"What Went Wrong? Moses Barred from the Promised Land"
Parshat Hukkat - June 14, 2013/ 7 Tammuz, 5773
In this week's Torah portion, Hukkat, we witness one of the most painful moments in the life of Moshe, our greatest teacher. At Mei Merivah - the waters of contention - Moses learns that he will not lead the Jewish people into the Promised Land because he did not follow God's command to speak to a rock.
What makes this episode so confusing is that the punishment does not seem to fit the crime. How can it be that Moses was punished so severely for what appears to be a minor infraction, especially when his erroneous actions bring forth water from the rock anyway?
Truth be told, there are other contentious episodes in Sefer Bamidbar when Moses' leadership could have been more effective. The failed mission of the spies, the rebellion of Korah and the grumbling of Miriam indicate that Moses's leadership is being challenged, even by those closest to him. Despite these challenges, it appears that Moses has job security as God's chosen leader of the Children of Israel.
If Moses could weather these storms of rebellion and discontent, then why would he be dismissed for what appears to be a minor infraction?
Moses and the rock is one of the most well known stories in the Torah. After the death of Miriam, the people want water. They go directly to Moses and Aaron, who are flustered by the intense grumbling of the people. After praying to Hashem, Moses is told to bring his staff and speak to a rock. Before fulfilling this directive, Moses angrily addresses the people. And then he hits the rock not once, but twice, after which waters gushes forth and quenches their thirst.
One might assume that since the end result is that the people's thirst is quenched, Moses would be forgiven. However, God immediately informs Moses that he is barred from the Promised Land because he did not sanctify God in the eyes of the people.
In light of this haunting story, we ask what went wrong?
Troubled by this very question, our traditional commentators try to explain why Moses' actions warrant a punishment that appears harsh to our human eyes.
Maimonides approaches this question from a leadership perspective. He believes that Moses' punishment is connected to his tone when addressing the people. He asserts:
"His whole sin lay in erring on the side of anger and deviating from the mean of patience, when he used the expression, 'Listen now, you rebels!' God censured Moses for this, that a man of his stature should vent his anger in front of the whole community of Israel, where anger was not called for." (Shemonah Perakim, Rambam's introduction to Pirke Avot)
The anger exhibited by Moses could have been misconstrued that Hashem was angry at the people for asking for their most basic human needs, namely sustenance. As a leader, Moses needs to be held accountable for his actions.
Nachmanides takes issue with how Moses introduces the miracle of bringing forth the water:
Moses made the fatal mistake of saying, 'Shall we bring forth water,' instead of saying 'Shall God bring you forth water,' as in all the other miracles where the power of God is always explicitly stressed. .. The people might have been misled into thinking that Moses and Aaron had extracted the water for them, by their own skill. Thus, they failed to 'sanctify Me (God) in the midst of the Children of Israel.
This interpretation reminds us of the concerns of the rabbis who wrote the Passover Hagaddah that limits Moses' exposure in order to eliminate any confusion about the divine source of miracles in Exodus.
Instead of analyzing what Moses did, Rashi focuses on his act of omission, namely not speaking to the rock as directed at Mei Merivah. He writes:
If you had spoken to the rock and it had brought forth water, I (God) would have been sanctified in the eyes of the congregation; and they would have said: "If this rock, which does not speak, does not hear, and does not require sustenance, fulfills the word of God, then certainly (we should do so)."
Rashi believes that by not speaking to the rock, Moses misses an opportunity to show the power of God. In his view, the people would be inspired by the rock changing its nature.
While Rashi's commentary is crucial to understanding what went wrong, I believe that the miraculous change of nature waiting to unfold involves not the rock, but Moses himself.
As we know, God tells Moses specifically to speak to the rock. This instruction is directed to a man who describes himself thirty nine years earlier as "not a man of words", which refers to his stutter. One can imagine the impact of a self-proclaimed non-man-of-words making water come out of a rock through speech supported by God.
In my opinion, this entire episode is God's test to see if Moses still sees himself as he did nearly forty years earlier. The question is whether Moses is still enslaved by his own physical challenges and insecurities, and what's at stake is the future leadership of the Jewish people.
By not speaking to the rock, Moses unfortunately shows that, despite God's assurances and countless miracles over 39 years, he still sees himself as he did before. Moses doesn't realize that to lead the next generation into Israel, God seeks someone who believes - and models - that we are all capable of becoming more than we ever imagined ourselves to be.
What appears to be a small infraction symbolizes the need for new leadership. In this painful story, Moses serves, once again, as our greatest teacher about what holds us back and how we can move forward.