Contact Us

Waters of Strife

Waters of Strife

The Price of Leadership


One of the most puzzling passages in the Torah is the story of the Waters of Strife, in the wake of which G‑d decreed that Moses would die in the desert and would not enter the Land of Israel.

A hundred generations of Torah scholars, beginning with Moses himself and continuing with the sages of the Midrash, the biblical commentaries and the chassidic masters, struggle with this enigmatic chapter. As we speak, someone is writing a “Parshah piece” that searches for some explanation of the event, or at least a lesson to be derived from it.

But first the facts (as related in Numbers 20:1–13):

After traveling for forty years in the wilderness, the people of Israel arrive in Kadesh in the Zin Desert, on the border of the Holy Land. There is no water, the people are thirsty, and as they are wont to do in similar circumstances, they complain to Moses. It is not a pretty sight. “If only we had died,” they rage, “when our brethren died before G‑d! Why have you brought the congregation of G‑d to this desert, to die there, we and our cattle? Why have you taken us out of Egypt—to bring us to this evil place . . . ?”

Moses calls on G‑d, who instructs him to “take the staff, and gather the people, you and Aaron your brother. You shall speak to the rock before their eyes, and it will give its water.” When all are assembled before the rock, Moses addresses the people: “Listen, rebellious ones! Shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?” Moses raises his hand and strikes the rock twice with his staff. Water gushes forth, and the people and their cattle drink.

Whereupon G‑d says to Moses and Aaron: “Because you did not believe in Me, to sanctify Me before the eyes of the Children of Israel, therefore you will not bring this congregation into the land I have given them.”

What did Moses do wrong? What was the sin that warranted such a devastating punishment?

The commentaries search the text for clues. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040–1105) points out that G‑d instructed Moses to speak to the rock, while Moses struck it. Thus, he failed to “sanctify Me before the eyes of the Children of Israel” (extracting water by speaking would have been a greater miracle).

Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135–1204) has a different explanation: Moses’ failing was that he got angry and spoke harshly to the people (his “Listen, you troublemakers!” speech).

(The chassidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740–1810) has an interesting insight here: Rashi’s and Maimonides’ explanations, says the Berditchever, are two sides of the same coin. A tzaddik is not only a leader of his people, but also the master of his environment. These two roles are intertwined, the latter deriving from the former. If a leader’s relationship with his people is loving and harmonious, then the physical world, too, willingly yields its resources to the furtherance of their goals. But if his influence is achieved through harsh words of rebuke, then he will find it necessary to do battle with nature at every turn, and forcefully impose his will on the physical world.)

Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194–1270) finds difficulty with both explanations. If Moses wasn’t supposed to strike the rock, he argues, why did G‑d tell him to take along his staff? The Torah repeats this fact, further emphasizing that “Moses took along the staff from the presence of G‑d, as He had commanded him.” In light of G‑d’s instructions to Moses on a previous occasion to extract water from a rock by striking it (see Exodus 17:6), was it not reasonable for Moses to assume that the staff was to serve a similar function in this case? (Unless G‑d was setting him up for this—but more on that later.) As for Maimonides’ explanation, there were other instances in which the Torah tells us (more explicitly than in this case) that Moses got angry, and for apparently less justification. If no punishment was decreed in those cases, why now?

Nachmanides offers his explanation: Moses erred in saying to the people, “Shall we then bring forth water for you from this rock?”—words that can be seen as implying that extracting water from a rock is something that Moses, rather than G‑d, does. The moment a leader assumes an identity of his own, and his accomplishments are attributed to him personally—the moment he comes to embody anything other than his people’s collective identity and their relationship with G‑d—he has failed in his role. (Nachmanides finds support for his explanation in G‑d’s opening words to Moses, “Because you did not believe in Me . . .”—implying that this was a failure of faith rather than a lapse of obedience or a surrender to anger.)

But there is one common denominator in these and the numerous other explanations offered by the commentaries: the implication that whatever the problem was, it wasn’t really the problem. Basically, G‑d is getting Moses on a technicality. In his arguments with G‑d, Moses senses this, in effect saying to G‑d: “You set me up!”

The text supports his complaint. Forty years earlier there occurred the incident of the spies, in which the generation that came out of Egypt and received the Torah at Sinai revealed themselves to be unwilling and unable to progress to the next stage of G‑d’s plan—to enter and take possession of the Holy Land. At that time, the Torah recounts, G‑d decreed that the entire generation (all males above the age of 20) would die out in the desert. With the sole exception of two men. “Except for Caleb the son of Yefuneh and Joshua the son of Nun,” the two spies who resisted the plot of their ten colleagues (Numbers 14:30).

Moses, who craved to enter the Holy Land with every fiber of his being, was not guilty of the sin of the spies, so some other pretext had to be found. Since “with the righteous, G‑d is exacting to a hairsbreadth,” it wasn’t impossible to find a pretext. But G‑d had already determined 40 years earlier that the entire generation—Moses and Aaron included—would not enter the Land. “This is a plot that you contrived against me,” the Midrash quotes Moses saying to the Almighty.

Indeed, why? If Moses was innocent of his generation’s sin, why was it decreed that he share their fate? There is a poignant Midrash that offers the following parable:

A shepherd was given the king’s flock to feed and care for, but the flock was lost. When the shepherd sought to enter the royal palace, the king refused him entry. “When the flock that was entrusted to you is recovered, you, too, will be admitted.”

The original plan was that the 600,000 whom Moses took out of Egypt should enter the Land. But that generation remained in the desert. You are their leader, said G‑d to Moses. Their fate is your fate.

This message is implicit in G‑d’s words to Moses immediately following his striking of the rock: “. . . therefore, you will not bring this congregation into the land I have given them.” From this the Midrash deduces: “This congregation” you will not bring in; that congregation you will. “This congregation”—the generation whom Moses confronted at the rock—was not Moses’ generation. His generation were buried in the desert.

When they will enter the Land, G‑d is saying to Moses—and they will, when the final redemption will redeem all generations of history—you will lead them in.

Yanki Tauber served as editor of
Artwork by Yossi Rosenstein
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with's copyright policy.
Join the Discussion
Sort By:
1000 characters remaining
Anonymous toronto August 26, 2014

power and authority Every leader in this land wants the Temple Mount. He wants the power and authority of being a leader to the flock, but none of them can be trusted with their flock whatever the religion . And one cannot continue placing the people at the mercy of the leaders. God will choose a righteous leader who will reveal the enemy of the people but will also choose one who is worthy to serve as a leader to the people of the land. Reply

james krieger denison tx. June 24, 2013

waters of strife first is - G-D wants out spiritual life to be in his order, - second is - that G-D will bless our physical needs. Reply

Dann Montevideo, R.O.U. July 1, 2012

Waters of strife and .another point of view in it Maybe Yehoshua bin Nun was the right leader to enter in Canaan. Not Moshe despite all his glory and wisdom and blessing.The importance of Yehoshua in conquering the Holy land is very big.
Another point of view, may be the spiritual essence of the Sinai desert. A region of breaking, of change of situations. Both in the past and in the present. Nowadays we all hope the new regime in Egypt will remain loyal to the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty of 1978-79 and the code word is again the Sinai desert and its control. The history repeats itself.
Excellent explanation by Yanki Tauber in the Price of the Leadership Reply

Fred Fox Tiburon, Ca June 29, 2012

striking the rock? if G-d told Moses to speak to the rock and water would flow, why did G-d allow water to flow when Moses struck the rock? Reply

Eliyahu Ya'acov Ben Avraham Tennesser June 27, 2012

Moses When G-D instructed Moses to carry his staff to the rock and stand there and speak to the rock to bring forth water it was a way to magnify G-D him striking the rock it made him seem that Moses created water from this rock and because Aaron stood there with Mose he was guilty as well for not carrying out G-D instructions...Aaron should have stopped Moses from hitting the rock he just stood there.,,the morale to this story is just because G-D told you to hit the rock a month ago and you carried out his will then and two months later he tells you for the same reason to bring forth water from a rock by speaking to it this time means you must follow instructions for that moment and not second guess G-D cause he told you in the past to do it another way Moses took the glory away from G-D in front of the nation of israel because he wanted to show them he was with them no matter what... Reply

Catherine ny, ny June 27, 2012

a blessing I think God was saving Moses from the hardships wars and suffering the Jews were going to face in the "promised land ". After all he was 120 years old. He might not have had the leadership qualities he used to have. He actually saw the land before be died and maybe that was enough for him.
Joshua now needed to show his abilities and the new generation they could make it without "dad " being there. It was their turn. Reply

David Levant Emerson, N.J. June 27, 2012

Moses and the rock I never saw this as a punishment,but rather a final test for Moses for he was soon to die. Moses was brought to a place to view The Promised Land but was refused entry.I think G-D had bigger plans for Moses after his passing,and thats why he never entered The Promised Land. Reply

Rafael Segura i Garcia Valencia, Spain June 26, 2012

Waters of strife In order to determine this subject, first it should be settled whether Moses was a tool in G'D's hands or beyond, so as to determine if his fate was deserved or not. Reply

Eugina G Herrera New York, New York June 26, 2012

"Listen Rebellious One" Moses got penalized from G-d. Moses set himself up by not following what G-d prescribed. In other words, Moses (HE) must follow the law prescribed in the Torah. Moses used G-d's name in Vain with his Wrathful Voice. In other words, G-d says to Moses "You will lead and they will follow" by the Commandments of One G-d. Reply

Lamont Myers Boston, Ma. June 26, 2012

waters of strife and waters of purpose we all have a purpose, moses` was to lead as ours is also but, also to follow. When we fail at either, strife is going to occur . with G-d at the helm and our intent clear it may appear to us we failed but in the larger picture we learn from our error and repent , and thus succeed as we are learning and leading Reply

Franklin Yola, Nigeria October 18, 2011

Understanding After reading this response I understand to a great extent why Moses didn't enter the promised land. May G-d continue to bless and increase Chabad's team wisdom. Amen Reply

Anonymous Sydney , Australia July 4, 2008

Beautiful Picture I love the picture you have used for "waters of strife"

Am I able to order a print? Reply

Peter Clyne Sydney, Australia July 2, 2008

Moses taking the credit? Yes, it is well-noticed that "G-d told Moses to take his staff. But he also told Moses to take Aaron. That was no accident - G-d doesn't do accidents. So imagine the scene: Moses is is standing at the rock with his brother Aaron and he addresses the crowd: "Listen, rebellious ones! Shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?". If I had been in that crowd and heard and saw Moses say that, I would think he was referring to Aaron and himself - they are the two people standing by the rock. Why should I think the "we" refers to someone I can't see when there are two people there whom I can see very clearly (and G-d made sure that Aaron would be there, so He had a reason for making him an invitee)? Would you? Now, if it's "my brother Aaron and I" rather than "G-d and I" then, rather than joining G-d's team, which is not Moses' place to do, Moses has actually removed G-d from the team, which is gross insubordination. I can see why Moses got into trouble. Reply

chaim S.M., ca June 21, 2007

moses taking credit? This isn't the only time in the Torah that Moshe uses the first person. in the second paragraph of the Shema Moshe sais,:I will give grass in your fields for your animals..."
I guess that this Question is directed at Nachmanidies. But i do like the idea of Moshe staying with his people. Reply

Stephen Rabon June 21, 2007

This is a very good explanation of what exactly occured in the situation of Moses striking the rock. I've wondered ever since I heard the story as a kid just why Moses would defy G-d after all those years, especially with something as simple as talking to a rock rather than striking it. While reading the Parshah last night it grabbed my attention, for the first time, when Moses said "Shall WE then bring forth water for you from this rock?". It just seems to me that he was in fact taking some credit for what G-d is ultimately responsible for. It is understandable to be a little frustrated however and to want a little credit after all those seriously difficult decades of faithful service. That being said, it doesn't make it right. It's a truly amazing story and it just goes to show how much attention to detail that G-d truly expects from us when it comes to observing his commandments. Following every detail with faith in our creator is indeed very important. Reply

Anonymous May 13, 2006

Perhaps a moment of human weakness? Showing that we have to remain vigilant and subservient to G–d at ALL times. Reply

Russell Tabak November 11, 2005

This article explains in great detail why G-d does not allow Moses to enter the holy land. However it still does not explain the why after DECADES of loyal service Moses would go ahead and do something as foolish as defying G-d right before the entrance to the holy land.... Reply

Eric S. Kingston North Hollywood, CA March 18, 2005

Waters of Strife The simplest thing that exists is a rock. Yet it too contains vessels of Holiness (the Ari). As is known, all matter is trapped energy.

This situation (the Waters of Strife) was to give example to Israel that the most mundane contain elements of the higher water and light. Yet to free it from its husk one should be as one with it on its holy level not clash energy with it on its most base physical level. G-ds Anger is from the example that is seen by the Children of Israel before the eyes of the Children of Israel. Almost as if G-d says, Look, being harsh with nature will set you up to battle with it at all times. This will inevitably lead to more unnecessary strife and frustration with existence. Moses, Peace be with him, is setting a higher example for all (Kol) Israel. G-d wants words used to solve things, then as well as now. But let us not single out Moses for this action; we all have a lot to learn. Reply

Related Topics