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Why Did God Punish Moses? Did Moses Snuff Aaron? Do You Tell Your Wife She’s Dying?

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I was in synagogue last Saturday for a bat mitzvah. The Torah portion was from Numbers, when the Israelites are in Transjordan on the outskirts of the Promised Land. We read what one scholar has called the "most enigmatic incident of the Pentateuch." The people are angry at their leaders, and dying of thirst. God commands Moses to assemble the people and  speak to a rock, then the rock will produce water. So Moses says, "Hear now ye rebels!" and thwacks the rock with a rod, twice. The water comes out, but God is enraged. He says Moses "believed me not," and as a result God enforces a death penalty: Moses and his brother Aaron will not enter the promised land. They both die beforehand. Aaron dies when Moses takes him up on Mount Hor, and first strips him of his priestly garments. 

Our rabbi told of a famous midrash, or commentary, on the section, in which scholars of the Middle Ages imagined God tasking Moses to tell Aaron of his death. Moses is afraid, and holds back on telling Aaron, even as he leads him up the mountain, to a cave filled with the dead.

I found the story frightening and absurd. God’s punishment of the brothers is arbitrary and extreme. Our bat mitzvah girl sermonized that Moses was being punished for his "arrogance." With death? Jstor says many scholars have tried to rationalize the punishment. A waste of time, I say. (And another point for Christopher Hitchens’ attack on religion.) Then, too, Moses leading his brother up to a lonely death he hasn’t anticipated reminded me of Tony Soprano snuffing his nephew, Chris, in an auto accident in one of the final episodes of the hit HBO series, then coming back to the family and telling a bunch of lies. The Bible justifies a lot of violence.

The rabbi had an interesting interpretation of the episode. He said that we are all afraid to talk about death. Even God is afraid to tell Aaron of his death; and he makes Moses do the job. The rabbi then told a story of his own. A woman was dying. Her husband tried every day to jolly her. "You look great," when she wasn’t looking great. And he planned a trip to Florida. Every day he talked about the trip she would take when she got better. Finally he even bought tickets and brought them in to her. A friend of the couple visited , and the woman she said to him, "I know it’s a charade, but he does it to keep my spirits up, and I go along with him to keep his spirits up." The friend told the rabbi the story. The friend wondered if it was such a good plan. The rabbi said, No: The couple had cheated one another of the knowledge of death, and the resulting communication/understanding.

My wife, who lost a close friend not long ago, flared at the lesson. She said, "All you want in that situation is to try and find some pleasure in the day and gain peace of mind and acceptance. This couple had worked out a way of keeping their spirits up as the wife was dying. The rabbi would take away their one form of solace, and make them even more miserable about the terrible events they both knew lay ahead. This couple both knew what was happening, and they had found their own way of trying to make peace with death." (I’d note that my wife is no fan of Christian ministers, either.)

Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of

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