In this week’s parshah—Parshat Chukat—we learn why Moshe will not accompany Bnai Israel into the Land of Israel. The reason seems surprising: Tired, weary, and frightened from their journey in the desert, Bnai Israel complain once again to Moshe for having brought them there. Facing a wall of desert rock, they are thirsty and demand water. Moshe is weary and distraught at the constant demands of his people; he is in mourning after the death of Miriam, his sister. He has nothing left to give and cries out to God for help. God says to him: “Take your staff (stick) and gather the people together, with Aharon, and speak to the rock that is before their eyes, and it shall bring forth its waters.” Moshe and Aharon gather the people, but instead of “speaking” to the rock, Moshe strikes the rock with his staff in anger. Water pours out.
Then, God says to Moshe and Aharon: “Because you did not have trust in me to sanctify me (לְהַקְדִּישֵׁנִי / lehakdisheini) before the eyes of the people, you shall not bring this people into the land of Israel” (Bamidbar/Numbers 20:12). The consequence seems harsh. After all of their great leadership, Moshe and Aharon will not enter the land because Moshe struck rather than spoke to a rock? A close reading of the verse reveals that there is much more going on.
Moshe’s failure—and Aharon’s in his complicity and silence—were part of a larger failure to reveal God’s “uniqueness” to the people. The phrase lehakdisheni—translated literally as “to sanctify me”—comes from the root word kadosh, which implies specialness/uniqueness. Any decent magician of the ancient Middle East could hit a rock and bring out water—recall the magicians of Egypt, who also used their “staffs” for magic. But God is not interested in recyclable magic tricks. God teaches uniqueness. God wants the people and their leaders to perceive the unique possibilities that free people when they see uniqueness. Speech, rather than brute force, offers the possibility of free response from each unique speaker. This is how tefillah is the quintessential expression of Jewish free speech. This is why we speak with our children rather than hit them.
The uniqueness of God is at the core of Jewish theology: “You shall become unique (kedoshim) because I am unique (kadosh)” (Vayikra/Leviticus 19:2). Rabbi Heschel observes that in Judaism there are no “symbols” for God except one: a human being. Not just one symbolic human being, but each human being in his, her, or their uniqueness. The diversity of uniqueness.
I have always thoroughly appreciated the rainbow symbol chosen by the LGBTQ+ community to reflect the values of uniqueness and diversity. This symbol, borne out of the struggle to have one’s uniqueness acknowledged and recognized, serves as a teaching for all of us about what it means to be created in God’s image: unique.
This Shabbat, and during Pride month, may we all have many opportunities to reflect on the uniqueness of each person created in God’s image; and the freedom that comes from being able to see uniqueness wherever it is revealed.