May 27, 2024
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May 27, 2024
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Chukat: The Busted Rabbi

Officer Danny Seidel sat in his squad car looking at the computer screen in front of him. In all of his duties as an Englewood policeman, this was one of his least favorite. He ran the plates on the 2008 Toyota Avalon that he had pulled over on Tenafly Road (New Jersey, VWV541), but he already knew what he was going to find. It was clean. There were no outstanding violations. How could there be?

He got out of the car, lights still flashing, and approached the driver. Here it comes…

“Good morning, Rabbi.”

“Hi, Danny, how are you on this bright, beautiful spring day?”

“Fine, sir. You were going a little fast there, weren’t you Rabbi Z.?”

Rabbi Zimmerman smiled. “Yes, I tend to get lost in my thoughts, and the next thing I know the car is racing as fast as my mind. I think it’s an occupational hazard.”

“I believe the speed limit on Tenafly Road is 35. Any idea how fast you were going?”


“Not quite, Rabbi Z. I clocked you on the radar gun at 47.”

“Wow, that is fast. I had no idea.”

“Yes, sir. And do you know how long it’s been since the last time we had a conversation?”

“Do you mean in synagogue or in general? Because I don’t think I’ve seen you in shul in years.”

Danny sighed. “No, sir. I mean do you know how long it’s been since I last pulled you over for speeding on this very road?”

“I would think it’s been a few years.”

“Actually, it’s only been five months.”

“Five months, you say. I wouldn’t have guessed that.”

“Yes, sir.”

“So I guess you’re going to give me a ticket.”

Danny looked down at his well-shined shoes for what seemed like a long time before he spoke. “Actually, I’m going to let you off with a warning, Rabbi Zimmerman. I think you should be more careful next time.”

“I don’t think so, Danny.”

“What’s that, sir?”

“I think you’re going to have to give me a ticket this time, Officer Seidel.”

“How’s that?”

“I think I need to be penalized for my traffic violation. I am a repeat offender, and I need to be held responsible.”

Danny stared at Rabbi Zimmerman. He thought of what would happen if he actually gave the rabbi a ticket. He could hear the razzing his friends would give him. He could imagine the call from his mother. This was not good.

“I would just as soon not ticket you, Rabbi Z. I’m sure you’ve learned your lesson.”

“I’m afraid not, Danny. You see, in this week’s Torah portion, parshat Chukat, we see that even great leaders such as Moshe and Aharon can get punished. God tells them that they can’t lead the the Israelites into the Promised Land because when the nation was thirsty for water, Moshe struck the rock instead of speaking to it as God had instructed.”

“That’s very interesting, Rabbi, but—”

“Actually, you’re right, Danny, that is very interesting. All the Torah commentators wrestle with this issue. Were Moshe and Aharon really deserving of such a harsh punishment? The Abravanel suggests that they were being punished for previous sins that they committed, but Hashem saved the punishment for now. They weren’t punished immediately for their earlier sins because God wanted to protect their reputations out of respect for His loyal servants.”

“OK, Rabbi, I think—”

“Rashi, on the other hand, states that Moshe was being punished for his action at Mei Meriva with the rock. He disobeyed God’s explicit command, and for that he diminished God’s name. The punishment fit the crime.”

“That’s all very interesting, Rabbi Z., but I still—”

“The Rambam, on the other hand, feels that Moshe’s sin was showing his anger to the Israelites instead of demonstrating patience. His attitude was the key to his sin.”

“Rabbi, please, you’re making this unnecessarily diffic—”

“Personally, I think that the true sin at Mei Meriva had to do with Moshe’s leadership style. He was better equipped to lead the slaves who came out of Egypt, not the new generation that had grown up in the desert. He is more of a hit-the-rock kind of leader. The subtlety needed to speak to the rock would fall to someone more nuanced, like Yehoshua. Do you know what I mean?”

“Yes, Rabbi Z., I see your point.”

“So you’ll give me the ticket?”

“As a matter of fact, I think I will.”

Danny turned to walk back to his patrol car to write up the moving violation. Rabbi Zimmerman stepped out of his Toyota to follow him back and continue the conversation.

“Please stay in your car, Rabbi.”

Rabbi Zimmerman shrugged his shoulders and got back in his car.

Danny climbed into the cruiser and smiled. For the first time in his entire adult life, in his long relationship with Rabbi Z., he finally got the last word.

This story is loosely based on a dvar Torah by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, “Punishment Fitting the Crime?” Unlocking the Torah Text: Bamidbar, Shmuel Goldin, Gefen Press, 2013, pp 194–202.

Larry Stiefel is a pediatrician at Tenafly Pediatrics.

By Larry Stiefel

Bamidbar: 20: 7-14

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