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Why Did Moses Hit the Rock?

Why Did Moses Hit the Rock?

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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, NY, with his wife Chaya Mushka and their three children.
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Discussion (26)
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.
Anonymous
Sacramento, Ca
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.
Dr. 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.
Dr. J. Dreisdale
New York, NY
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.
Marty
stl, MO
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.
Anonymous
San Diego, CA
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?
Anonymous
Farmington HillsMim, MI
January 30, 2012
Why is the Lord's name censured here?
Why is the "O" blanked out?
Anonymous
tacoma, wausa
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?
Scott Weil
Highland Park, IL
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!
John McDonnell
Mill Creek, WA
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.

SUMMARY
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.
Anonymous
Dallas, TX
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