Torah for the Times   

Friday, June 12 - 6 Tammuz, 5773  

Torah Reading: Chukat (Numbers 19:1 - 22:1)
Candle Lighting Time: 8:10 PM
Shabbat ends: 9:20 PM   


Washing The Dust Off Our Feet 

Measure for Measure

Our Parshah tells us that upon the death of Miriam, Moses’ sister, a grave and unexpected crisis threatened the Jews. Their water supply suddenly went dry.  The miraculous water that sustained the Jewish people in the desory in Genesis of the angels who visited Abraham, Rashi cites a Talmudic commentary which connects Abraham’s actions then to Moses’ actions in this week’s parsha.

When the three angels, disguised as humans, came to visit, Abraham went out of his way to take care of their needs. Abraham personally got them bread and served them with meat and dairy. The one thing he delegated to others was providing water for washing the dust from their feet. The Torah shows, in Genesis (18:4), that Abraham directed others: “Let some water be brought.” Rashi observes the differing attitudes Abraham had with regard to the food and the water.  He comments that by saying “Let some water be brought” Abraham meant that the water should be provided “by means of a messenger.” Rashi continues: “The Holy One, Blessed is He, repaid His children by means of a messenger, as it says, ‘Then Moses raised his hand and struck the rock.’”

In other words, because Abraham personally and directly supplied the bread and the meat to his guests, the Jewish people were privileged to receive the Manna and the meat directly from G‑d. By contrast, since Abraham did not deem it important enough to personally provide water to his guests, the Jewish people likewise received their water supply by way of a messenger and not directly from G‑d—i.e., by means of Moses striking the rock.

The commentator Maskil L’Dovid raises a question: Why does Rashi cite the verse in this week’s parsha to indicate that the water was provided to the angels by means of a messenger? Rashi could have cited another verse from the Book of Exodus (17:6), which recounts an earlier episode soon after the Exodus, where G‑d tells Moses to strike a rock to produce water.

The Difference between Exodus and Numbers

One answer to this question can be that in Exodus, Moses’ striking of the rock at G‑d’s behest was not considered to be a diminution of G‑d’s direct relationship with the people. All of the miracles that the Jewish people witnessed up to that point were performed through Moses and Aaron. Even so, there is no suggestion that G‑d did not play an active role in these miracles. Moses and Aaron were merely the instruments that G‑d used to channel His power to the people. Likewise the water that G‑d provided the Jewish people, as recorded in Exodus, was the product of G‑d’s direct involvement and is not attributed to Moses, His messenger. 

Indeed, this concept is alluded to in the Haggadah which states that G‑d took us out of Egypt and not a messenger. At first blush, this statement seems to contradict the entire narrative of the Exodus where Moses and (to some extent) Aaron were the ones through whom the Exodus occurred. 

However, in light of the above there is no discrepancy. Moses was a transparent individual who had totally removed his ego. As a result, G‑d’s actions were channeled through him. Moses was no more than a conduit and all that happened was considered to be completely the work of G‑d and not that of a messenger.

Attributed to Whom?

Thus, when G‑d told Moses to strike the rock in the Book of Exodus, although it was Moses who took the action it was not ascribed to him. It was entirely G‑d’s action.

However, in this week’s parsha, Moses strikes the rock contrary to G‑d’s instruction to speak to it.  The result—though certainly of G‑d’s doing—is characterized as having come through His messenger, Moses. The indirectness of the result points to a measure of dissatisfaction with the way it was executed.

Moreover, according to Maimonides, Moses “sin” in this episode was the anger he vented towards the Jewish people. The Talmud states that a person’s anger causes the Divine presence to depart from him. This suggests that G‑d does not want to be “implicated” in one’s anger, even if the anger is justifiable. Hence, Moses’ action here in providing water for the people was attributed to him, as if it were his action and not the result of G‑d’s direct involvement.

We can now understand why G‑d treated Moses’ actions so harshly. It was not a punishment for a sin. Rather it was an acknowledgment that Moses’ actions lowered the spiritual level of the Jewish people. Whereas, previously, all the miracles they witnessed were direct expressions of G‑d’s power, now His involvement was seen as being indirect. Moses’ anger created a barrier between G‑d and the Jewish people that would have sorrowful repercussions for the future. With the loss of G‑d’s direct involvement in the miracles of the conquest of Eretz Yisroel, future generations would not have the power to sustain their hold on the Land of Israel.

Why did Abraham Not Provide Water?

As stated by Rashi, G‑d’s providing water to the Jewish people indirectly was caused by Abraham’s indirect providing of water to his guests. But this itself requires clarification. Why didn’t Abraham deem it important to provide his guests with water personally? Knowing the extreme lengths Abraham would go to show hospitality to every guest, it is difficult to comprehend why he deemed it unnecessary to provide them with water himself.

One way of answering this question is to reflect on the reason he wanted them to wash their feet before he brought them into his tent. Rashi explains that Abraham was concerned that his three visitors were members of a cult that worshipped the dust on their feet. He wanted them to wash away any trace of idolatry before he allowed them to enter his abode.

Perhaps, then, Abraham did not deem it so important to personally attend to this need since it was not intended to satisfy their thirst but rather to prevent them from sullying his home with idolatry.

Intolerance for Even the Traces of Idolatry

There is an important lesson we can derive here.  When we help remove another person’s impurity, it is no less a favor to them than to give them water to drink. If Abraham had shown his visitors how distasteful their presumed idolatry was to him and how he would personally exert himself to cleanse them of it, it might have had a powerful impact on them. They would have been left with the impression that any trace of idolatry—even the residual dust on one’s feet—is not welcome in a person’s home. Even the smallest vestige of idolatry is lethal. By employing a hands-off approach Abraham—inadvertently—allowed some measure of tolerance for idolatry to fester. 

There is a powerful lesson for us from the foregoing for our own day and age.

Idolatry is not merely the worshipping of pagan g-ds made of wood and stone. According to the Talmud there are other far more subtle forms of idolatry, such as an inflated ego or anger. It would seem on balance that we should place a greater emphasis on the very serious problems that plague our society and not exert that much energy into dealing with the vices of ego and anger.

Abraham’s story informs us otherwise. If Abraham had invested as much energy in ridding his guests of the dust on their feet—that symbolized subtle forms of idol worship—as he did in catering their meal, Moses would not have suffered the momentary diminution of his status as a transparent channel of G‑d’s energy to the people. The water would have come without Moses’ disruptive anger and the Jewish people would have clearly seen the unconcealed hand of G‑d.

If the most subtle forms of idolatry that obscure G‑d’s presence in this world had been removed, Moses would have been allowed to bring the People into the Promised Land. If that had happened, the Jewish nation would not have degenerated into the actual, unmitigated forms of idol worship which led to their exile and our history would have been quite different.

Of course, the above is not intended, G‑d forbid, to impute any real sin to Abraham and Moses. Their apparent shortcomings were part of G‑d’s plan, orchestrated by Him to teach us how to remedy the problem of that generation and bring about the final Redemption.

Deal with the Subtleties

The Rebbe has informed us, based on the teachings of Kabbalah and Chassidus, that all the gross and heavy forms of idolatry and related vices have, for all intents and purposes, been dealt with. While there might still be people guilty of heinous crimes, that is a problem of individual consequence and an aberration from the norm. As a people and as individuals we still have to address the subtler forms of idolatry. Towards this end, we are privileged to have the teachings of Chassidus to help us remove the veil that obscures G‑d’s presence.  Our challenge is to rid ourselves of the traces of idolatry by washing them off with Torah knowledge, which is likened to water.

Even though Abraham might once have been justified in not putting so much emphasis on personally removing the residual dust of idolatry, we now have to remedy that. It behooves us to invest all of our resources into providing the cleansing waters of Torah to each and every Jew. It is our obligation to remove the last obstacles to Redemption, a task which cannot be delegated to others.




Moshiach Matters  

In the days of Moshiach, "The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid... Ramban takes this verse literally and documents his stand profusely. Yet he maintains that such coexistence will not necessitate great changes in creation, because wild animals were originally peaceful creatures, becoming predatory only after Adam's sin.

Moshiach - It’s a Jewish issue. For more info, visit