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Parashat Hukkat

June 25, 2015

Coming into the Home Stretch

by Rabbi Len Levin

A Dvar Torah for Hukkat

We begin a new narrative unit with Chapter 20 of the Book of Numbers. After an indeterminate time lapse in the previous few chapters, the text suddenly announces that Miriam died in the first month. Of what year? Correlating this chapter with Numbers 33:37–39 allows us to infer that Miriam and Aaron both died in the fortieth year of the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness. We also learn in the present chapter that when Moses lost his temper with the rock, God decreed that he would die before the people entered the Promised Land.

Thus the narrative is giving us clues that Moses is coming into his home stretch, that in this last year of Israel in the wilderness, the leaders who led them this far – – Miriam, Aaron, and Moses – – will have to say their last farewells. What is more, by the end of this week’s portion, in verse 22:1, we are told that the Israelites encamped on the plains of Moab, across the Jordan from Jericho. The years of wandering are now at an end. The Israelites are in sight of the Promised Land.

Moses has already put in a long and productive career. He was raised as a youth in Pharaoh’s court; he incurred exile to Midian; he became a shepherd, got married, and had a family. He returned to Egypt, and after a most intense struggle and many plagues led the Israelites out from Egypt to freedom. He led them through the wilderness; with God’s help he fed the people manna; he led them to Mount Sinai and prepared them for the great revelation in which God enacted a covenant with Israel to become God’s holy people and to obey God’s laws.

When Moses tarried in the mountain to commune with God, the people made the Golden Calf, and Moses had to deal with that crisis. After building the Tabernacle and consecrating Aaron and his sons to the priesthood, Moses turned his attention to preparing for the conquest of the Land of Canaan. When the spies turned the people against that project, the plan changed and Moses had to lead the people in the wilderness for forty years. They are now in the last year of that long trek. Moses is in his last year. He is (according to the text) 119 years old. Surely he deserves a decent retirement?

The narrator is apparently enjoying keeping us in suspense. The issue of Moses’s approaching death is brought up or hinted at repeatedly. (See Numbers 27:12-14, 31:2, 33:38-39, 36:13, and Deuteronomy 1:1-3, 3:23-28, 4:22, 31:1-2, 31:14, 32:48-52, 34:1-12.)

As his last days draw near, Moses will cram into the last year of his life more than most people accomplish in their entire lives. Every reminder of his approaching death seems to spur him to additional creative activity.

He leads the people in the conquest of Transjordan and its apportionment to the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh. He appoints Joshua as his successor. He negotiates the whole complex crisis confronting the Israelites in the form of the Moabite-Midianite alliance, the visits of Balaam, and the wave of idolatry that ensues, followed by a military campaign. He organizes the procedure of the inheritance of the Land of Canaan, and in the course of doing so addresses the question that the daughters of Zelophehad raise about the rights of women in the tribal system of land inheritance. Also in preparation for the land distribution, he promulgates the laws of the Levitical cities and the cities of refuge.

To top it off, with only two months left to live, he gives a series of lectures – – the whole book of Deuteronomy – – that establishes a whole system of education for the people based on study of God’s law. In the course of doing so, he gives us the Shema, the second narration of the Ten Commandments, and many other precious teachings that have become central to Judaism.

The commentators on our present parasha have racked their brains and come up with a dozen explanations of why, for the inexplicable fault of hitting the rock, Moses was punished by not being allowed to enter the Promised Land. It is an insoluble mystery, but Moses did not stop to dwell on it. He did not have time for regrets, for commiseration, for obsessing on what he did wrong. There was so much work left to do, and so little time to do it.

In the words of Balaam, “let my end be like his!” (Numbers 23:10)


Rabbi Len Levin teaches philosophy at AJR and is the author of Why God Is Subject To Murphy’s Law.