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This week the Torah recounts Miriam’s death and the people’s complaints of thirst during the period of wandering. God tells Moses to take his rod and order a rock to produce water. Old and weary of the people’s incessant complaining, instead of ordering the rock to produce water Moses strikes it with his rod. Though the people drink their fill, God punishes the prophet for his defiance and bars him from entering the Promised Land (Chukat – Numbers 20:1-13).

Talmudic sages explain the severity of God’s punishment by charging that Moses’ faith wasn’t strong enough, that because he failed to sanctify God before the people the Eternal deemed him unworthy to lead them into Canaan.

Maimonides explains that Moses lacked compassion and that he should have spoken kindly to the people instead of with words of rebuke.

Others say that in losing his temper Moses lost his moral authority to be the leader.

One opines that because Moses claimed credit for the miracle of the water without acknowledging God, the Almighty denied him what he dreamed of most.

There’s yet another explanation. Earlier at Massah and Meribah the people also complained of debilitating thirst, and similar to our portion God told Moses to take his rod and hit the rock instead of speaking to it (Exodus 17).

What’s the difference?

The answer is that Sinai intervened between the two events. God intended the second time to usher in a new way of being in the world for the former slaves, to erase their humiliating experience of suffering from their hearts and souls, to create a new free people worthy of a higher order of being, to yield from force to reason, violence to dialogue, brutish despotism to moral law, might to right, and intolerance to compassion.

God wanted a new age to begin, the ‘messianic age,’ and Moses was to be the Messiah.

However, when Moses hit the rock instead of speaking to it, he showed the people that Sinai had changed nothing at all, that God was merely a more powerful Pharaoh with better magic and greater violence.

Rabbi Marc Gelman writes of what God may have intended for the people (“The Waters of Meribah,” Learn Torah with…Vol. 5, Number 16, January 30, 1999, edited by Joel Lurie Grishaver and Rabbi Stuart Kelman):

“When my people enters the land you shall not enter with them, but neither shall I. I shall only allow a part of my presence to enter the land with them. The abundance of my presence I shall keep outside the land. The exiled part shall be called my Shekhinah and it shall remind the people that I too am in exile. I too am a divided presence in the world, and that I shall only be whole again on that day when the power of the fist vanishes forever from the world. Only on that day will I be one. Only on that day will my name be one. Only on that day Moses, shall we enter the land together. Only on that day Moses, shall the waters of Meribah become the flowing waters of justice and the everlasting stream of righteousness gushing forth from my holy mountain where all people shall come and be free at last.”

Sinai teaches that the restrictive, oppressive and terrifying power of might must give way to a greater vision of Oneness if God’s word is to prevail and draw humankind together in mutual respect and dignity, in security and peace.

The most difficult challenge of our era, indeed of any era, is how we are to attain oneness in our interpersonal relationships, our communities, amongst different peoples, ethnicities, religions, and nations.

In the next week, we will learn whether the P5 + 1 nations and Iran will succeed in negotiating an agreement that brings about a dramatic reduction in Iran’s capacity to develop a nuclear bomb, and whether the Iranian nuclear threat to Israel and the peoples of the Middle East will be stilled.

Based on what we have been told is included in this agreement, even as we hear the Ayatollah’s bellicose rhetoric and “red lines” on top of Israeli and Congressional criticism and suspicion of this deal or any deal at all, there is obviously a vast difference of opinion amongst good, concerned and intelligent people about whether a successfully negotiated agreement is possible. If it is, the central questions are two: will the agreement be a harbinger of a more peaceful world, or will it be a subterfuge giving cover to Iran as it continues its march towards nuclear weapons capability.

We can only hope that the P5 + 1 advocates for an agreement are right that the deal will have enough teeth, investigative power and snap-back provisions to assure compliance and eliminate the threat of an Iranian bomb, and whether the principles established at Sinai are within reach in the real world of increasingly sectarian and tribal warfare.