At the outset of the chapter, we observe the death and burial of Miriam, followed immediately by the verse: “The community was without water, and joined against Moses and Aaron.” What follows is the familiar story of Moses striking the rock twice to produce enough water to satisfy the needs of the whole community. This scene is frequently identified as the reason why Moses and Aaron would not enter into the Land of Israel, but would die in the wilderness. For Aaron, the moment comes quickly, as his life ends atop Mount Hor by the end of this chapter. Moses, on the other hand, goes on to lead the community until his final breath as the Torah draws to a close.
It is frequently observed that the punishment they suffer seems out of order given their sin. God told them to speak to the rock; instead Moses struck the rock with his staff. Is this really a “hanging offense?” Moses’ years of leadership, his endurance of the Israelites’ perpetual complaints, the courage he displayed standing up to Pharaoh – all are overshadowed by a misunderstanding? From a purely logical standpoint, striking the rock made more sense. Where is the great transgression?
A close read of the story gives at least one clue. Having been told that they will be able to hydrate the people by speaking to the rock, Moses and Aaron gather the people and say to them: “Shim’u Na HaMorim – Listen up, you rebels, shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?!?” The moment they lose their cool and resort to calling the people “you rebels” in anger seals the fate of both Moses and Aaron.
The people are understandably distressed. In the harsh conditions of the wilderness, an untold journey ahead, they have no water to drink. It is a moment of existential anguish, fear and anxiety – particularly because the drought came on so suddenly. There are many moments when the Israelites appear to complain with little or no cause during the forty years of wandering. This is not one of them.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev points out: “This is thought to be the great sin of Moses. When Israel was found in a state of peril, he should have helped them out, not chastised them.” A worthwhile leader sees people suffering and is moved by compassion and the desire to assist and alleviate distress. It is one of the marks of a great leader that they are able to overcome their own personal discomfort in order to serve the needs of the community. While Moses and Aaron had effectively done so at the outset of the wilderness journey, their exasperated response to the people’s outcry emphasize that a shift in leadership is necessary for the next phase of the journey.
Rabbi Craig Axler is spiritual leader of Temple Isaiah in Fulton, Maryland.