“You may view the land from a distance, but you shall not enter it—the land that I am giving to the Israelite people” (Deuteronomy 35:52). This week’s Torah reading, Parshat Ha’azinu, ends with this devastating reminder to Moses that despite having led the people out of Egypt and through the trials and tribulations of wilderness for forty years, he will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land.
It seems impossibly cruel for a leader as devoted and self-sacrificing as Moses to be denied the one thing to which he has dedicated his life. God explained it earlier this way: “For you broke faith with me among the Israelite people at the waters of Meribat-Kadesh (Deuteronomy 25:51). What happened at Meribat-Kadesh (a longer name for Kadesh, referring to it as a place of struggle) to justify Moses’ being barred from the land? And what might we learn from examining this story in light of the upcoming holiday of Sukkot?
Let’s consider the context. Moses and the Israelites arrive at Kadesh in the 40th year of their wandering, and the community finds itself without water. As is by now their custom, the Israelites complain to Moses and Aaron: “Why have you brought us into the wilderness to die…There is not even water to drink!” (Numbers 20:4-5). Moses, at a loss for how to assuage their fears and satisfy their needs, seeks God’s counsel. God instructs Moses to gather the people and, before their eyes, “order the rock to give forth its water” (Numbers 20:8).
God’s directives are clear, but Moses deviates from the plan. First, he shouts at the people screaming, “Listen, you rebels! Shall we get water for you out of this rock?!” Then, instead of speaking to the rock, he strikes it twice. While Moses’ approach does indeed provide the people with water, it also ultimately condemns him to die in the wilderness.
But what was so gravely wrong to merit this punishment? Commentators throughout Jewish history have struggled to answer this question: for example, the medieval philosopher Rambam argues that Moses is punished for losing his temper at the people.
While that is part of the story, there is more going on here. Perhaps Moses’s sin was actually in the actions that resulted from his anger. Forgetting God’s guidance, Moses places himself in the role of ruler, exerting a false power and control. In striking the rock, Moses stops trusting in God..Through his hostile actions he harms the rock, the people, and his relationship with God.
At the root of anger, there is fear. Here, the cause for fear was plentiful: fear that there is not enough water to go around; fear that Moses has indeed led the people to die in the desert; fear of his own failings as a leader. I imagine these fears always weighed heavily on Moses, as he navigated the Israelites through the unknown wilderness. But in this moment of striking the rock, Moses allows the weight of these unknowns and his own powerlessness to lead him to violent speech and action. Rather than allowing himself to feel and sit with his fear, he asserts a false power that ultimately severs the ties to his presumed destiny.
The upcoming holiday of Sukkot (beginning just two days after Parshat Ha’azinu is read) offers us a profoundly different approach to facing the unknown. In the agricultural calendar of the land of Israel, Sukkot comes as we are anticipating and praying for the winter rains necessary to nourish crops. We, like the Israelites, are thirsting for water that we can’t be sure will come.
Following the customs of the holiday, as we pray for the waters to flow, we remove ourselves from the structures that afford us power and safety—our homes—and relocate into temporary, makeshift huts, exposed to the elements on all sides. At a time when we and the earth are in need of rains, beyond our control, we are commanded to consciously face and embrace our vulnerability.
Occurring halfway around the Jewish calendar from Passover, Sukkot is a corrective for us to the fearful exercise of power. We, like Moses, have a proclivity towards reacting from our fear. Too often we resort to exerting power and control as a way to avoid how vulnerable we truly are.
“You shall dwell in booths for seven days,” the Torah tells us, “so that you know that God took you out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:43). As slaves in Egypt, we experienced the brutal effects of the reactive and immoral exercising of power. As free people, we are continually challenged to choose a different path. Living in the fragile, impermanent sukkah invites us to practice releasing illusions of our own power, relinquishing control and fully inhabiting our vulnerability. In doing so, may we come to see our dreams fulfilled.
Adina Allen, a 2014 graduate of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, is co-founder and creative director of The Jewish Studio Project, a new organization that helps to empower Jewish adults to activate their creativity and claim their role as inheritors and innovators of the Jewish tradition.