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Was Hitting the Rock Such a Big Deal?

Was Hitting the Rock Such a Big Deal?

A Matter of Perception


Professor Herman Branover is a Russian-Israeli physicist and Jewish educator, known in the scientific community as the leading pioneer in the field of magneto­hydrodynamics.

Over the years, Branover undertook to translate some of the fundamental works of Judaism into Russian.

At one point in his extensive publishing career he decided to translate a classic introduction to Judaism by the famed novelist Herman Wouk, titled This Is My G‑d.

Before doing so, he had occasion to visit the Lubavitcher Rebbe for a private audience. One of the things he brought up was his plan to have the book translated into Russian. He presented the Rebbe with an English copy of the book, whose cover looks like this:

The Rebbe chuckled and asked: “This is my G‑d, Herman Wouk?” He then continued seriously: “With Mr. Wouk’s permission, I would encourage you to change the title. There is a possibility, however remote, that a Russian Jew ignorant of his or her religion might mistake the author for the subject of the book.”1

Access Denied

It’s not a comfortable thing to see a beloved figure of authority begging for something. It’s even harder to witness their rejection. Yet that’s what we are witness to towards the end of the Five Books of Moses, when Moses implores G‑d to allow him entry into the Holy Land and his request is denied.

Moses’ devastation upon hearing his fate is well documented in the Midrash.2

The question has been asked a thousand times.

Why is Moses denied entry into the Holy Land? Why does G‑d reject the only personal request of Moses to be recorded in the Bible?3

With devotion, he’d led the Israelites on their bumpy roller-coaster ride into nationhood. He’d been to hell and back with them, from Egypt to Sinai, and yet he wouldn’t be there to witness their triumph upon reaching the end of the road.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Some background to the story:

After traveling for forty years in the wilderness, the people of Israel arrived in Kadesh in the Zin Desert, on the border of the Holy Land. Upon arrival, the people discovered that there was no water in Kadesh, and they complained to Moses. “If only we had died,” they vented, “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 called on G‑d, who instructed 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 were assembled before the rock, Moses addressed them: “Listen, rebellious ones! Shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?” Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed forth, and the people and their cattle drank.

Whereupon G‑d said 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.”

Presented are the hard facts. Their interpretation is less straightforward. What exactly was Moses’ crime? Why did G‑d come down so hard on His loyal servant for committing what seems to be a minor offense?

The commentaries offer a wide range of answers. We’ll focus on one of them.

Nachmanides4 explains that Moses erred in saying to the people, “Shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?”—words that can be seen to imply that extracting water from a rock is something that Moses does, rather than G‑d.

Now obviously that isn’t what Moses believed—he was, after all, G‑d’s most loyal servant, and the greatest prophet to have ever lived. But that doesn’t mean that his listeners wouldn’t misunderstand his words.

You see, here’s the thing with Moses. Moses possessed two qualities that when brought together produced an unhelpful side effect. He was a man of unequivocal truth, and paradoxically he saw the world’s inhabitants from an ideal place—as they should be, but not necessarily as they were. As such, at times he had a hard time conceiving of and anticipating human weaknesses and limitations.

For example, in our instance he simply didn’t imagine the possibility that his words might be understood as a statement that he operated independent of G‑d.

Additionally, because of his supreme integrity, he cared more about what needed to be said than about how his words might be taken. From Moses’ perspective, the moment a leader begins to think about how his words are received by the people he leads, he has narrowed the gap between his thought process and theirs, and in doing so has compromised that which makes him worthy to lead—namely, the ability to see things from a higher and more objective place than the average man.

[In a sense, then, Aaron was the greatest complement and counterbalance to Moses. First of all, he understood human weakness, and worked to help people in their current flawed state. Second, and perhaps resultantly, he embodied the attribute of peace, which is often achievable only through compromise.]

Understanding the nature of Moses’ purist perspective, and his corollary innocence regarding the hazards of perception, sheds light on G‑d’s decision to keep Moses from leading the people into the Promised Land.

A Shift of Focus

Jewish mysticism sees the journey from Sinai to Canaan not just as a change in scenery, but as a shift of mission and mentality.

The lifestyle of the Israelites in the desert was spiritual in nature. Its purpose was to fortify the spiritual vitality and constitution of this nascent nation tasked with being a light unto the nations. All of their physical needs were provided for by G‑d, to free them of distractions from study and prayer. Could there be a more idyllic state of existence than that?

Canaan would be different, though. There would be a need to fight wars, work the land and engage in commerce. The party would be over.

The Israelites would enter the “real world” in all its ugliness. Accordingly, they needed a leader who had come to terms with a flawed world, who would be able to appreciate the frailties of human nature. This perspective would enable him to deal with an imperfect people about to face greater challenges than ever, and it would help him help his people transition into their new reality and role.

Perhaps, then, we might view Moses’ word-choice at Kadesh—his use of “we” instead of “He”—less as a sin against G‑d and more as an indicator that, due to his lack of awareness of his people’s thought process, he wasn’t the one to lead the people into the next phase of their destiny.

Rather than regarding the exclusion of Moses from the Land as a severe punishment, we might see it as the logical conclusion which resulted from his approach to leadership.

In the desert, Moses had the luxury of attempting to transform the people’s way of thinking into his own; but in Canaan, where they would be overwhelmed by the challenges of materialism, whoever led them would need to learn their thought processes intimately if he was to guide them effectively.

What’s in It for Me?

In one capacity or another, we are all leaders and communicators, influencing others through our words and actions. “Perception is reality,” goes the saying.

In other words, most often it’s not what we say or do that impacts others, but the way our words and actions are understood by our audience.

It’s not enough to say good things; we must say the right things, or make sure to say good things the right way.

In the real world, what we mean to say or do is irrelevant.

We could ignore that fact, or embrace it. We can rise to the challenge of communication, or shirk our responsibility because it demands extra thought and effort.

The choice is ours.


With Mr. Wouk’s permission, and based on his suggestion, the book’s title was changed to Remember Your Grandfather.


See Midrash Rabbah, Tanchuma, and Yalkut Shimoni ad loc.

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Yehuda Shurpin for June 25, 2015

Re: Why add to the truth? As Rashi explains in his commentary on Numbers 20:12 Had Moses spoken to the rock and it had given forth [water], I would have been sanctified in the eyes of the congregation. They would have said,"If this rock, which neither speaks nor hears, and does not require sustenance, fulfills the word of the Omnipresent, how much more should we! Reply

Mark Shelling Mansfield, Vic June 22, 2015

Why add to the truth? Seems everyone is not willing to accept the words of Torah as stated.
1- Children thirsty because no water
2- Complain to Moshe because he is our leader and he did get water once before
3- Moshe asks G-d what to do, as this always worked
4- God tells Moshe what to do, and Moshe messes it up.
5- Moshe hits the rock twice to get water instead of talking to it. (This rock has ears?)
6- Moshe's muck up still produces the water for complaining children
7- G-d correctly judges Moshe's behaviour by deciding he will die outside Canaan
8- G-d gives H-s reason for doing so as "you did not believe M-e, to hallow M-e in the eyes of the children..."
9- G-d WAS hallowed by the children at Meribah
10- Moshe wanted to enter Canaan, but was not given permission by G-d (for the reasons H-e gave).

So it seems to me the real question is
What was so important about the ROCK? Reply

David R. Silver Pikesville, MD, USA July 9, 2012

Hitting the rock #2 There is an other way to look at this story. G-D knew what would happen, then you may ask why would G-D put Moses beyween the rock and the hard place ,so to speak . I would like to ask a question. Why did G-D make an example of Moses? Anyway I wonder if the people really knew what was wrong. So, what was the reason that G-D put Moses in this predicament, knowing full well that he would fail? Reply

sura daverta kingston, Jamaica July 4, 2012

numbers 20:12 If you read my comment about 'miracle' you would see that I did focus on the point you made.

What I envisioned is that the people needed to see something that could have no other explanation save miracle. That there could be no doubt that was Ha Shem said;

"because you did not believe in Me, to sanctify Me . . "

Is the key feature.

By striking the rock the cause and effect;

"The Water came because Moses hit the Rock"...

is exactly what was trying to be avoided. Reply

Anonymous Apollo, PA July 3, 2012

Numbers 20:12 With discussion and articles read, I find it disconcerting that verse 12 is not talked about. It is this verse that spells out the reason . . . "because you did not believe in Me, to sanctify Me . . " that Moses, and for that matter, Aaron as well, could not enter the Promised Land. Has there been any discussion on this, for what I have mostly encountered were nothing more than excuses to let Moses off the hook, when it seems that God took this much more seriously? Reply

Stephen Moore Inglewood, CA via June 28, 2012

Prophets aren't perfect Moses was the greatest hebrew prophet, but like any other human, he wasn't without a yetzer hara. Sometimes he was angered and had outbursts. Add this to the immense leadership responsibilities and stress of survival, and we can only imagine how this anger was amplified. Of course, Moses wasn't the only tzadik to be denied entry into Eretz. The Baal Shem Tov was also given this harsh sentence. With power comes responsibility. Reply

Anonymous Prescott, AR/US June 28, 2012

Moshe The first time G_d DID tell Moshe to strike the rock. The second time to speak to the rock.
Did you notice he told him to take his rod and speak to the rock? Perhaps Moshe made an assumption. The first time he struck, the second time G_d told to to take his in his mind he flashes back to the first time. He didn't fully listen to the details in G_d's instruction. Is it possible that a part of the problem (besides the "we" in his statement) was that he assumed from the conversation that he " knew" the rest of what G_d was going to tell him.
I know there are times people talk to me and I jump ahead in my brain "knowing" what they are going to tell me...and actually shut them off and stop listening. Reply

sura daverta kingston, Jamaica June 28, 2012

I think ... To my mind the reason Moses was told to speak to the rock in front of everyone was to prove beyond a doubt that this was a miracle with no scientific explanation.

I feel that the people tended to find scientific explanations then, as they do today. And that if Moses had stood by the rock and made a quiet statement, such as; "Grant us water..." without touching the rock then the people would have no other way of interpreting this miracle.

Hitting the rock can lead to connecting the striking with the outpouring of water; 'cause and effect'.

The purpose was not simply to give water to the people, the purpose was the miracle. Reply

David R. Silver Pikesville, MD, USA June 27, 2012

Hitting the rock The one thing I think that G-D hates the most is an image of Himself that is unlike Him. G-D hates any missrepresentation. For Moses to strike the rock, then water comes forth it would appear that Moses made the water. The people thought that Moses did it, which took credit away from G-D. G-D states in other places that He would not share his glory. That, I think is the big sin. Yes hitting the rock was a big deal. Reply

af sp June 27, 2012

article Does this makes the explanation why Moses died? Would we have eternity and Moshiach with him in case he would have make it through speaking to the rock and sanctifying Hashem's glory in the world through this act as well?
According to the facts, seems that it shows our purpose in life is to to bring Hashem's glory in every thought, speech and action in this world, whether the audience is there or not, in the mineral, vegetal, animal & humans! We want Moshiach now, we don't want to wait! Kol tov! Reply

LT Fair Lawn, NJ June 26, 2012

It is all good and for the good Perhaps Moshe knew what he was doing-making a reason why he shouldn't go into the land, as he knew that this was not for him. He fulfilled his purpose. He prepared Joshua for this. His request to enter was to show respect to the generation that would enter. He should desire to enter, just as the people should. Was it strange for this event to happen just before entering? My question is not about Moshe, what he or HaShem did, but with the Children of Israel. Didn't they have proof that HaShem would provide as he did for the 39+ yrs? What level of spirituality were they on? I thought the entire journey was a spiritual one so how did they question and complain? Then I thought if I was there, what would I do? It occurred to me that maybe they were just a bit nervous and questioned themselves, not G-d's or Moshe's ability. They were doing that transferring thing that people do when they aren't ready to look within. They must have known Gd would provide yet they were still human; unknown can b scary. Reply

Gene L Smith Teague, Texas June 26, 2012

to the promise land much has been said over the centuries about Moses being denied entry into the promise land and I studied this a long time before it hit me that GOD never once tells Moses anything more than to go to Egypt get my people bring them out and take them to the promise land. never once did I see the words into the promise land. Moses did exactly that twice. The first time they listened to the 10 spies and refused to go into the land and the result was death in the wilderness. Then after all these years here they are again stil complaining there is no water. Well they get the water but at what cost---before they go into the promise land not only does Moses die but also the high priest Aaron. Just as Moses's request was denied by GOD so it seems many of ours are also. GOD does say no because GOD may have something better for us. Remember HIS ways or not our ways as our ways or not HIS.
So remember as you study this GOD always said to the promise land never once have I found that GOD said into. Reply

Rafael Segura i Garcia Valencia, Spain June 26, 2012

What does G'D have to do with it? The problem with this subject doesn't lie with G'D, but what we make of our relationship with what the Jews call YHWE and the ancient Greeks Noos, what Moses real role is in the grand scheme of things, combined with what his People accomplished afterwards...Einstein's "Godly" theory of relativity plus the quantum theory of "Human" existence...Are you listening? Reply

Katherine Hans Von Rotes Schild Zitler San Francisco, USA June 26, 2012

A careful reading of the text indicates that their sin was taking credit for Hashems work. Reply

Daniel S. Blackman Tracy, CA June 26, 2012

It seems to me It seems to me that you could take this passage in many different directions. But wouldn't the most obvious be that Moses misrepresented G-d? Why hit the rock the first time but then speak to the rock the second? There is a hidden gem there to seek out.
It also would seem to me that those who represent G-d would be the one most severely rebuked for misrepresentation. Reply

Peter Spiro Stevenson, WA June 26, 2012

The third strike What did Moses miss out on? Reply

Anonymous Lady lake June 24, 2012

Perception As a practicing physician I commonly am at the "wrong end" of a patient's opinion of me. If I explain unpleasant facts they get upset and many times go to another doctor who I am sure does not explain as well, but since the patient really does not understand is happier. Hallachically, which tact should I take? Reply

Alan S. Long Island , NY June 24, 2012

While I understand that classic interpretation that is presented here, this story has always been bothered me; more about this later. Putting this aside, many of the meanings that Mr. Kalmenson presents bother me too. It is certainly true that we must "know our audience" when we speak or act, but, there really is no better 'way' for a leader than to lead by his words or actions. I believe it is a faulty conclusion to say "In the real world, what we mean to say or do is irrelevant." It is my belief that HaShem expects us to give or be the "best" of our inherent nature, which is, basically, what we do or say. By striking the rock, Moses was not at his best. The punishment, in my eyes, was much worse than his crime. This has always been my problem with this passage. Reply

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