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Why Did Moses Hit the Rock?

Why Did Moses Hit the Rock?


Moses hitting the rock is one of the most mystifying episodes recounted in the Torah.

The well that supplied the Israelites with water dried up. G‑d instructed Moses to go to Mount Horeb and extract water from a rock. Moses did so successfully, but in the course of executing G‑d's command, he commits a grave error. As a result, it is decreed that Moses must die in the desert, and Joshua will be the one who will lead the Israelites in to the Promised Land.

Why didn't Moses — G‑d's most loyal servant — follow simple instructions?The Torah is very ambiguous regarding the nature of Moses' error. There are as many interpretations as there are biblical commentators. The conventional explanation, quoted from the Midrash by Rashi, is that Moses was commanded to talk to the rock to bring forth water, and instead Moses struck it. Some thirty-nine years earlier, the first time the Israelites were in need of water, G‑d had indeed instructed Moses to strike the rock. But this time the instructions were different, and Moses failed to comply.

A few obvious questions:

1) If striking the rock was so awful, why was it okay so many years earlier?

2) Why didn't Moses — G‑d's most loyal servant — follow G‑d's simple instructions?

3) Why did this seemingly minor offense have such severe consequences?

An analysis of Moses' leadership will perhaps shed light on this puzzling episode.

Moses is synonymous with miracles. The name Moses means "from the waters he was drawn"; and this is indeed an appropriate name for an individual whose soul emanated from the hidden waters of the supernal worlds, and never acclimated to his new habitat. Moses did not know how to deal with this world on its terms. Instead, when he needed to accomplish a task he resorted to supernatural powers to do so. He didn't convince Pharaoh to release the Israelites, he didn't even engage in conventional warfare; instead he used the miraculous powers at his disposal to utterly crush his opposition.

He didn't talk to rocks to bring forth waters, he struck them into submission.

While this is an exciting modus operandi, this wasn't how the land of Canaan was to be conquered. This worked for the generation which left Egypt, a generation that subsisted on miracles for forty years. But G‑d had a different plan in mind for this generation which was now poised to enter the Holy Land. They weren't intended to miraculously obliterate their opposition, they were given the mandate to change the world by dealing with it on its terms. They were supposed to enter the world, plow and reap its fields, and cajole the world to higher levels of spirituality and G‑dliness.

Moses' striking the rock was a symptom of the reason why he couldn't enter CanaanThis was a task which Moses could not accomplish — he was simply too great a spiritual giant. This was a task for Joshua.

Moses' striking the rock wasn't the reason why he couldn't lead the Jews in to Canaan; it was a symptom of the reason.

The lesson of this episode in our relations with others, in our endeavor to draw water — holiness and value — from our fellows, is quite clear. But this lesson should also guide us in our own personal spiritual journey.

We start serving G‑d by "hitting the rock." We may not understand, we may not be convinced, but we follow G‑d's orders because we must do so. We overpower our natural impulses and urges in order to do the mitzvot.

But then we must spiritually mature. We must "talk to the rock." We must study enough and gain the understanding to actually convince ourselves, our emotions as well as our minds, to become spiritual people.

Then we are ready to enter the Promised Land.

Rabbi Naftali Silberberg is a writer, editor and director of the curriculum department at the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute. Rabbi Silberberg resides in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, Chaya Mushka, and their three children.
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Amy F. Oxnard March 1, 2017

Moses I think if one is literally hanging out with God, talking face to face as Moses was at the time? Then, ya better get it right! Like, God should rub off on you, you don't complain and you get it right. Does God allow the angels to mess up? Not! (the Jews were "almost angels". Much was expected of them. Reply

Anonymous January 27, 2017

I'm not sure striking it was really the sin. First, G-d told Moses to bring his rod. Why would he be told that if it weren't to be used? Second, the thing that Moses really did differently this time was to ask the question, "Listen you rebels, shall we draw water for you from this rock?" as well as strike the rock twice. I think he was supposed to speak to the rock while striking it, but that the real sin lay in the reason he said what he did, and/or the fact the he struck the rock twice, as if he wasn't believing it would happen the first time; (although, that would be out of character for Moses in this period of time.) Why would he say, "Shall," (or, "Must," as another version puts it)? Also, G-d said that Moses didn't believe Him. I don't think that the word, twice, would have been mentioned if it were not significant. Reply

Ezra San Diego July 16, 2016

Attribution If Moses would have attributed the miracle to HaShem, the people would have been shown the source of their survival,...again. Reply

WoundedEgo Portland, ME January 24, 2016

A time to strike This reasoning is the akin to the example of David. He was a divinely appointed military leader but when it came time to build the temple he was forbidden and the task was given to a man of peace.

But I have a related question... was Moses never to enter the promised land? Or is that a future hope for him? Reply

juan jaramillo germantown September 21, 2015

I am Catholic and I was trying to help an (ex-catholic) friend why G_d was so harsh with a loyal servant. I sent my friend this little commentary and my friend reply with an "ahhh...this is an exquisite commentary". Couldn't agree more :) Thank you Rabbi. Reply

Steve Clements Los Angeles, CA August 30, 2015

Thank You Rabbi and Group As a Christian trying to understand Moses' punishment for striking the rock the second time, I found Rabbi Silberberg's article and this discussion extremely helpful. Just wanted to commend this group for its mutual respect and complementary ideas. Love the way that you "wrestle" to mine Biblical truth! Reply

John McDonnell Mountlake Terrace WA February 25, 2015

Moses striking the Rock2. Here is my opinion with respect. Abraham was declared Righteous because of his "faith" as manifested by his obedience. Moses too was a man of "Faith" who did everything possible to obey. Both men were completely human and both men still "sinned". It seems to me that when G-d instructed Moses to "speak to the rock" ,
Perhaps He was trying to give Moses a new way to release his faith with words instead of his "staff". Success might have prepared his people for the trials ahead such as Jericho. Technically Moses failed to obey correctly and he was in our view harshly punished. But from G-d's point of view, Moses entered into a place of rest and true reward, the true point of a life well lived, leaving behind a "lesson" for us to ponder. What is faith? How should we use it in this life?
With respect, Reply

Anonymously Yonkers, NY February 24, 2015

The Midrash also states (Shmos 2:19) That Moses failed to acknowledge to Yisro's daughters or to Yisro his Jewishness, (a Hebrew), leading them to believe that he was an Egyptian. This too would merit the punishment of not being permitted to enter Eretz Yisrael. Reply

Anonymous Carrollton November 23, 2014

" But G‑d had a different plan in mind for this generation which was now poised to enter the Holy Land. They weren't intended to miraculously obliterate their opposition, they were given the mandate to change the world by dealing with it on its terms." Absurd! Joshua didn't defeat the Jericho by normal worldly terms. It was miraculous. Just Like Moses. Reply

Anonymous Sacramento, Ca June 27, 2012

Thank you Rabbi Silberberg for yet another insight "That's what I'm supposed to do" takes us only so far. And it doesnt fit perfectly with knowing "there is no other G-d." When Moses' will differed from G-d's instruction, an apparent separateness suddenly arose. There's a duty to nurture the quality of obedience not for it's own sake, but rather to produce and enjoy its yield: unity. That's when our thoughts and feelings are recognized for their roots in G-d.

Also, in the land Moses would have been obligated to "eat and be satisfied", among other things. In light of his sudden and surprising display of disunity, and his special relationship with Hashem, could the denial of entry have actually been a reward? Like a preemptive protective divine intervention? I think such an exception to free will happened once before, prior to Noach and the flood. Reply

Dr. Dreisdale New York, NY June 2, 2012

Re: The post from "Anonymous" "G-d made some very strange choices in the OT"

The notion of the Supreme Being making "strange choices" is impossible for me to comprehend; how is it sensible for a human being, replete with flaws and spectacularly limited understanding, to judge the infinite wisdom and perfection of G-d??? This is fatuous arrogance of the highest order. Reply

Dr. J. Dreisdale New York, NY June 2, 2012

Moses Strikes the Rock "A few obvious questions: 1) If striking the rock was so awful, why was it okay so many years earlier?"

I'm surprised that this is posted as an "obvious question" -- a casual observer realizes that what is in question is not the striking of a rock, but rather, obedience to our Lord. Reply

Marty stl, MO April 12, 2012

geography I think the explanation is a bit simpler. Horeb was dry. Striking a rock - where there was no potential of finding water - demonstrated G-d's power. In Zin, there were sources of water behind the rock. Shepherds knew where to hit. In directing Moses to speak to the rock there, G-d was directing Moses to demonstrate H-s Power and not Moses learned skills for desert survival. Reply

Anonymous San Diego, CA April 8, 2012

God made some very strange choices in the OT in Exodus 32, He is ready to kill all the Israelites because of the Golden Calf and give all His blessing just to Moses and his family. Moses says, well, you can do that, but will that help your reputation ? The Egyptians will laugh and say , what a God those stupid Israelites had. First He saves them and then he kills them. God says,hmmmmmm. you have a point there. Reply

Anonymous Farmington HillsMim, MI March 17, 2012

he rock and the donkeyt Moses was supposed to talk to the rock. Communicate with it. Balaam should have listened to the donkey. Isn't it quite possible God speaks to us through nature? Reply

Anonymous tacoma, wausa January 30, 2012

Why is the Lord's name censured here? Why is the "O" blanked out? Reply

Scott Weil Highland Park, IL June 27, 2011

Why did Moses strike the Rock I never bought the notion that Moses was denied entry into the holy land because he struck the rock. I think he died when he did because he was mortal, and it was his time. As for his expression of anger, could it also have been simmering from the past week's parsha and the challenge from Korach and his people. Even though Moses showed great restraint and allowed God to demonstrate who in leading Bnai Israel, perhaps he was still angry inside from this latest challenge? Reply

John McDonnell Mill Creek, WA June 26, 2011

The faith of Moses excellent discussion! The Exodus was about bringing a nation of former slaves to full Faith in God. Moses was their example. He was angry when he hit the 2nd rock. Technically his action fell short of the perfect requirement of Faith! To us the "punishment" seems excessive. But what if the punishment was "heavenly reward" from G-d's point of view?

Joshua was certainly raised up to enter the land! He learned the most important lesson form Moses, "Hear G-d and Do it!". I think of how the entrance into the land would have been if Moses had tarried? Joshua could have remained unfulfilled in his leadership call.
I suspect that what looked like punishment
to the living was ultimately a great reward to Moses. Imagine the privilege of Moses to die in the Presence of the Lord! He saw the Promised Land through the eyes of Faith and stepped into G-d"s Presence! Mission Accomplished! Reply

Anonymous Dallas, TX February 9, 2011

Moses, Rock, Punishment
Below are topics [paraphrased] from my עץ חיים (Chukat with Rashi & other supplementary commentary) to expand the discussion.

Rashi: Striking rock rather than speaking to it diminished greatness of the miracle.

Maimonides; Hirsch: Moses was angry/lost his temper & therein also lost his prophetic gifts.

Ibn Ezra; Albo: Moses could have trusted that H- would perform a miracle for the people, as had been done before.

Consensus: Striking rock twice (instead of once), & saying "rebels" were perhaps examples of his anger, exasperation, & weariness with the people themselves.

Moses' words & actions, and Aaron by association & inaction, implied that the miracle was his/theirs, instead of focusing the people on it being the will & miracle of H-. Perhaps this was the main transgression?

Removing blame or punishment, perhaps H- knew that different leadership was necessary to lead the newer & much younger generation into battle & ultimately into the Holy Land. Reply

חיל חיים London, UK February 7, 2011

Moses & the rock - miraculous & thought provoking Firstly, this is a fascinating thread and I thank the Rebbe for the lesson and thank all for their contribution.

Many fascinating concepts brought to light here:
modus operandi vs new instructions
human free will within the plan, miracles and foresight of H-
the new path of the Israelites ... that of speaking vs striking
flowing water in the desert ... flowing light of H- in parched human soul
trusting H- sees the "big picture" even when we're weary, frustrated, or caught up in day to day details
H- telling us what we need to know/learn through allowing us freedom of choice and their consequences
A man "of impeded speech" commanded to speak
A flaw revealed in a paradigm of perfection
Creation from "word" is sovereign to H- only [?]

I am honored to bear witness to the discussion. "Todah Rabbah" Reply

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