Shabbat Table Topics – Parashat Chukkat

Great Prophets: Obedient or Independent?

Which prophet is at a higher level: one who simply follows Divine orders, or one who takes initiatives without prior consultation with Hashem?

  • In trying to uncover Moshe and Aharon's sin at Mei Merivah, R"Y AlboSefer HaIkkarim 4:22About R. Yosef Albo points to their running to the Tent of Meeting to consult with Hashem rather than immediately quelling the nation's murmurings by invoking a miracle on their own. He claims that this caused a lack of faith in one of the central tenets of Torah, a prophet's power to act above nature. 
  • What in the text supports this suggestion? Do you agree that going to the Tent of Meeting was problematic?  When is consultation the appropriate response to crisis?  When is it preferable to take matters into your own hands? 
  • Can a prophet really bring a miracle on his or her own?  What examples from Tanakh might suggest that they can? Are all prophets equal in this regard? 

For elaboration see Moshe's Misstep and Mei MerivahProphetic Actions Without Explicit Divine Sanction, and the opinion of Abarbanel in Moshe's Epitaph – Signs and Wonders.

Sichon and Og: Telling and Retelling

The original description of the conquest of Sichon and Og in Bemidbar differs significantly from Moshe's retelling in Devarim.

  • Compare the two accounts and list the differences.  Which points appear only in Bemidbar? What details are highlighted in Devarim?  What message might Moshe be trying to relay to the nation in Sefer Devarim, which prompt him to retell the story in the way that he does?
  • How does Moshe's message in recounting the battle of Sichon relate to the overall objectives of his historical speech in the opening chapters of Sefer Devarim, and especially to his retelling of the debacle of the Spies?1
  • Is it problematic to say that Moshe intentionally recasts history to promote an agenda?

For more, see Battles with Sichon and Og in Bemidbar and Devarim.

Criticizing Moshe

Commentators mine almost every word of the story of Moshe hitting the rock in Mei Merivah to establish where he erred and why he was punished so severely.  Thus, Moshe is accused of everything from lack of faith (RashbamBemidbar 20:10About R. Shemuel b. Meir) to excessive anger (RambamShemonah Perakim Chapter 4About R. Moshe b. Maimon) and faulty leadership (Avvat NefeshAvvat Nefesh, Commentary on Ibn Ezra Bemidbar 20:8).  RashiBemidbar 20:11-12About R. Shelomo Yitzchaki and others further blame him for not sanctifying Hashem's name and causing the nation to doubt Hashem's capabilities.

  • Can you bring evidence to support each of the above possibilities?  Which do you find most compelling and why?  Which of the proposed sins would warrant the harsh punishment received by Moshe?
  • Does Moshe manifest any of the above problematic traits elsewhere?  Why was he not punished in those instances?
  • Though our chapter clearly testifies to Moshe's having erred, is it problematic to suggest specific criticisms of Moshe's leadership which the text does not make explicit?  Should we place Moshe on a pedestal and attempt to explain away any perceived fault, or is it legitimate to attribute to him some human failings?2

See Moshe's Misstep and Mei Merivah for further discussion.

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