Whenever I read the Sedra of Chukat I feel vexed for Moshe Rabbeinu- The Raya Mehemna- the true Shepherd of Israel.
Miriam dies- The well dries up, and as our sages say that the portable well accompanied the Israelites in their travels was in her merit, so now they are without water to drink. We encounter the Israelites ganging up against Moshe and Aharon:
“Why did you bring us out of Egypt to this bad place- it is not a place of vegetation- fig, vines and pomegranates and there is no water to drink.”
Moshe and Aharon fall on their faces in resignation.
G-d gives them the following instructions:
“Take the staff, gather the people, speak to the rock in their presence; and the rock will produce water, and you shall give to drink to the community and their animals.”
So Moshe takes the staff- as commanded, gathers together the people around the rock, nothing wrong so far- and he speaks to them;
“Listen here you rebels- Is it from this rock that we will bring forth water?”
Moshe lifts up his hand and he hits the rock twice with the staff, water gushes forth and the Israelites and their animals drink.
G-d says to Moshe and Aharon: “because you did not believe in me to sanctify me in the eyes of all of Israel therefore you will not bring this community to the land which I have given to them.”
It’s harsh and very final:- Moshe because of this singular sin here will not be the one to lead Israel to the promised land.
Moshe is the one who had brought them out of Egypt, and he is the one to have experienced the closest ever relationship with G-d –panim el panim- but, with all that behind him, he will not be the one to bring them to the land.
But it’s difficult really to put your finger on what Moshe exactly did wrong.
He was commanded to take the staff, to gather the people together- which he did-and even if you were to say as many of our commentators say (among them Rashi)-that he was commanded to speak to the rock not to hit the rock which he did twice; Nevertheless, it is hardly a serious enough crime to deny him entry into the land.
So he was under pressure, he didn’t listen to the instructions properly. He even had a precedent to strike the rock; because that was what he had done 38 years previously at Refidim when the waters gushed forth from the rock.
So we struggle to find a real cause for the harsh rebuke of Moshe:
The Ibn Ezra suggests that his sin was that he hit the rock twice, something that was unnecessary for Moshe to do.
The Ramban and Rabbenu Chananel suggest that his sin was saying: Listen you rebels- is it from this rock that we will bring forth water? They say that through these few words he implies that they – Moshe and Aharon are the miracle workers- he excludes G-d from the equation, and therefore misses out of the opportunity to create a kiddush Hashem-a public sanctification of G-d’s name- that this is G-d who has done this miracle.
I find this answer shver-difficult because there are many instances in the Torah where Moshe speaks in the first person-or leaves out the name of G-d in his communication with Israel, yet he is not chastised for so doing.
Don Itzchak Abarbanel- the famous Spanish commentator who lived at the time of the expulsion, has a novel explanation: he says that in actuality Moshe didn’t deserve to be punished for this sin alone. But really he deserved to have been punished for the sin of the spies 38 years earlier- it was Moshe who had sent them out and he was therefore complicit in their attempt to dissuade B’nai Yisrael from entering the land. G-d- says Abarbanel, did not want Moshe to be punished together with the spies but was waiting for a good reason to chastise him independently. Therefore G-d waited until the incident of the striking of the rock to punish Moshe for what he had done earlier. Once again- it’s difficult- was Moshe so guilty with the sending out of the spies all those years earlier, that he should be denied entry into the land?
No- all fascinating responses but I’m not obligated to buy them.
Furthermore, there has to be a message for me in 21st Century Britain to take out from this episode- and from all these responses that I have mentioned before, it’s not there, there’s nothing for me.
However I would like to put forward the view of Rambam- Reb Moshe Ben Maimon in his book Shemona Perakim- eight chapters, called that because it has 8 chapters- and he says the following.
Moshe did wrong because he lost it- he blew it. First he spoke to Israel in a derogatory way when he said Shimu na hamorim - listen here, you rebels. Then he takes the staff and instead of speaking to the rock as commanded, in a temper he struck the rock twice. Unacceptable behaviour for the Leader of the Children of Israel- and for that reason G-d says to Moshe because you did not believe in me to sanctify me in the eyes of all Israel, you will not bring them to the land.
Notice the words:- belief and sanctification of G-d are brought into question when one loses control.
In defence of Moshe: He was really provoked, and it wasn’t the first time he had been put under such tremendous pressure. Umpteen times we read of the Israelites complaining about the lack of food, water, shelter- yet for Moshe this was the last straw. And Moshe didn’t hurt anybody, at most he vented his anger on a rock- an inanimate object- hardly something to deny him entry to the Promised land.
But for Moshe even though he had been pushed he should not have lost control. There is no excuse for a man in the position of Moshe
All of our Sages tell us that we need to keep far away from kaas-anger- to the extent that our Rabbis say in the Gemara: Kol hakoes keilu oved avodah zarah- you lose your temper it is as if you have served idols.
Why? What has idol worship got to do with it?
Because when I lose it- I become the centre of my own worship. How could that have been done against me- How could he/she do that to me? We lose control and we forget Hashem – faith and trust goes flying out of the window and we can do anything in a fit of temper. Now we understand why G-d could say to Moshe after he struck the rock- because you did not believe in me to sanctify me in the eyes of Israel.
Says Rambam in Hilchot Deot when it comes to kaas- anger there is no derech haemtzai- no middle way- we need to keep away from it to the other extreme.
I might answer that I’m only human, but then again that’s not a good enough excuse.
The Torah is everlasting and the message is always here.