive crucial lessons from this story. It is imperative that we become more familiar with our own vulnerability factors, those things that render us more susceptible to anger, hostility, or losing control of ourselves in the ways we are trying to avoid. This week, let us be mindful of these factors for ourselves, and attempt to identify the things that make us more likely to struggle with our emotions and behaviors. Hopefully, in identifying these vulnerability factors, we can buffer ourselves against the stressors that life may throw our way.