The Bechor Shor presents an understanding of Parshat Chukat that is so innovative and non traditional that it is very hard to accept, though he was not the only one to do so. The vast majority of commentaries completely reject his idea. While the evidence seems to be stacked against him, no study of the Bechor Shor would be complete without reviewing this issue.
In Parshat Chukat we have the well known episode of the Jewish people complaining about water, and Moshe hitting the rock to draw forth water:
The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there. The community was without water, and they joined against Moses and Aaron. The people quarreled with Moses, saying, “If only we had perished when our brothers perished at the instance of the LORD! Why have you brought the LORD’s congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there? Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink!” Moses and Aaron came away from the congregation to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and fell on their faces. The Presence of the LORD appeared to them, and the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts.” Moses took the rod from before the LORD, as He had commanded him. Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank. But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” (Bamidbar 20:1-12)
When did this incident occur? The simple answer is that it occurred in the 40th year of the travels in the desert, immediately following the death of Miriam and prior to the incidents with Edom and Amalek (See Ibn Ezra and Rashi to Shemot 20:1-2). After all, that is the order in which the Torah records these events. Many of the commentaries note that between the end of Parshat Korach and the beginning of Parshat Chukat is a lull of 38 years.
The Bechor Shor has a different take on the matter. He argues that this incident is one in the same with another recorded incident wherein the Jewish people complained about water. All the way back in Parshat Beshalach we have a similar story:
From the wilderness of Sin the whole Israelite community continued by stages as the LORD would command. They encamped at Rephidim, and there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses. “Give us water to drink,” they said; and Moses replied to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you try the LORD?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” Moses cried out to the LORD, saying, “What shall I do with this people? Before long they will be stoning me!” Then the LORD said to Moses, “Pass before the people; take with you some of the elders of Israel, and take along the rod with which you struck the Nile, and set out. I will be standing there before you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock and water will issue from it, and the people will drink.” And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel. The place was named Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and because they tried the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD present among us or not?” (Shemot 17:1-7)
The Bechor Shor writes that the general style of the Torah is to a record a story in one area of the Torah and then provide greater detail and elaboration in another area. He gives the story of the spies as an example wherein only by reading both Parshat Shelach as well as Parshat Devarim do we get the whole picture.
The Bechor Shor therefore maintains that these two stories from Chukat and Beshalach are the same incident. The story of complaining about water and hitting the rock only happened once, not twice. One of the proofs of this position that the Bechor Shor suggests is that in Parshat Vezot Heberacha, the Torah uses the word Massah, ostensibly a reference to Parshat Beshalach, in conjunction with the words mei merivah, a reference to Parshat Chukat.
So according to the Bechor Shor, in which time period did the story actually happen, Chukat or Beshalach? There is a very significant difference between the two. The events of Chukat are in year 40 of the desert, and the events of Beshalach are in year one. Did Miriam die in year one or in year 40? Or perhaps Miriam’s death is not connected with this incident. Did Moshe’s own decree of not being able to enter the Land of Israel occur in year one or year 40? Did the Jewish people learn this valuable lesson in the beginning of their travels or at the end?
These are all big questions for the approach of the Bechor Shor. It would be convenient to suggest for the Bechor Shor that the incident truly occurred in year 40, and it is only mentioned in Parshat Beshalach as a foreshadowing. In the context of the Manna that the Jewish people are given in Parshat Beshalach, the Torah also notes their water source. But the mishap with that water source only occurs much later, in Parshat Chukat.
While this is may be a fair read of the Bechor Shor, it’s difficult. Usually a story is recorded and then later in the Torah more details are given, not the other way around.
However there is even stronger reason to suggest that the Bechor Shor believed that the entire incident occurred during the first year of travel in the desert. There is an opinion in the Midrash that suggests this as well.
The Mishnah in Avot states:
Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said: Do not try to appease your friend during his hour of anger; Nor comfort him at the hour while his dead still lies before him; Nor question him at the hour of his vow; Nor strive to see him in the hour of his disgrace. (Avot 4:18)
The Midrash (Midrash Tennaim, Devarim 3:26, Yalkut Shimoni 743:19) notes that Moshe understood the importance of not appeasing a person when he is angry and therefore did not beseech God to let him enter the Land of Israel once the decree to the contrary was made. Rather, records the Midrash, Moshe waited 40 years prior to asking God if he could enter the land.
If the incident of Moshe and the rock occurred in the first year of the desert, Parshat Beshalach, then this Midrash makes sense. Moshe waited 40 years after the incident to ask God if he could go into Israel. But if the incident occurred in year 40, it would not have been possible for Moshe to wait another 40 years before asking to enter the Land of Israel.
While this approach of the Bechor Shor is challenging based on our understanding of the geography of the Land of Israel (the difference between Midbar Tzin and Midbar Sin) and the timing of other elements of the story (Miriam’s death, the existence of the Ohel Moed) it does leave us with a powerful message. Never give up!
Despite being told at the beginning of the journey in the desert that he would not enter the Land of Israel, Moshe nonetheless dedicated his life to the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. And at the end of his life he asked God one more time if he could enter the Land. He never gave up.