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VA'ETCHANAN: When Moses Demonstrated His Humanness

July 27, 2009

Joel Cohen's Question:

For reasons that lack pristine clarity, G‑d became so angry at Moses for hitting the rock rather than talking to it that He said, "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 to the Land that I have given them" (Numbers 20:12-13). Nothing there about the Israelites being responsible for Moses' plight in this regard—that is, at least, when G‑d tells the story.

But when Moses, in monologue, summarizes the Israelites' journey through the desert as his life is quickly drawing to an end, he describes the pivotal event tersely – and quite differently. Twice, in Deuteronomy (1:37 and 3:26) – indeed, using alternative synonyms – Moses tells the Israelites, that "G‑d got angry at me because of you" and refused to hear Moses' plea that he be allowed to cross the Jordan. So in Moses' recounting of the event representing this turning point moment in his life, as death loomed closely for him as he well knew, the Israelites were at fault, not he. Now, isn't that surprising?

Are the two accounts reconcilable without psychologizing the moment? Is this simply the case of a man, even perhaps the greatest man in the history of the world, becoming vulnerable – indeed, unalterably human – when his mortality is upon him?

And how should we read the Book of Deuteronomy particularly given how this episode is reported? Is the book, at bottom and in many respects (given that it repeats many core events previously discussed), an autobiographical summary of Moses' stewardship of the Israelites in the desert – a book which understandably, unlike the earlier books, contains the "subjective" views of its principal human protagonist? Stated more poignantly, is Deuteronomy simply a human's writing ("The One Book of Moses")?

Rabbi Adam Mintz Responds:

Joel, your question is a very poignant one this week. Is Moses really blaming the people for his sin of hitting the rock and the punishment preventing him from entering the land?

This question can be placed in a slightly different perspective by looking at the first verse you reference (though don't quote). There, Moses recounts the sin of the spies for which the generation that left Egypt was punished and was not allowed to enter the land. At the conclusion of that recounting, Moses says, "And G‑d got angry at me as well on your account." What does the sin of the spies have to do with Moses' sin of hitting the rock, a sin that took place 38 years after the episode of the spies?

Rabbi Amnon Bazak, a teacher at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel who writes a weekly column that is distributed in synagogues throughout Israel, makes the following suggestion. He argues that the sin of the spies did not really have anything to do with the sin of hitting of the rock. Yet, upon seeing that the people lacked faith in G d and did not believe that He could lead them into the land, Moses recognized that he would not complete his mission to imbue them with faith, this would be accomplished by his successors. He may not have known what would be the final cause of his demise, but he understood that he would not lead them in to the land.

Now, to answer your question: This explanation definitely introduces a human perspective into the story. That is what is unique about the book of Deuteronomy. It tells the same stories that we have read in the past but it introduces Moses' perspective. How much more do we appreciate Moses as our greatest leader when we see him not only as a participant in history but also as someone who understood and appreciated the events that he was living through.

Rabbi Eli Popack Responds:

Joel, your question reminds us that we need to put everything in context; it is always a matter of perspective. Amongst the diverse answers to your question suggested by the biblical commentaries, I found the following:

Indeed, the classic commentators explain why the nation was ultimately at fault for contributing towards and even bringing about Moses' mistake. But this statement was not an effort on Moses' part to pass the blame, as you suggest. Rather, Moses was the penultimate leader and teacher of the Jewish people. As such, when he embarked on his final good-bye speech he was certainly within character. When Moses says to the Jewish people, "It is because of you that I was punished," he is making a point: "Remember, children of Israel, that your every action has a reaction and the fact that you behaved in a certain way has impacted me, your leader, as well."

As a true leader Moses wanted the Jewish people to learn a valuable lesson at every juncture. Here his lesson was that as individuals and a group our actions can impact others and we need to be careful to ensure the integrity of every one of our actions.

The Midrash also explains this event from another perspective:

The literal translation of the verse is: "Also with me was G‑d angry for your sakes, saying: 'You, too, shall not enter [the Land].'"

G‑d said to Moses: "How do you request to enter the Land?

"...Your greatness is that you have taken the 600,000 out of bondage. But you have buried them in the desert and will bring into the land a different generation! This being so, people will think that the generation of the desert has no share in the World to Come! No, better be beside them, and you shall in the time to come enter with them."

The view of the Midrash again focuses on Moses' role as the leader. Moses reminds the Jewish people that G‑d has kept him with his flock for their benefit.

DEVARIM: The Killing of the Amorites

July 19, 2009

Joel Cohen's Question:

As the Israelites traveled through the desert, they were instructed by G‑d to cross the Amon Brook, where G‑d would "deliver" Sihon King of Heshbon, the Amorite, and his land. They were told to possess the land and, unlike in dealing with the Moabites, they were told to actually "provoke" war with Sihon. Moses sent messengers to Sihon asking that he allow the Israelites safe passage through his land until they reached the Jordan, straying neither to the left or right—that they would simply purchase food and water that they would need along the journey. Sihon refused, for G‑d "had hardened his spirit and made his heart stubborn in order to give him into [the Israelites'] hand." Remember, though, G‑d first instructed that the Israelites "provoke" the war.

As expected, Sihon thereupon went to battle, but the Israelites prevailed—Sihon, his sons and his entire people were annihilated by the Israelites. All of Sihon's populated cities were occupied by the Israelites and all of their women and children were killed, leaving no survivor, as Moses proudly tells us.

Gentlemen, do I even need to articulate a question to address this troubling incident? And please don't tell me that Sihon was "asking for it." Lest we forget, G‑d told Moses to provoke the war in the first place. And even if Sihon was at fault, why the women and children?

Rabbi Adam Mintz Responds:

Joel, I believe that there are two questions that must addressed concerning the battle with Sihon:

  1. Why did G‑d harden their hearts? Wouldn't it have been more peaceful and ultimately easier to have Sihon let the Jews pass through their land?
  2. Why did the Jews kill all of the Amorites, even the women and children?

I believe that the answer to the first question takes us back to the first instance in the Torah in which G‑d hardens a heart—the heart of Pharaoh. G‑d hardened Pharaoh's heart because he wanted to teach the Egyptians and the Jews a lesson that would not have been learned had Pharaoh been compassionate to the Jewish people. The question of how G‑d can take away free choice is a good question but for another blog entry. The same thing is true in this case. The Torah tells us that G‑d wanted these nations destroyed to instill fear among all the nations as the Jews were entering the land, so that the process of conquering the land would be an easy one for the Jews. We have to remember that Moses is about to die and the miracles of the desert were not carried out in as magnificent a fashion once the Jews entered the land. The Jews would be forced to win the battles without the hands of Moses being raised to miraculously declare victory. The fear that was instilled in these nations was a step that Moses could take in his last days to help guarantee victory. If Moses couldn't be there, at least he could assist ahead of time in the battle.

The killing of the women and children, as ruthless as it seems, reminds us of the story of Pinchas that we read several weeks ago. The women and even the children had the power to seduce the people to sin. G‑d was very concerned that the Jews would regress in Israel to the ways of idolatry that they exhibited during the episode of the golden calf. He decided that in order to protect the Jews, everyone needed to be killed. In modern day Israel, there are many responsa written discussing the rules of law and of Jewish soldiers. All of these responsa agree that halachah must be interpreted in a different way when it comes to soldiers and war. The story of the war against Sihon is an early model of these "war-time responsa."

Rabbi Eli Popack Responds:

Instead of asking how the Israelites could provoke war and kill the women and children, ask how they could justify going to battle against a nation that never wronged them, solely with the intent of conquering their land! Obviously, you aren't assuming that in Biblical times they followed the Laws of War as outlined in the Hague and Geneva Conventions.

The land occupied by the Amorites was promised to Abraham's descendents (Genesis 15:21). Avoiding this land, therefore, instead of conquering it, such as they did with Moab and Amon, was not an option.

How can G‑d take away a nation's homeland just to give it to another that He's fallen in love with? He created that land, so I suppose He has the right to give and take as He pleases.

Also bear in mind that the Amorites still had the option of making a peace settlement, but they chose not to. Though G‑d "hardened Sihon's spirit," this still didn't preclude him from choosing to make peace. See Why Didn't Pharaoh Release the Israelites? for more on this topic.

The Israelites followed the Torah's rules of warfare. Though the Torah's standard rules mandate the sparing of women and children, the Seven Nations, of whom the Amorites were a member state, are an exception. The Israelites were instructed (Deuteronomy 20:10-18) not to leave any remnant of these nations, should they not agree to a peace settlement:

Of these peoples' cities, which the Lord, your G‑d, gives you as an inheritance, you shall not allow any soul to live. Rather, you shall utterly destroy them . . . so that they shall not teach you to act according to all their abominations that they have done for their gods...

In fact, as is recorded later in the books of Judges, Samuel and Kings, the Israelites did not comply with this instruction and left many of the people of these nations alive. These heathens influenced many Israelites to abandon the Torah, leading to dire consequences.

Furthermore, those children who would have been spared would have forever posed an existential threat to those who killed their fathers in order to take their land. When they would mature they would seek to avenge their fathers’ deaths and reclaim the land. If killing to conquer is justifiable, so is killing to avoid later casualties. You can question perhaps why G‑d decided that His nation should obtain their land through such a violent and unfair process—but that's for another discussion.

But I understand well that you can't expect someone in the 21st century to swallow this argument too easily. Which is why I'd suggest that you read the following article: Why Is There So Much War and Violence in Torah?

MATOT-MASEI: The Blood Avenger and the Cities of Refuge

July 14, 2009

Joel Cohen's Question:

It is painfully easy to appreciate the bloodlust a surviving relative will have when an offender kills his next of kin—however unintentionally. American judges will typically show sympathy, albeit largely only in the sentence meted out, to the next of kin criminally charged with killing the offender in hot-blooded vengeance over his horrendous loss.

Still, however unsatisfying the American justice system may sometimes be, it doesn't encourage vengeance—American law doesn't tell the avenging relative that, if a court hasn't yet decided the criminal responsibility of the offender, the avenger is free to actually kill the killer if he hasn't yet arrived at a "City of Refuge."

But, isn't encouragement of vengeance precisely what the City of Refuge system does? By creating a sanctuary to safeguard those who have killed unintentionally, the Torah effectively tells the saddened, but understandably bloodthirsty, grieving relative to quickly kill the killer before he reaches the nearest City of Refuge. This because the Torah tells the avenger that if he does so there will be no reprisal for him under G‑d's law.

Doesn't the American system, then, do a better job of dealing with such a sad episode, discouraging vigilante justice?

Rabbi Adam Mintz Responds:

Joel, you raise two issues in your questions this week:

  1. The role of the City of Refuge
  2. The role of the goel hadam (the next of kin, "the avenger of the blood")

First, regarding the City of Refuge, no one should think that it was a luxury resort. The Torah explains that the murderer by accident must run to the City of Refuge and he must remain there until the death of the high priest. In a sense it is a minimum security prison. In essence, the Torah actually punishes the murderer by accident—suggesting that the accident should have been avoided.

The role of the goel hadam is more complicated. How can the Torah not only pardon but actually encourage him to kill the murderer of his relative? Here, I would like to make use of a principle that was introduced by Maimonides in his Guide to the Perplexed. He writes that sometimes the Torah introduced a law as a way of weaning the people off the legal and religious values of the nations that surrounded them.

Here, too, perhaps we can understand the law of the goel hadam by referencing the ancient culture. We know from ancient codes such as Hammurabi that in the ancient world most cultures were based on the principle of personal retaliation. The Torah gives room for personal retaliation by introducing the goel hadam. However, G‑d teaches the people that everything must be tempered by a Torah approach. Therefore, unlike in ancient society where the relative could take revenge as he chose, in the world of the Torah there were limits placed on the rights of retaliation.

But, I admit that this answer is incomplete. According to this theory, why does the Torah prescribe the addition of three Cities of Refuge when Moshiach comes? At that time we certainly will have no need to counter and placate the sensibilities of a Hammurabi-like culture.

I think that that this requires further explanation—for next year...

Rabbi Eli Popack Responds:

First, let's get some laws straight about the goel hadam. True, the goel hadam may kill the murderer if he catches him outside the City of Refuge, but according to many Talmudic opinions, such a murder is only exonerable if the courts have already determined that the victim was indeed the killer—albeit unintentionally. So this is not vigilante justice at all.

Even more important to point out is that the murderer who is consigned to the City of Refuge is not someone whose deed was completely accidentally. Such a person is completely exonerated by the courts, and for the goel hadam to kill him would be a capital crime. The murderer in discussion here was clearly negligent, yet cannot be punished by the courts because it wasn't an intentional crime.

Nevertheless, your question applies: how could we allow a relative to avenge blood if the Torah itself does not prescribe capital punishment?

To answer this question, let's examine the nature of the various penalties and sentences dictated by the Torah.

There are certain grave transgressions that are punishable by karet, "excision." Using the Torah's terminology, "the transgressor's soul will be cut off from her people." The severing of the soul's connection to G‑d also causes premature death. According to Maimonides, this is the worst punishment, for the soul is then cut off from eternal life and does not merit to enter the World to Come.

Another punishment prescribed by the Torah is malkot, lashes. The courts would administer up to thirty-nine lashes to one who intentionally violated certain biblical precepts.

Interestingly, the Mishnah (Makkot 3:15) states that all who are deserving of karet who receive lashes are absolved from karet. The Sages derived this from the verse (Deuteronomy 25:3): "He shall flog him yet he shall not exceed [the prescribed number of lashes], lest . . . your brother be degraded before your eyes." As soon as the defendant receives lashes, he is considered our full-fledged brother.

This tells us that the punishments meted out by the Jewish courts were essentially G‑d's way of sparing the defendants from much greater and harsher consequences.

This concept applies to all punishments administered by the Jewish courts—both for transgressions "between man and G‑d," e.g., desecration of Shabbat, and also for sins that are "between man and man," such as killing or stealing.

We can now clearly differentiate between penalties meted out by the American justice system and those by Torah's justice system, in that the Torah's penalties are not merely deterrents and/or punitive but are primarily intended to provide atonement for the guilty party.

With this in mind we can now understand the Torah's condoning (and even encouraging, see Sifri Massei 2) the avenging of the blood. (The following paragraphs are from the Rebbe's teachings, as adapted by the Gutnick Chumash.)

When the Torah presents the possibility of avenging the blood of the deceased, it is not providing an outlet for man's vicious nature. If the accidental murderer did not deserve the death penalty, the Torah would not permit his execution. Rather, the concept of "avenging the blood" provides a method by which the Torah itself exacts the death penalty.

In other words, the death penalty can be administered in one of three ways:

  1. Capital punishment which is carried out by the court, with witnesses and a prior warning of the defendant.
  2. In certain cases, the Torah prescribes a punishment of "death at the hands of Heaven."
  3. In our case, the death penalty of an accidental murderer is to be administered not by a court, or by Heaven, but by the relatives.

Therefore, even if avenging the blood is optional, it has a logic within the Torah system of atonement, and is not mere personal vengeance.

I'd like to conclude with the following insight:

The halachic authorities write, almost unanimously, that the Torah provision for justice via the goel hadam is contingent on the ability for the case to be addressed by the Jewish courts. Today, as Jewish courts don't judge capital cases, this mitzvah does not apply.

As we don't view the Torah of Truth as in need of "progressive" enhancement, some might say that this is actually a negative development, that we now lack this form of atonement.

I would venture to say that perhaps the opposite is true, that this form of atonement is now unnecessary. Due to our spiritual descent and insensitivity, owing to two thousand years of exile, maybe we are not as liable for our actions as we once were, hence the annulment of capital punishment in Jewish courts, along with the abrogation of the revenge executed by the goel hadam.

PINCHAS: When He Took the Law into His Own Hands

July 5, 2009

Joel Cohen's Question:

Pinchas saw wrong, and he brazenly "righted it." G‑d had come to him, and he did G‑d's bidding—for Moses didn't act to quickly punish the wrongdoing. And for Pinchas' action, that is, for taking vengeance against (for killing) Zimri ben Salu and his Midianite paramour Cozbi bat Zur for sexual promiscuity at the Tent of the Assembly, Pinchas gained from G‑d a "Covenant of Eternal Priesthood." G‑d thus rewarded his zealotry and violent conduct. Simply said, Pinchas was the first radical "Fundamentalist."

Did Pinchas "talk to G‑d" or "hear from G‑d"? Maybe so. Still, the problem with people who claim to have received their instructions from direct intercourse with G‑d is that the conversation ends right there.

Fundamentalists today are also willing to take the law into their own hands, e.g., by eliminating the "infidels," claiming to have received their instructions directly from G‑d (or, as they would call him, Allah). But today's Fundamentalists, although they haven't done it so far, could shove down our throats the precedent of Pinchas: no witnesses, no judge, no trial, no appeal—simply, "G‑d came to me; and He will reward me like He did Pinchas."

Isn't the Pinchas precedent, then, far too dangerous? Or is his precedent distinguishable from what today's Fundamentalists are willing to do "In the Name of G‑d"? And, if so, how?

Rabbi Adam Mintz Responds:

Many years ago I saw a bumper sticker that read, "G‑d—Save Us From Your Followers." Unfortunately, the history of religious fundamentalism has borne great tragedy and suffering over the centuries. But, you ask, isn't Pinchas the model of a Jewish fundamentalist who took matters into his own hands?

Furthermore, the Talmud uses Pinchas as an example of acceptable fundamentalism, and according to the Midrash, Pinchas is equated with Elijah who also stood up for G‑d and was rewarded with fire descending from heaven.

Yet, if we do not provide a distinction, what prevents fundamentalists from claiming Pinchas as their model? Religious fundamentalism is one of the most complicated subjects in the history of world religion. Each religion instructs its followers to heed the commandments and to spread the word of G‑d, at least to their fellow religionists. So what prevents a religious person from claiming that he is performing a religious duty by killing someone else in the name of religious observance, be that the sexual crime that Pinchas addressed or the debate over the ownership of the land of Israel?

I believe that one distinction between Pinchas and other fundamentalists may be that in the Biblical story nothing goes without repercussion. It was a time when good was immediately rewarded and evil openly rebuked and punished. You collect extra manna, you get notable mention and it all spoils. You collect wood on Shabbat and G‑d openly declares what your punishment is. Plagues break out when people unrightfully complain. Pinchas knew that G‑d would either agree or disagree with his actions. While, according to the simple reading of the text, Pinchas did not consult with G‑d beforehand, the knowledge that G‑d would intervene prevented this example from serving as a general model. G‑d agreed with Pinchas—but don't assume that He will agree with every fundamentalist. And today's fundamentalist has the luxury of never being exposed.

Yet, at the end of the day, this is only the beginning of the answer. Let us all hope that the religious leadership guides its followers to understand the model of Pinchas and to apply it to the narrow case in which it was carried out.

Rabbi Eli Popack Responds:

Joel, you left out some crucial details of the story. Let me add some important background to the story – some details straight from the Bible, some from the Talmud – and perhaps you will view it in an entire different light:

The people of Moab hear of the Israelites' miraculous victories, and are determined not to become the next on the list of conquests. Realizing that conventional warfare can not compete with a nation whose breakfast, lunch and supper fall daily from heaven, a nation that spends its days studying and meditating because their material needs are all seen to from Above, they decide to use alternative metaphysical strategies.

The first idea is to hire the most renowned sorcerer of the time to curse the nation into oblivion. This prophet/sorcerer, Balaam, has no luck, and instead ends up blessing the Israelites with some of the most powerful blessings of all time. He informs the Moabites that G‑d is madly in love with this nation that has blindly committed itself to follow Him through thick and thin.

Balaam then offers the Moabites counsel: "Come, I will advise you..." (Numbers 24:14). But – at that point in the narrative – the Torah does not specify the advice that Balaam offered (instead, abruptly switching to Balaam's visions about the future). Not to leave us in the dark, however, later (Numbers 31) Moses instructs the Israelites who waged war against Midian to kill the women as well (an exception to Torah's usual rules of war): "They were the same ones who were involved with the children of Israel on Balaam's advice to betray G‑d over the incident of Peor, resulting in a plague among the congregation of G‑d." The advice that Balaam offers is, as the Talmud (Sanhedrin 106a) explains at length: "The G‑d of this nation despises lewdness." He therefore devises a scheme whereby the Midianite and Moabite women seduce Israelite men to sin.

The advice works wonders, for lack of a better word. G‑d was angered and sent a plague upon His people—Israelites were dying left, right and center. Not ten, not one hundred, not one thousand. 24,000 Jews died in the plague. G‑d is pretty angry.

G‑d then instructs Moses (25:4) to appoint judges to "hang [the perpetrators] before G‑d, facing the sun, and then G‑d's flaring anger will be removed from Israel." The judges begin doing so...

In the midst of this all, a leader from the tribe of Shimon decides to defend the right of his people to consort with the Midianite women. He will make a public mockery of G‑d's laws by cavorting with a Midianite princess and flaunting his illicit relationship before Moses and the Israelite elders.

Moses and the leaders burst into tears at this brazen and public sacrilegiousness.

"And Pinchas saw," says verse 25:7, "arose from the congregation, and took a spear in his hand."

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 82a) explains that Pinchas saw the act and was reminded of a law that Moses had already taught—a law that the others had forgotten or didn't have the courage to act upon. He said to Moses, "I learned from you, 'When a Jewish man cohabits with a heathen woman, zealots have the right to strike him dead [while he's in the midst of the act].'"

"Let the one who reads the letter be the agent to carry it out," Moses replied.

Immediately, "he took a spear in his hand…went after the Israelite man…drove it through both of them; the Israelite man, and the woman through her stomach, and the plague ceased from the children of Israel."

(Interestingly, this law is quite unusual in that if a person were to approach a Jewish court or rabbi and ask whether he should kill the offending person, the court would instruct him not to do so. It's basically a dispensation for a zealot who does so, not a law that is encouraged. This explains why even after being reminded of the law, Moses did not directly instruct Pinchas to do so.)

Pinchas did not take the law into his own hands. He followed the teaching exactly as Moses had previously conveyed it from the Almighty.

Pinchas was, in fact, a hero. There are times when, though we know what's right, we don't have the guts to live up to our values—especially if it comes at the cost of being mocked by the entire community. Pinchas, a "nobody" up until this point, actually put his life in danger by killing a prince. Zimri was supported by his entire tribe, and they could have easily killed Pinchas (and would have, if not for a sequence of miracles that occurred, as detailed in the Talmud). But Pinchas was not deterred by the danger. What concerned him was the danger facing his people, and he was willing to risk his life to eliminate the threat.

Nobody would have criticized him had he let the situation pass. On the contrary, he provoked much criticism for his deed, and was very nearly ostracized.

What makes this different than fundamentalism? Fundamentalists impose their religion on people who haven't had the same "vision" has they have. The Israelites did not deny that they had all heard the instructions from G‑d at Sinai.

And Fundamentalists act out of hate for anyone who doesn't share their belief. Pinchas acted out of a love for a nation that was suffering a deadly plague.

What are we to learn from this story?

Pinchas was not the leader amongst the Jewish people; Moses, Elazar, and the elders occupied the positions of authority. Yet when the need arose, Pinchas did not wait for the leaders' guidance, but seized the initiative himself.

The same applies with regard to every individual today, for every one of us has a unique contribution to make. With the confidence that comes from the truth of our inner conviction, we must all take the initiative and teach the truth, and not sell our true beliefs short for a pat on the back from the prominent and popular.

For more on this topic, see:

How To Take the Law Into Your Own Hands
The Extremist
The Zealot

CHUKAT-BALAK: Moses and the Rock

July 1, 2009

Joel Cohen's Question:

After Miriam died, there was no water for the people. They gathered against Moses and Aaron and quarreled, again arguing that they would have been better off to have died in Egypt. Moses and Aaron went to the Tent of the Meeting and prostrated themselves before G‑d.

Earlier when the people thirsted (Exodus 17:1-7), G‑d told Moses to "hit the rock" to draw water. This time, G‑d told Moses to "Take the staff…and speak to the rock." Moses took the staff; but, this time, ignoring the contrary command, Moses struck the rock, and water flowed.

Apparently angered at Moses' failure to comply with His explicit command to speak to the rock, G‑d told Moses (and Aaron) that going to the Promised Land was out of the question.

  • Why did G‑d become angry at Moses for such a seemingly trivial offense?
  • Was G‑d "insecure"—disturbed that the congregation might actually believe that Moses, not He, caused the miracle?
  • Or was the incident just a story to "justify" G‑d's plan to ensure that the captain must go down with his ship? The Nation couldn't go, so its leader couldn't go.

Rabbi Adam Mintz Responds:

Joel, the sin and punishment of Moses is one of the most troubling and problematic stories in the entire Torah. As you wrote, how could the leader of the Jewish people who led the Isrealites out of Egypt and spoke directly to G‑d be punished for what seems to be such a trivial action? And, you correctly point out that in Exodus Moses was actually told to hit the rock. Why is this case different?

The simple answer to the question is that great people are held to a higher standard. So, while for most people this sin would be considered minor, for Moses this was a reason to be punished. Of course, this idea is true throughout history and we are all aware that politicians and other celebrities are held accountable for things that would not be considered transgressions for average people. Given this understanding, we can appreciate the story of the sin of Moses in a deeper and more significant manner.

I do not believe that G‑d is setting up Moses to be punished because "the captain must go down with the ship."

I believe, actually, that G‑d's decree not to allow Moses to enter the land was not a punishment in the classic sense of the term. Moses just did not sin to a degree that should have caused him to lose the right to fulfill his life's dream for which he had worked so hard. Rather, after Moses loses patience with the people and as a result hits the rock, G‑d realizes that Moses' "superimposing-on-nature" style of leadership – symbolized by "striking" the rock – which was necessary for the birth of a free people from a slave nation, was not sustainable by the people on a day-to-day basis. A people who will be knee-deep in worldly affairs upon entering the land will not be able to identify with this outer-worldly experience.

How often in history do we find that the person who leads a rebellion is not the leader who rebuilds the country? Moses was the greatest Jewish leader of all time. He led the Israelites out of Egypt, gave them the Torah and led them to the edge of the Land of Israel. However, his reign would end at this point and it would remain the role of his student Joshua to lead the people into the Promised Land.

Rabbi Eli Popack Responds:

The episode of Moses striking, instead of speaking to, the rock is definitely intriguing.

Just to give you an idea of the extent this is discussed in the commentaries, the Ohr Hachaim (Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, 1696-1743) lists ten explanations offered by his predecessors to explain what was so terrible about Moses' actions, dismisses them all, and offers another one of his own. Nevertheless, I'd like to more or less stick to some of the classic answers.

But first, I'd like to add two questions to your list:

  1. Why did G‑d tells Moses years earlier to hit the rock, and here He instructs him to speak to it instead?
  2. Why couldn't Moses just do as he was told? For the man who constantly drills the nation on the importance of strict obedience, and reprimands them when they fail in this area, why exactly is it so difficult to talk to a rock? Why can't he resist the "temptation" to hit it?

The biblical commentator Rashi explains (on Numbers 31:21), "Since Moses came to a state of anger, he came to err." Moses and Aaron were right in rebuking the people, but getting emotional about it to the point of actual anger led them to make the mistake of their lives. Rabbi Judah Lowe, the Maharal of Prague, writes that one who is in a state of complete trust in G‑d is forever joyous and can never be angered. Their anger at the people, says the Maharal, caused Moses and Aaron to pass up on the opportunity to inspire the Jewish nation with much needed trust in G‑d.

From when the story of the Exodus began to unfold until this point in the narrative, the Israelites were shown one miracle after another, constant reminders of G‑d's omnipotence. But during the episode with the Spies (recounted earlier in Numbers), the people demonstrated that, despite all the miracles, they lacked trust in G‑d's omnipotence. So G‑d decided to show the people that trust in G‑d is not despite human nature, it is the very nature of every creation: the rock does not need to be struck in order to give forth water. The rock exists at G‑d's word, and therefore naturally follows His instructions (through Moses) to give forth water when told to do so.

Hadn't Moses hit the rock, the fact that G‑d is the very essence of all creation would have been ingrained for all time in the minds and hearts of the entire community who witnessed this.

As for the second question I mention above, Moses did speak to the rock (see Rashi to 20:11), but it was the wrong rock. The people got antsy, and Moses and Aaron, in a fleeting moment of doubt, allowed themselves to become angry, a sign that they too were troubled by what seemed to be a mission gone awry. When they found the correct rock, instead of speaking to it as per their instruction, they erred, and thought that they should strike it, as they had done in the past.

The mistake of striking the rock, brought about by their anger, expressed a deficiency in the degree of faith expected of people of the stature of Moses and Aaron. This, in turn, caused that the greatest opportunity to sanctify G‑d's Name in such a public forum was lost.

The Torah's advice on anger management: Anger does not exist in the face of trust in the One who created, and constantly recreates, the entire existence.

There is, however, a certain degree of "the captain not abandoning his ship" in this story. Even after G‑d decreed to punish Moses, we find in Deuteronomy Moses recounting to the people how he implored G‑d to allow him to enter the Land. But G‑d refused, instructing him to halt his prayers.

The Midrash (Devarim Rabba 2:9) relates the breaking point:

G‑d told Moses: "I can forgive you and allow you to enter the Promised Land now, but if I do, the generation which you led, upon whom it has been decreed that they will die in the desert before entering the Land, will not merit to the Resurrection and the World to Come. If you stay here with them, they too will be ingathered along with their leader."

Faced with this decision, Moses, who while alive dedicated his entire being to his people, chose to dedicate himself to the people in his death as well.

Each week, Joel Cohen poses questions on the weekly Parshah (Torah reading). These questions are addressed by Rabbis Adam Mintz and Eli Popack.

About the Participants:
Joel Cohen, a former federal and state prosecutor, practices criminal defense law at a prominent NYC law firm, and is an Adjunct Professor of Professional Responsibility at Fordham Law School. He also authors a column at the New York Law Journal.

Rabbi Adam Mintz has served as a pulpit rabbi for over twenty years. He is an adjunct professor in Jewish History at Queens College, and lectures widely on a variety of topics. His weekly streaming video, “This Week in Jewish History,” is featured at Rabbi Mintz has recently published Jewish Spirituality and Divine Law (Ktav, 2005).

Rabbi Eli Popack grew up in South Africa, and is the founder and president of Map International, a socially responsible business engaged in Electronic Financial Infrastructure in Africa. In the summer he serves as spiritual guide to the Beach Minyan in Westhampton Beach, NY.