Sunday, July 17, 2016

What did Aaron do wrong at the Mei Merivah?

Moses Strikes the Rock, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French, 1836-1902), gouache on board. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Much ink is spilled concerning the sin of Moshe at the Mei Merivah which resulted in his losing the opportunity to enter the Promised Land. But what was the sin of Aaron? 

As enigmatic as Moshe's sin seems to be, Aaron appears to do much less. He actually does nothing. So why does God group him together with Moshe for the same punishment?

במדבר כ 
(יב) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יקוק אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֣ה וְאֶֽל־אַהֲרֹן֒ יַ֚עַן לֹא־הֶאֱמַנְתֶּ֣ם בִּ֔י לְהַ֨קְדִּישֵׁ֔נִי לְעֵינֵ֖י בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל לָכֵ֗ן לֹ֤א תָבִ֙יאוּ֙ אֶת־הַקָּהָ֣ל הַזֶּ֔ה אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־נָתַ֥תִּי לָהֶֽם׃ 
But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “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.”

I am not the first to ask this question. In Parshat V'Zot HaBerachah, Rashi brings down a grievance by the Tribe of Levi who question why Miriam and Aaron were not allowed to enter the Land of Israel.

רש״י על דברים לג:ח 
(ח) תריבהו וגו' ... תריבהו על מי מריבה, נסתקפת לו לבוא בעלילה, אם משה אמר (במדבר כ:י) שמעו נא המורים, אהרן ומרים מה עשו:
(8) תריבהו וגו׳ THOU DIDST STRIVE WITH HIM [AT THE WATERS OF MERIBAH]... Thou didst seek an occasion against him to come with a pretext, for if Moses said, “Hear now, ye rebels”, what sin did Aaron and Miriam commit? (why were they not allowed to enter the land?).
The sin of Miriam is beyond the scope of this piece since she dies before the incident of Merivah. But what of the sin of Aaron? Unfortunately, Rashi brings down Shevet Levi's question without citing any answer so we are still left to wonder.

Perhaps, one can discover an approach to what Aaron did wrong at Merivah by revisiting the sin of Moshe.

To summarize the story:

The people arrive in the desert of Zin after the death of Miriam and have no water. They complain to Moshe and Aaron. Moshe and Aaron go the the Tent of Meeting and fall on their faces until God appears to them. God tells Moshe and Aaron to take the staff, gather the people, speak to the rock, and bring forth water from the rock. Moshe takes the staff from before God. Aaron's staff which was kept in the Mishkan after Korach's rebellion. Moshe and Aaron gather the people, Moshe tells them that they are rebellious and he will bring forth water from the rock. Moshe hits the rock twice bringing forth water. God then tells Moshe and Aaron that since they did not properly sanctify him, neither of them will lead the people into the Promised Land.

Despite the myriad of approaches to Moshe's sin, Abravanel lists eleven possibilities, nothing seems to stick. God tells Moshe to take the staff. Moshe takes the staff. God tells Moshe and Aaron to gather the people. Moshe and Aaron gather the people. God tells Moshe to speak to the rock. Moshe speaks in front of the rock. God tells Moshe to bring water from the rock. Moshe hits the rock (twice) and water comes out. One could quibble with details which many commentaries do but fundamentally, Moshe appears to follow God's command exactly.

But perhaps this is the exact problem. Maybe Moshe should not have even been seeking God's command. With the Children of Israel in dire need of help, with no water source in a desert, perhaps Moshe should have been acting first and consulting with God later.

This approach is brought down by Rav Yosef Albo in Rabbi Meir Simcha's Meshech Chochmah1. He explains that Moshe's sin wasn't an act of commission but of omission. It is not what Moshe did that was the problem but what Moshe did not do. Moshe should have acted on his own to solve the problem and only then turned to God.

The Meshech Chochmah elaborates that this perceived fault of Moshe becomes even more glaring to the people when compared with the story immediately preceding this in the Chumash, the rebellion of Korach. During Korach's rebellion, for the very first time, Moshe acted first before receiving a command from God. When Korach challenged the leadership of Moshe and his brother Aaron, Moshe does not fall on his face waiting for the glory of God to appear. Rather Moshe issues a challenge to Korach and his men saying that God should make a new creation, causing the ground to open up and swallow the rebels. He "challenged" God to make a miracle, one God did not command. And God accepts Moshe's challenge, the ground opens up swallow up Korach and his crew and fire comes forth before God to consume the 250 men who were bringing an unauthorized incense offering.

According to the Meshech Chochmah, this opens up Moshe to a serious critique from the people. If Moshe was willing to act on his own to protect HIS honor, then why is Moshe not acting on his own at Merivah to provide life-giving water for his people. He should have taken the stick of Aaron which was placed in the Mishkan as a symbol for all future rebellions and acted on his own to bring forth water for his people. God would have surely responded to this challenge. The fact that Moshe did not and rather waited for God to appear to him and tell him what to do is a small lapse in leadership which results in Moshe's losing the privilege to lead the people into the Land of Israel.

I believe that perhaps one can answer similarly regarding Aaron. Aaron did nothing wrong in the incident of Merivah. But this was the problem. He did nothing wrong but nothing right either. 

When Moshe hesitated, responding with inaction when action was called for, Aaron should have acted in his stead. The fact that Aaron did nothing to help quench the people's thirst and instead fell on his face before God with his brother Moshe puts Aaron in the same category as Moshe.

This can be an important lesson for us. There are times when prayer is called for. But there are other times when one must first take action and then pray to God that he will follow. 

As God tells Moshe at the Yam Suf as the Egyptian army is bearing down on the Israelites.

שמות פרק יד
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְקוָק אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה מַה־תִּצְעַ֖ק אֵלָ֑י דַּבֵּ֥ר אֶל־בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל וְיִסָּֽעוּ׃
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.

It is this perception of a lack of taking action on behalf of the people, when earlier Moshe and Aaron had acted so decisively to protect their own standing as the leaders during the Korach rebellion, that leads God to choose a new generation of leadership who will finish their mission and lead the Children of Israel into the Promised Land.

1. I am beholden to Rabbi Shalom Carmy who quotes this Meshech Chochmah in his monograph in the Spring 2016 issue of Tradition. "The Sons of Korah, Who Did Not Die." Tradition 49.1 (2016): 5. Print.

You can view the source sheet for this shiur below. I welcome your questions, comments, and constructive critique of this approach.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

How did they know that? Chazal's approach to Midrash

One of the things that I love about teaching high school students is their refreshing honesty. When one of my students thinks a Midrash is far fetched, he/she is not afraid to tell me. The answer that I often received when I was a kid to the question, how did the rabbis know that, was that the rabbis had a tradition from Moshe or some sort of divine inspiration. This was hardly satisfying to me so I try never to foist that one on my own students. My answer to a question about the source of a Midrash is usually that they knew based on a close reading of the text, not only the verse in question but the entirety of Tanach. Sometimes we can deduce their source other times we just don't know yet.

As the saying goes: דברי תורה עניים במקום אחד ועשירים במקום אחר, the words of Torah are "poor" in one place but "rich" in another.

Let me provide an example from this past week's Parsha. Many of us know the Midrash that was made famous in Rabbi Soloveitchik's talk, The Common Sense Rebellion Against Torah Authority.  The Midrash Tanchuma explains that Korach took 250 men clothed in a Tallit entirely made of the blue Tekhelet thread and asked if it required the blue Tzitzit string. Moshe replied that it does. Korach then filled a room with Sifrei Torah and asked if it required a Mezuzah on its door and Moshe replied that it does. Korach then mocked the seemingly nonsensical responses of Moshe. If a single blue string of Tzitzit will remind us of G-d and his mitzvot then why wouldn't an entire blue garment be an even greater reminder. If a single paragraph of holy writ attached to the doorpost will serve as a reminder of G-d in our home then would not a room full of Torah scrolls be an even greater reminder?

The imagery in this Midrash begs the question, how did the rabbis know this story? There is no mention of Korach or his men wearing in the Tekhelet garments in the Torah. To approach this question, one must analyze the purpose and method of Midrash. Firstly, one rule which is true almost always is that virtually every Midrash is addressing some type of textual anomaly. There is a question on the text which sparks the rabbinic discussion. The answer given by the Midrash might seem far fetched and not the simple pshat but the Midrash grapples with the text just like every later commentator. The question in Parshat Korach is obvious and dealt with by every commentator. The Parsha begins, וַיִּקַּ֣ח קֹ֔רַח, "And Korach took", but does not indicate what he took. In this case the Midrash addresses this issue using proximity by analyzing the verses immediately preceding this one which present the Mitzvah of Tzitzit and then presuming that Korach in fact took these Tzitzit. The question then becomes why and in its approach the Midrash creatively utilizes these Tzitzit as a prop in Korach's rebellion.

This does not merely fill in the gap concerning what Korach took but as explained by Rabbenu Bachya amplifies the primary theme of Korach's argument to Moshe. Korach's argument fundamentally is one for pure democracy. He asks, "If the entire community of Israel is holy and G-d dwells amongst everyone" then why should Moshe and Aharon raise themselves above the people. This is fundamentally the same argument as the Tzitzit strings. If the purpose of the Tekhelet string is to remind one of G-d then a garment made entirely of the blue string should not need any reminder. If the purpose of the mezuzah is to bring G-d into one's home then a house full of Torah scrolls should need no such symbol. Similarly, if the purpose of Moshe and Aharon is to help serve as the conduit for the people to connect with G-d then a people who are entirely holy and dwelling with G-d should not need a Moshe and an Aharon to lead them.

When looked at in this light, one sees the beauty of the Midrash. It not only answers an obvious textual difficulty by connecting the account to verses elsewhere which shed light on the text but enhances the underlying theme that is the crux of the story.

This type of analysis can be undertaken for many other Midrashim. The key is to try to find the verses which often are not in close proximity but are located in other books of Tanach upon which Chazal based their seemingly fanciful Midrashic accounts. I will present two such examples.

We know that Moshe Rabbenu had some type of speech impediment. This is stated directly by Moshe during his argument with G-d at the burning bush as a reason that he should not be chosen for the mission of redeeming the Children of Israel. Many of us learned a famous Midrash which provides the background story for Moshe's difficulty speaking. As the story goes, Moshe as a baby on his adopted grandfather Pharaoh's lap grabbed the king's crown. The royal magicians were worried this was an omen that this young boy would seek to topple the Egyptian dynasty in the future. So they developed a test where they would place gold and hot coals before the young boy and see what ensued. If he went for the gold, it would confirm his rebellious aspirations but if he went for the coals, it would prove he was just a regular precocious baby boy. Baby Moshe of course went for the gold but the angel Gabriel moved his hands to the coals and put it towards Moshe's mouth so he was burned resulting in his later speaking difficulties.

Where did the rabbis get the idea for this creative story? To answer one must look at the inauguration of three other prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. In each of these stories the prophet is initially reluctant to start his mission similar to Moshe's reluctance at the burning bush. But there is a key difference in G-d's response to each of them. In the case of Isaiah Chapter 6, verses 5-7, after the prophet says he is of impure lips, G-d responds by utilizing one of the Seraph angels to purify his lips.

וַיָּ֣עָף אֵלַ֗י אֶחָד֙ מִן־הַשְּׂרָפִ֔ים וּבְיָד֖וֹ רִצְפָּ֑ה בְּמֶ֨לְקַחַ֔יִם לָקַ֖ח מֵעַ֥ל הַמִּזְבֵּֽחַ׃Then one of the seraphs flew over to me with a live coal, which he had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs.וַיַּגַּ֣ע עַל־פִּ֔י וַיֹּ֕אמֶר הִנֵּ֛ה נָגַ֥ע זֶ֖ה עַל־שְׂפָתֶ֑יךָ וְסָ֣ר עֲוֺנֶ֔ךָ וְחַטָּאתְךָ֖ תְּכֻפָּֽר׃He touched it to my lips and declared, “Now that this has touched your lips, Your guilt shall depart And your sin be purged away.”

Similarly, G-d touches Jeremiah's lips to make him worthy of prophecy and in the case of Ezekiel actually has the prophet eat his words in a scroll in order to transform him into a vehicle for the divine message.

Our rabbis knew this so they had a vexing problem when looking at Moshe's opening exchange with G-d. Why didn't G-d respond to Moshe by touching and purifying his lips? They looked at Moshe's claim that he had a stammer and came up with a creative response. The reason G-d never touched Moshe's lips at the burning bush to make him a mouthpiece for the divine is because he ALREADY HAD touched Moshe's lips previously. The angel Gabriel touched Moshe's lips with hot coals when he was just a baby. Ironically, the reason Moshe gave that he could not function as a prophet, his speech impediment due to this childhood incident, is then the very reason Moshe COULD function as a prophet. G-d purified Moshe's lips for prophecy when he was still a baby. 

This is a fascinating example where the words of Midrash about Moshe as a baby only makes sense when looked at in the greater context of many other books of Tanach.

My final example is from another famous Midrash we all know from preschool, that when G-d split the Yam Suf, the Children of Israel did not cross in one path but the sea split into 12 paths, one for each tribe. The source of this Midrash is also often questioned. It is cited by Rashi on Psalms 136:13 which states G-d split apart the Yam Suf but this hardly indicates that it was split into 12 paths. However, once again, what is cryptic in the Torah and Psalms becomes readily apparent when analyzing a similar story in a different book of Tanach.

Isaiah Chapter 11 when describing the messianic era explicitly states that the ingathering of the exiles from faraway Egypt and Assyria will be modeled after the miracles of the Exodus. This account even mimics the splitting of the Yam Suf with a portrait of the Egyptian sea drying up and the Israelite crossing of the Euphrates River. This is where the account becomes very relevant to our question as stated in Isaiah 11:15:

וְהֶחֱרִ֣ים יְהוָ֗ה אֵ֚ת לְשׁ֣וֹן יָם־מִצְרַ֔יִם וְהֵנִ֥יף יָד֛וֹ עַל־הַנָּהָ֖ר בַּעְיָ֣ם רוּח֑וֹ וְהִכָּ֙הוּ֙ לְשִׁבְעָ֣ה נְחָלִ֔ים וְהִדְרִ֖יךְ בַּנְּעָלִֽים׃The LORD will dry up the tongue of the Egyptian sea.—He will raise His hand over the Euphrates with the might of His wind and break it into seven wadis, so that it can be trodden dry-shod.

Note that the crossing of the Euphrates River will not be in one path. Rather the verse states that it will be split into 7 streams. The Israelites as the commentaries elaborate will cross between these 7 streams similar to how they crossed the Yam Suf. If one is walking between 7 streams then one has six paths. And if the Children of Israel are crossing on each side of the stream within these 7, one gets 12 paths in total, the 14 sides minus the two outer ones which the Israelites obviously did not use. So one gets an account of the Children of Israel crossing the Euphrates on their way back to Israel for the final redemption in 12 paths. The next verse then says:

וְהָיְתָ֣ה מְסִלָּ֔ה לִשְׁאָ֣ר עַמּ֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר יִשָּׁאֵ֖ר מֵֽאַשּׁ֑וּר כַּאֲשֶׁ֤ר הָֽיְתָה֙ לְיִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּי֥וֹם עֲלֹת֖וֹ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃Thus there shall be a highway for the other part of His people out of Assyria, such as there was for Israel when it left the land of Egypt.

The Midrash deduced that if the highway out of Assyria crossed the river in 12 paths, then the original Exodus upon which this account is based also must have involved the Children of Israel crossing the Yam Suf, not in one path, but in 12 paths as well, one for each tribe.

Sarajevo Haggadah from

Once again, a fanciful Midrash which does not seem to have a basis in pshat attains a new meaning when looked at in the context of the entire Tanach.

 דברי תורה עניים במקום אחד ועשירים במקום אחר

You can view the source sheet for this shiur below. I welcome your questions, comments, and constructive critique of this approach.