Rav Kook Torah

Chukat: Religious Rage


Moses made a terrible mistake. Near the end of their forty-year journey in the desert, the Israelites had arrived at Kadesh. There was no water to drink, and the people complained bitterly. God commanded Moses to take his staff before the entire people and speak to the cliff-rock, to provide water for the nation. Moses took the staff and assembled the people.

But he shouted,

“Listen now, you rebels! Shall we produce water for you from this cliff?” (Num. 20:10)

Moses then struck the cliff twice with the staff, and a huge flow of water gushed out.

The commentators scratched their heads trying to understand what exactly was Moses’ mistake — an error so serious that God did not allow him to enter into the Land of Israel. Was it a case of uncontrolled anger, as Maimonides explained? Was he punished for disobeying God by hitting the rock (Rashi)? Was it because he initially fled from the people (Ibn Ezra)? Or was it for saying “Shall we produce,” instead of “Shall God produce” (Rabbeinu Chananel)?

Let us consider Maimonides’ explanation. Clearly, Moses was judged strictly, according to his lofty spiritual state. But was this fit of anger truly so terrible that it constituted a chilul Hashem, a public desecration of God’s Name?

Did Moses deserve to die outside of the Land of Israel merely for losing his temper?

Religious Rage

According to Rav Kook, all religious rage, all intolerance for moral failings, is rooted in this display of anger. Instead of words of reconciliation, Moses shouted, “Listen now, you rebels.” Instead of speaking to the heart, he hit the rock. While righteous indignation stems from sincere and pure intentions, the highest goals of holiness will only be achieved through calm spirits and mutual respect.

In our generation, the instruction of Torah and its details involves a pedantic form of debate. Father and son, teacher and student, battle over Torah study. In the end, their mutual respect returns; but the residual feelings of enmity are never completely erased.

The restoration of darkei noam, the peaceful ways of Torah, will come through the prophet Elijah, who will reconcile that different paths of the generations, “turning the hearts of fathers back to the children, and the hearts of the children back to their fathers” (Malachi 3:24).

This will be accomplished through the revelation of the esoteric side of Torah, a wonderful Torah of kindness. The same profundity and dedication which in the past was acquired through the intellectual zeal of ritcha d'oraita will be attained in the future through the spiritual fortitude of gentleness and equanimity. Then the light of the “sukkah of peace” will envelop the Jewish people, as well as the nations of the world who gather from afar to the holy city of Jerusalem, the city of peace.

A Letter of Loving Rebuke

As chief rabbi of Jaffa, Rav Kook was responsible for religious affairs in the surrounding communities. It is instructive to see how he took to task individuals and groups for infractions of Jewish law. The quote below, from a letter written in 1912, illustrates his method of respectful and loving reproach. The letter was written in response to public Sabbath desecration in the community of Ness Ziona.

“My dear brothers,

I find in the depths of my heart a powerful, sacred duty to call out to you with affection, from my sincere love for you as pioneers in the rebirth of our nation in the land of our yearnings. I am confident in your integrity and your trust in me - which I have witnessed from when I first began serving you in a rabbinical capacity — that my words, the words of a faithful and respectful friend, will be well-received.

For some time I have heard that the level of sanctity of the Sabbath has greatly deteriorated in your beloved community. This decline, according to the rumors, is troubling and alarming to all who live Jewish life in the depths of their soul, to all who feel and recognize what the Sabbath means to us, to all who are aware of its holiness in our religious tradition, as well as its national, historical value.

My dear brothers! I am unable to express in writing even a small measure of my soul’s anguish whenever such reports reach my ears. Especially as it concerns your precious and holy settlement and its pioneers, who bring redemption to the Jewish people. May my words find favor in your eyes, so that you will search and discover a way to remove this terrible embarrassment from your beloved community, this profound shame for the entire Jewish people, who proudly look upon our new settlement as a resting place for their very essence, for all that we have held sacred and revered throughout the generations.” (Igrot HaRe’iyah, vol. II, 88)

(Adapted from Orot HaKodesh vol. IV, p. 500)

Illustration image: Poussin, Nicolas: Moses Striking Water from the Rock (1649).