The “Waters of Strife” (Mei Meribah) is among the most famous and enigmatic stories in the Torah. It goes like this: There is a water crisis, and G‑d’s commands to Moses to draw water from the rock. Moses fails to sanctify G‑d’s name and strikes the rock instead. G‑d punishes him by not allowing him to enter the Land of Israel.1

The exact chain of events, what Moses' wrongdoing was, and a host of other details are unclear, and the story of Moses hitting the rock has baffled many a student for thousands of years. Let us recount the story, analyze the explanations of the classic commentators, and interpret the story with a chassidic spin. First, let's get some context.

Background

In the year 2488 from creation, the 40th year of the Jews’ sojourn in the desert, Miriam, prophetess and sister of Moses, passed away. With her passing, the rock that supplied the Jews with water dried up. The Jews had this miraculous well in Miriam’s merit, so when she passed on, the well ran dry, and the Jews were left in the desert without water.2

This was not the first time the Jews had no water. It is actually the third time the Torah records such a story.This was not the first time the Jews had no water. It is actually the third time the Torah records such a story.

The first time was when the Jews were fresh out of Egypt. They arrived in a place called Marah, where all the water was bitter. G‑d told Moses to throw a bitter tree branch into the water, and it miraculously sweetened the water and made it drinkable.3

The second time4 was shortly after the first, when the Jews were in Refidim and also ran out of water. Moses called on G‑d for help, and G‑d commanded him to strike a particular rock with his staff. The rock split open and water gushed forth. This rock came to be known as “Miriam’s Well,” for, as mentioned, the miracle was done in her merit. For 40 years, this rock traveled with the people and served them faithfully, providing water for them and their animals, its tributaries serving as borders between the tribes when they camped.5

The Story

Our story begins close to 40 years later, on the eve of the Jews’ entry to the Promised Land. The Torah records that the Jews camped in Kadesh and that Miriam died:6

The congregation had no water; so they assembled against Moses and Aaron. The people quarreled with Moses, and they said, "If only we had died with the death of our brothers before the L‑rd. Why have you brought the congregation of the L‑rd to this desert so that we and our livestock should die there? Why have you taken us out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place; it is not a place for seeds, or for fig trees, grapevines, or pomegranate trees, and there is no water to drink.”

Moses and Aaron moved away from the assembly to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they fell on their faces. [Then] the glory of the L‑rd appeared to them. The L‑rd spoke to Moses, saying: "Take the staff and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and speak to the rock in their presence so that it will give forth its water. You shall bring forth water for them from the rock and give the congregation and their livestock to drink."

Moses took the staff from before the L‑rd as He had commanded him. Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock, and he said to them, "Now listen, you rebels, can we draw water for you from this rock?" Moses raised his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, when an abundance of water gushed forth, and the congregation and their livestock drank.

The Story Behind the Story

This passage requires a lot of explanation. G‑d told Moses to speak to the rock, so why did He also tell him to take the staff? Also, what did Moses mean when he said, “Can we draw water for you from this rock"? The Jews had watched him bring water from a rock for 40 years, and G‑d had just commanded him to do precisely that. Why the hesitation? Additionally, why did Moses call the Jews “rebels,” and why did he hit the rock twice?

The classic commentator Rashi fills in some important background information: G‑d told Moses to speak to the rock, but the rock had rolled away and rested among other rocks. Moses didn’t know to which rock he should speak, and the one he addressed was the wrong one. Nothing happened, and the Jewish people began to mock Moses, demanding that he draw water from any rock. Moses grew angry and called them rebels for insinuating that he had the power to perform a miracle where G‑d had not willed it (i.e., with a rock other than the one G‑d had specified).

When speaking did not produce results, Moses remembered that 40 years previously G‑d had commanded him to hit the rock to draw water. And this time, G‑d had also instructed him to take the staff with him. He therefore reasoned that he should strike the rock. Meanwhile, the wrong stone rolled away, and the correct one rolled into place. Thus when Moses’ staff came down, it was on the right rock. The first time he struck it only droplets appeared, so Moses struck it again, and then water gushed forth.7

The Sin

At this stage in the story, all seems pretty standard. No water, people complain, Moses prays, G‑d performs a miracle. Seems like a regular day for the Jews in the desert. The next verse is where the story takes a turn:8

The L‑rd said to Moses and Aaron, "Since you did not have faith in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the Land which I have given them. These are the waters of dispute [Mei Meribah] where the children of Israel contended with the L‑rd, and He was sanctified through them.

In an instant, Moses and Aaron’s dreams were crushed. Their life’s goal, to bring the Jews to the Promised Land, dissolved to dust. Why? Of what sin were they guilty? And why such a harsh punishment?

In the thousands of years that the Torah has been studied, tens, if not hundreds, of interpretations have been offered on this story. We will focus on seven major interpretations, one less literal analysis, and one chassidic explanation.

Rashi: Hitting Instead of Speaking

As mentioned above, Rashi’s commonly accepted explanation is that Moses hit the rock when G‑d instructed him to speak to it. G‑d specifically wanted him to speak to the rock so the Jewish people would realize that if even an inanimate rock listens to the word of G‑d, how much more so should they. They would have been so inspired, they would never have sinned again. Moses disobeyed G‑d and hit the rock, and an opportunity to glorify G‑d was missed. Therefore he and Aaron were punished.

The Rebbe expands on this explanation, that their sin was due to the public nature of their infraction, saying that the reason the sin was treated so severely was because it happened publicly. Although they committed a minor infraction, Moses and Aaron were punished severely because they desecrated G‑d’s name before the eyes of all. This teaches us a how seriously we should take the desecration of G‑d’s name in public.9

Nachmanides: Ascribing Powers to Themselves

Unlike Rashi, Nachmanides (Ramban) learns that since G‑d told Moses to take the stick, there was no problem with him hitting the rock. The miracle was to be accomplished through either medium. Rather, Moses and Aaron's sin was that they said, “ Can we draw water for you from this rock?" implying that they had the power to perform the miracle, and not that their power came from G‑d.10

Nachmanides supports his explanation with G‑d’s opening words to Moses, “Because you did not believe in Me,” implying that this was a failure of faith rather than a lapse of obedience or a surrender to anger.

Maimonides: Moses’ Anger

Maimonides has an altogether different take on the story. His explanation is that Moses’ sin was his anger. The Jews were distressed over the lack of water, a justifiable concern. Moses anger and his branding them “rebels” was wrong. He was therefore punished.11

Ibn Ezra: The Double Striking

Ibn Ezra explains that Moses was supposed to hit the rock only once, and the water would have flowed. The problem was that Moses got angry so he did not hit the rock in the manner he was supposed to. In order for the water to actually issue forth, he was forced to hit it a second time, this time correctly. The necessity to hit it twice was a desecration of G‑d’s name, so he was punished.12

Midrash: Four Sins

Basing it on the four expressions of G‑d’s rebuke, the Midrash Yalkut Shimoni learns that Moses was culpable for four sins: a) He hit the rock when he should have spoken to it. b) He should have brought water from all the other rocks as well. c) He said, “Can we draw water for you from this rock?" d) G‑d wanted him to say words of Torah over the rock and he did not.13

Sefer Ha’ikrim: Lack of Initiative

Rabbi Joseph Albo, in his Sefer Ha’ikrim (Book of Principles) writes that a tzaddik, a righteous person, has the ability to affect the elements and manipulate the forces of nature according to his will. Therefore, when the Jews came to Moses demanding water, Moses should not have prayed to G‑d. He should have struck the rock of his own volition. Because he did not, he caused people to lessen their opinion of tzaddikim, which in turn made them lessen their opinion of G‑d, so he was punished.14

Abarbanel: Cover Up for Other Sins

The fifteenth century commentator Isaac Abarbanel takes issue with all these explanations, pointing out the flaws in each one. One of his primary concerns is that whichever way one learns the story, Moses and Aaron’s sin was not enough to warrant them being barred entry into the Land. He therefore takes a unique approach, saying that Moses and Aaron’s sin was not particularly terrible; they merely made a mistake. However, G‑d did not want them entering the Land for other reasons. Moses, because he sent the spies, and Aaron because of his involvement, albeit unwilling, with the sin of the Golden Calf. G‑d wanted to protect Moses and Aarons’ honour, so He pretended that the rock was the reason for their punishment, to cover up the true reason.

The Rogatchover Gaon: Impure Mikvehs

Rabbi Joseph Rosen, the Rogatchover Gaon (Genius) provides a fascinating alternative explanation, which requires the following preface.

In addition to drinking, the Jews needed the water of the well to serve as a mikveh, a ritual immersion pool. The laws of niddah, ritual purity, dictate that, once a month, a woman must separate from her husband for a period of time. Afterwards, she immerses in a mikveh, and only then is the couple permitted to be together.

One of the many laws of mikveh states that when drawing water from a stream or well to a mikveh, any tool that is susceptible to becoming impure may not be used. Only vessels that could never become impure (e.g. stone) may be used in directing the water flow. Otherwise the mikveh is invalid.

The Rogatchover Gaon explains that Moses’ sin was that he took the wrong stick. G‑d wanted him to hit the rock with his own stick, but in his humility, Moses thought G‑d meant Aaron’s stick. Whereas Moses stick was made of precious stone,15 Aaron's was wood. Wood is susceptible to becoming impure, and so when Moses hit the rock with Aaron’s stick, the water that flowed from the rock was not kosher for a mikveh.

Until a few months later when the Jews found a different water source that was kosher for mikveh, Jewish couples were not intimate with each other. This breakdown in the family unit was Moses’ fault, and therefore he was punished.16

The Motive

Notwithstanding all the above-mentioned explanations, one thing remains unclear. Why did Moses, the greatest prophet and tzaddik, disobey G‑d? Obviously, such a man would not sin out of spite or rebellion.

In a chassidic discourse, the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Dovber of Lubavitch, answers this question. Revolutionizing the entire story by casting it in the light of Chassidut, he explains Moses’ intention:

Tikunei Zohar states, “The rock represents Torah. Had Moses (spoken and) not hit the rock, the Jews would not have to toil in the study of Torah.17 Moses’ hitting the rock caused the Torah to descend from its place of purity and exaltedness, and descend into the falsehood of this world.” Striking the rock caused the Torah’s light to become concealed, making it difficult to connect with G‑d. Had Moses spoken to the rock, as he was commanded, the waters of Torah would come out freely and flowing. One would not need to toil and struggle to understand the Torah, for its light would shine openly and simply. Had Moses spoken to the rock, the Jews would see G‑dliness openly, and connect with G‑d easily.

Moses struck the rock because he recognized that only if Jews toiled would their connection to G‑d and his Torah be real. Nevertheless, Moses struck the rock because he recognized that only if Jews toiled would their connection to G‑d and his Torah be real. If everything were to come easy, there there would never be a genuine connection; the Jews would never break out of their comfort zones to connect with G‑d, and they would never become truly one.

G‑d, the Jews’ loving father, wanted Moses to speak to the rock, wanted Torah and G‑d to be easily accessible. Nevertheless, Moses, whose entire existence was about connecting Jews with G‑d, knew that we must toil to connect, and thus he struck the rock.

Based on this explanation, perhaps we can understand why Moses and Aaron had to die before they could enter the Land of Israel. This was not as a punishment, heaven forbid, but rather the first step in the fulfillment of Moses’ goal. Moses and Aaron represented pure G‑dly revelation; their very existence revealed G‑dliness and inspired people to serve Him. Living in their presence made it easy to connect with G‑d. Therefore, Moses and Aaron could not enter the Land, so that their own plan to create a strong bond between G‑d and the Jewish people could come to fruition.

The Good Sin

Bearing this in mind, it is understood that Moses’ sin was not as a rebellion against G‑d; it wasn't even a mistake. Moses’ sin against G‑d was for G‑d’s sake.

Moses did not listen to G‑d because he knew that were he to disobey Him, in the long run the unity between Jews and G‑d would be more real. Ultimately, G‑d would be glorified and served in an infinitely greater manner. In striking the rock, Moses made a conscious decision that, for the sake of genuine connection, he must disobey G‑d.