Parshat chukat marks the transition from the generation that left Egypt to the one that would enter the land of Israel. This was a transition marked by death and thus the Torah's description of the strange laws of purity and impurity that stem from contact with death form the opening unit of the parsha . The leaders of the nation Miriam, Aaron and Moshe would not be spared the fate of the people and would also have to die in the desert. They would not see the fruits of their labour. Zot chukat haTorah , this is the decree of the Torah.
Nonetheless our commentaries struggled to find some sort of sin that would justify the death of Moshe. They were seemingly less concerned with finding "justification" for the death of Aaron and Miriam, but that Moshe, the servant of G-d, would not be exempt from this decree baffled our Sages. Rashi's explanation taught to us as little children, that Moshe hit the rock instead of speaking to was found wanting by many. After all it is the same miracle whether water responds to speech or to being hit. And if Moshe was not to use the mateh , the stick, why did G-d command him to take it? So original were some of the suggestions that some feared to comment on this section lest they add a new heretofore undiscovered sin to Moshe Rabbeinu.
Yet perhaps when all is said and done it is Rashi's explanation which is the key to understanding this very difficult story. It was with the spoken word that G-d created the world; "With ten utterances the world was created" (Avot 5:1). It is the ability to express oneself with words that sets man apart from animals thereby expressing our Divine image. While we tend to think that creativity is best expressed in the making of things, in scientific discoveries, medical breakthroughs and the like it is through the medium of the spoken word that worlds are created or destroyed. If G-d creates by speech so must man.
Moshe's hitting the rock did nothing to diminish the miracle of water in the desert. Yet by hitting instead of speaking to the rock Moshe underestimated the importance of speech. Water is the precondition for life and it is granted through the power of speech. The land of Israel gets very little rain precisely so we can learn to properly pray for rain.
Moshe more than anyone should have been conscious of the power of speech if for none other that practical reasons. Suffering from a speech impediment he would be constantly aware of the great gift of speech. And tragically when he did speak it was to castigate the people of Israel, shimyu nah hamorim , listen you rebellious ones. While his characterization of the people was true it was a truth better left unsaid.
The generation that left Egypt saw its demise in the misuse of speech. The constant complaining, be it about food, water, leaders, or the land of Israel was their death knell. When it came to action they were outstanding. "I remember the kindness of your youth, you followed Me into a barren desert". A band of slaves courageously left Egypt (after slaughtering the Egyptian god no less) into the unknown and a mere seven weeks later accepted a moral code for life. .
The story of the mei meriva begins with the death of Miriam, something that on the surface seems unrelated to the actual story itself. Our Sages note that it was the death of Miriam that precipitated the drought; water the essential component of all of life, was granted to the Jewish people in her merit. It was Miriam who stood by the banks of the Nile to ensure that her infant brother would not just float away. Yet the Kli Yakar notes another comparison of these two seemingly unrelated stories. "And Miriam died there and was buried there". Unlike Moshe and especially Aaron there was no outpouring of grief on the death of Miriam. The Jewish people were sadly silent displaying a lack of gratitude for the one who behind the scenes was responsible for the redemption of the Jewish people. The Jewish people were silent when they should have been crying and cried when they should have been silent.
Our entire tradition is based on the spoken word. " Vhigadeta l'bincha", and you shall tell your child, is the methodology of transition of Judaism from one generation to the next. It is the Torah ba'al peh , the oral law that defines the essence of the Jewish people. May we merit to emulate G-d in our use of the spoken word. Shabbat Shalom!