The Temple Institute: Temple Talk: Tammuz 10, 5766/July 2, 2006

Striking the Rock

"And HaShem spoke unto Moses, saying: 'Take the rod, and assemble the congregation, you, and Aaron your brother, and speak to the rock before their eyes, that it give forth its water; and you will bring forth to them water out of the rock, to give the congregation and their cattle drink.' And Moses took the rod from before HaShem, as He commanded him. And Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said unto them: 'Hear now, you rebels; are we to bring you forth water out of this rock?' And Moses lifted up his hand, and smote the rock with his rod twice; and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their cattle."
(Numbers 20:7-11)

The nation of Israel has never known a leader like Moshe Rabbeinu - Moses our master - who led the people out of the Egyptian slavery, across the Sea of Reeds, and through forty years in the desert right up to the eastern border of the land of Israel. With love and forbearance, self-abnegation and total commitment toward his people, ("Yet now, if You will forgive their sin, and if not, blot me, I pray You, out of Your book which You have written'" Exodus 32:32), Moshe suffered greatly on behalf of the children of Israel. So it comes as a great surprise, almost an affront to our sensibilities when we read in parashat Chukat, (Numbers 19:1-22:1), that as a result of Moshe striking the rock in order to draw from it water, as opposed to speaking to it, G-d should decree that Moshe will not enter into the land of Israel. Instead, he will die in the desert along with the rest of the generation that succumbed to the spies' rejection of the land of Israel, even as the new generation crosses the Jordan River. What exactly was the nature of Moshe's error?

Our sages provide us with various insights into this question, focusing on Moshe's words to the Israelites: "And Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he [Moses] said unto them: 'Hear now, you rebels; are we to bring you forth water out of this rock?'" (Numbers 20:10) Many times in the past Moshe has been disparaged and belittled by the children of Israel. More than once his life was endangered by the angry mob, and more than once Moshe expressed his fear to G-d that the people would stone him. In the past Moshe has confided in G-d his frustrations, his self-doubt, and his resignation at the people's obstinacy, but never before has he castigated the Israelites as he does now: "'Hear now, you rebels..." (ibid)

To understand why this was a red line the crossing of which G-d could simply not tolerate, it is best to recall the midrash concerning G-d's original conferring upon Moshe the mantle of leadership. The Biblical narrative relates: "Now Moses was keeping the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian; and he led the flock to the farthest end of the wilderness, and came to the mountain of G-d, unto Horeb. And the angel of HaShem appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed." (Exodus 3:1-2) The midrash literally reads between the lines of scripture and tells us that while leading his flock, a young lamb suddenly bolted, separating from the flock. Not willing to give up on even a single lamb under his charge, Moshe went after the wayward sheep, and at long last finding him frightened, thirsty and exhausted, picked up the creature in his arms and carried him back to his brethren. It was upon witnessing this humble act of loving kindness that G-d realized that Moshe possessed the qualities necessary to lead His flock out of danger and into safety. It was then that G-d spoke to him from the burning bush. Forty years later, when G-d hears Moshe angrily decrying his latest wayward charges as "rebels," He knows that Moshe's role as leader has come to a close. What, on a personal level, appears to us as tragic, on the national level reflects once again G-d's great love for His people, and the ultimate truth that it is G-d, and not his appointed ones, who is the true leader of the nation of Israel. Midrash records 515 separate pleas uttered by Moshe, begging G-d to rescind His decree and just let him set foot in the land. But G-d's will was not to be moved by Moshe's cries. Moshe's final resting place is described in the closing passage of the book of Deuteronomy:

"So Moses the servant of HaShem died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of HaShem. And he was buried in the valley in the land of Moab over against Beth-peor; and no man knows of his grave unto this day." (Deuteronomy 34:5-6)

As we will learn in this upcoming Shabbat Torah reading of Balak, Peor was a great source of filth and evil concerning the children of Israel. Our sages relate that each time the enemies of Israel call upon the evil power of Peor to corrupt the nation of Israel, and cause her to stumble, Peor rises up, only to see Moshe, whose presence dwells "against" Peor, and slinks back into passivity. Even after his physical demise, Moshe Rabbeinu, buried outside the land of Israel, is watching over his flock, guarding them from danger.

Tune in to this week's TEMPLE TALK, and join Yitzchak Reuven and Rabbi Richman in their in-depth discussion on the incident at Kadesh, where the people are thirsty, and Moshe strikes the rock, causing water to pour forth.

Click to hear:

Part 1
Part 2