This is one of the shorter sections of the Torah, and it is made up almost entirely of a breathtaking and chastening poem. The term “awesome” tends to be overused today, but this poem is truly awesome. Unfortunately, the power of the Hebrew rhythm and poetic style is lost in the English translation, but we can still sense some of the majesty.
“Give ear, O heavens, let me speak; Let the earth hear the words I utter!” Thus Moses commences to “sing out” the majesty of God (the word for poem in Hebrew, shir, is also the word for song).
God is the “The Rock, whose deeds are perfect, indeed, all God’s ways are just.” And yet Israel is a “dull and witless people” that God “found … in a desert region, in an empty howling waste. [God] engirded them, watched over them, guarded them as the pupil of God’s eye.” But the Israelites “forsook the God who made them.” God considers releasing the divine wrath on them, yet relents. “For the Eternal will vindicate God’s people.” Not because God is weak, but because God is almighty. “See then, that I, I am the One. There is no god beside Me. I deal death and give life; I wounded and I will heal: None can deliver from My hand. … When I whet My flashing blade and My hand lays hold of judgment, vengeance will I wreak on my foes.” Then, after more frightening references to making God’s “arrows drunk with blood — [God’s] sword devouring flesh,” the poem ends with, “O nations, acclaim God’s people! For He’ll avenge the blood of His servants, wreak vengeance on His foes, and cleanse his people’s land.”
God will certainly punish His “dull and witless people,” but God’s love always remains. The poetry reaffirms the need for hope, for despite life’s unavoidable travails, God keeps the divine, covenantal promise even when that very promise is broken by the Children of Israel.
Immediately following this powerful discourse comes God’s command to Moses to “ascend these heights of Abarim to Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab facing Jericho, and view the land of Canaan, which I am giving the Israelites as their holding. You shall die on the mountain … for you broke faith with Me among the Israelite people, at the waters of Meribath-kadesh in the wilderness of Zin, by failing to uphold My sanctity among the Israelite people. You may view the land from a distance, but you shall not enter it — the land that I am giving to the Israelite people.”
Why was Moses, the quintessentially loyal servant of God, punished by being forced to die outside the Land of Israel but in full view of its beauty? This is one of the most puzzling questions of the Torah. It seems that virtually every Bible commentator tries to explain the problem, but the explanations do not satisfy.
The punishment hearkens back to an incident in Numbers 20:1-13 when the Israelites lacked water in the desert and complained bitterly that they should never have left a verdant Egypt. Moses was exasperated by their constant whining and lack of gratitude to God for saving them from Egyptian slavery, but God commanded him to speak to a rock that would bring forth water for them. Moses then struck it in anger with his staff. In a previous episode (Exodus 17:6) God had instructed Moses to strike a rock to bring forth water for the people, so it could not have simply been his striking of the rock that was problematic.
What was the problem here? The 11th century French Bible commentator Rashi explains that Moses and Aaron disobeyed God by striking the rock when, in this case, they were commanded to speak to it rather than strike it. Midrash Tanchuma suggests that they actually did speak to the rock, but it was the wrong rock, so it did not respond. In frustration they hit another that brought forth water. It is clear from the narrative that Moses disobeyed God. But why such a horrific punishment for what seems like an understandable lapse in judgment and leadership?
Rashi’s Spanish contemporary, Rabbi Moses Hacohen Ibn Gigatilla, argued that it was what Moses and Aaron said while striking the rock that brought on their punishment. They called out in anger, “Shall we get water for you out of this rock?” (Numbers 20:10), which could be perceived by the people as if the two men had brought water from the rock through their own power rather than through the power of God. The 12th century Spanish Bible scholar, Moses Ibn Ezra, gave a Kabbalistic explanation. It was thought (and still is among some Kabbalists today) that a person can accomplish miracles by cleaving entirely to God. Moses was told to speak to the rock and could have manipulated nature to bring forth the water through his absolute and single-minded embrace of God, but he became distracted by his anger and lost his concentration. Failing to bring out water from the rock, he struck it, and in doing so he regained his concentration. Only then did water pour out, but he had lost his intention (kavanah) and failed to lead properly.
Maimonides also argued that it was Moses’ failure of leadership that brought God’s reckoning. Moses lost emotional balance (the “golden mean”) and gave in to his anger at the moment when he called out, “Listen you rebels!” (Numbers 20:10). It was therefore this instance of poor public leadership in relation to the divine imperative that caused his downfall. The problem, says Maimonides, is that such public failure among leaders results in public desecration of God’s majesty and transcendence. He calls this “profaning God’s name,” chilul HaShem.
Textual references in the passages suggest that Maimonides’ concern for chilul HaShem may be the core issue. In response to Moses’ striking the rock, God says, “Because you did not trust me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them” (Numbers 20:11-12). “To affirm My sanctity” is rendered in the Hebrew as l’hak’disheini. In traditional Jewish parlance, that is the opposite of profaning the divine name: kiddush HaShem versus chilul HaShem. And in our parshah, God reiterates to Moses and Aaron, “For you … broke faith with Me among the Israelite people … by failing to uphold My sanctity.” This again references failure to demonstrate kiddush HaShem by behaving improperly.
When Jews behave with compassion and justice — as Jews — we sanctify God’s name. That is kiddush HaShem. But when we fail to do so, we profane God’s name. This is chilul HaShem. According to our Sages the notion is of particular importance when the behavior is in public and people, including non-Jews, observe it and draw conclusions therefrom about Jews and Judaism.
Whatever it was that Moses did was a failure to sanctify God’s name. According to our tradition, we are always expected to sanctify God’s name in our living behavior. If we act poorly, we profane God’s name. When we act ethically and with dignity we sanctify God’s name. This is even more important for community leaders. When leaders act improperly or take advantage of their office for personal gain, or forsake their public responsibility by failing the people they are supposed to lead, they are engaging in chilul HaShem, desecrating God’s name.
One key Torah verse brilliantly sums up the difference between the two: “You shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people — I the Eternal who sanctify you” (Leviticus 22:32-33). That is to say, do not engage in chilul HaShem. Be just and compassionate and fair. Such behavior is a public declaration of God’s sanctity and more. By sanctifying God’s name through our modest good conduct, we step into a dynamic relationship through which God also sanctifies us.
Rabbi Reuven Firestone, Ph.D. teaches medieval Jewish Torah commentary at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. A version of this article first appeared on reformjudaism.org.