The portion of the Torah Jews read during the last week of June, is Parashat Hukkat (Numbers 19:1 - 22:1). At its center is one of the Bible’s best-known stories. Moses strikes a rock to bring forth water for the thirsty children of Israel, for which God punishes him by denying him entry into the Promised Land.
Given the devastating nature of the punishment, one would think that the nature of our greatest prophet’s sin would be clear and unequivocal. Here, if anywhere, one would expect the Torah to be explicit about what Moses did wrong and why the penalty was a fitting one.
Yet the text is ambiguous--so much so that the great 19th-century Italian commentator, Shmuel David Luzzatto, refused to elucidate the question. His predecessors, he said, had attributed no less than 13 sins to Moses, and he feared that if he thought about it, he’d burden the poor man with yet another transgression.
Moses had to provide his thirsty people with water. Israel must provide its citizens with security. However, having the right to invade and bomb doesn’t mean that invading and bombing is necessarily the right thing to do. Military force is a blunt instrument for achieving diplomatic, political, and strategic goals. Even precision attacks too often miss their mark, killing the wrong people. Furthermore, since even armies with the best possible intelligence operate in the face of many unknowns, the outcomes of military actions are notoriously hard to predict. A single misstep—striking camp too far away from the nearest source of water—lost the Crusaders their kingdom in a single, agonizing battle.
But since major military actions inevitably cause pain, death, and suffering, they cannot be justified morally simply by asserting the right to use force. The design and extent of the operation has to be such that it exacts the lowest price consistent with achievement of realistic goals.
Does Israel’s current policy meet this criterion? The ways our sages have defined Moses’ actions at the rock elucidate ways in which a justified action can turn into a serious misjudgment. According to Maimonides, God punished Moses because he acted in anger. His anger was warranted, but violence committed in the heat of anger is not. According to Nachmanides, Moses’ sin was to hit the rock twice when only one blow would have been sufficient.
In the current context, we can see here a warning against the use of excessive force. According to Sforno, Moses erred by not leaving the miracle to God. By striking the rock, he cast himself as a wonder worker, trying to aggrandize himself in the eyes of the people. The Israeli army is a dedicated and disciplined force, subservient to its civilian government—but as in other armies around the world, its officers like to call the shots and reap the glory, even on problems that can be better solved by diplomacy.
I don’t believe that we can open the Bible and find the answer to the intractable dilemmas of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Torah is not an oracle. In fact, the indeterminacy of the story of Moses and the rock shows that, in times of crisis, leaders may, with the best of intentions, make bad decisions. Jews have been arguing for three thousand years what Moses did wrong at the rock. But the Torah story does serve to remind us that while crises call for strong leaders who do not hesitate to act, those leaders would do best to act soberly, and to be humble enough to admit that they can do no more than make the best educated guesses they can about what the outcome of a military operation will be.
I hope that Palestinian Muslim leaders are using the stories of their tradition to reach similar conclusions. Unfortunately, many Muslim extremists seem determined to escalate the conflict. I suspect that they hope for a harsh Israeli response that will gain them international sympathy. But battering the rock until it breaks is not a good strategy for either side.