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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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Discussion (32)
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?
Portland, ME
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.
juan jaramillo
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!
Steve Clements
Los Angeles, CA
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,
John McDonnell
Mountlake Terrace WA
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.
Yonkers, NY
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.
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.
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
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.
stl, MO