God Squad: Why Moses was punished

God Squad

Rabbi Marc Gellman God Squad

Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.

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Why was Moses punished because he doubted water would arise in the desert? It seems like such a trivial reason for punishment after being a faithful servant for such a long time.

-- L., Ocala, Fla.

Moses' refusal to obey God's command at the waters of Meribah is really two nearly identical stories.

In Exodus (17:5-7), God tells Moses to hit a rock, and it yields water. Later, in Numbers (20:7-13), the people are thirsty again at Meribah, and this time God tells Moses to just speak to the rock -- not a huge difference -- but Moses hits the rock again instead of speaking to it. God is upset, and for this seemingly trivial mistake-disobedience Moses is refused entry into the Promised Land. Finally, I think I have figured it out.

The Exodus story (hit the rock) occurs before the revelation at Mount Sinai, and the Numbers story (speak to the rock) occurs after Sinai. I believe that God hoped the world of force and power would not be needed after Sinai. Moses' refusal to understand this change led him to continue the old ways and hit the rock.

The problem God had with the Exodus was the problem with every subsequent emancipation in world history. Getting the people out of Egypt was much easier than getting Egypt out of the people. Slavery is not just a state of physical servitude, but also, and primarily, a state of mental and spiritual servitude. Moses made God's work harder by his refusal to show the limits of force in achieving true liberation. God had reason to be very angry with his servant Moses.

Perhaps Moses did know all this and purposely disobeyed God because Moses realized that the people would need God's force and power to enter and to settle the land. Moses may have been trying to teach God that Sinai came too soon. Such is the dilemma of power in a world trying to find both God and freedom.

I just read your column about how you use Psalm 130 as your prayer in the darkest times. Good choice. I thought you might enjoy hearing what I do. In dark times, for reasons I don't fully understand, I tend to sing "Help Me, Rhonda," a 1964 song by the Beach Boys. I only sing the chorus, substituting words for whatever my problem happens to be in place of "Get her out of my heart." A mild example might be: "Help me, Rhonda, help, help me, Rhonda (repeated several times) "Be more patient with mom." I think God is beyond gender, so calling him "Rhonda" seems OK. Also, as a Catholic, I acknowledge my Judeo-Christian heritage, and Rhonda strikes me as a more Jewish name. (I realize there's no such thing, but I trust you know what I mean.) Sometimes, singing that chorus is the best I can do, and as feeble an attempt as it may be, I generally feel better.

P.S.: Warm regards to your friend Msgr. Tom Hartman, and please tell him I pray for him.-- M.

I think I can safely say you're the first and only person who's ever called God "Rhonda," but your joyous and hopeful spirit has lifted me up.

Tommy is still struggling with Parkinson's disease, but I will share with him your compassionate prayers. He's often told me that he believes many popular songs are really modern psalms. I agree, and I would love to hear from other readers about songs that give them a spiritual boost.

As for me, Bob Dylan's "Forever Young" tops the list. His reference to building a ladder to the stars and climbing on every rung takes me right back to Jacob's dream and helps me look up so I can see more than mud. Here are the lyrics:

May God bless and keep you always

May your wishes all come true

May you always do for others

And let others do for you

May you build a ladder to the stars

And climb on every rung

May you stay forever young

Forever young, forever young

May you stay forever young.

May you grow up to be righteous

May you grow up to be true

May you always know the truth

And see the lights surrounding you

May you always be courageous

Stand upright and be strong

May you stay forever young

Forever young, forever young

May you stay forever young.

May your hands always be busy

May your feet always be swift

May you have a strong foundation

When the winds of changes shift.

May your heart always be joyful

And may your song always be sung

May you stay forever young

Forever young, forever young

May you stay forever young.