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.