Because of his position of leadership, Moses is judged extremely harshly when he sins.
God declares their punishment: Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them. Neither Moses nor Aaron will be allowed to enter into the Promised Land.
Commentators throughout history have struggled with this passage, trying to come to terms with the severity of God's punishment of Moses. After all, this is MOSES, the great leader of the people, the one who stood up to Pharaoh and led the Israelites not only out of slavery in Egypt, but then continued to lead them for 40 years, forming them into a people and coping with their day to day gripes. After schlepping around with the contentious people for 40 years, should Moses not at least be allowed to enter into the land that has been promised to them for so long? Was he not a fully human leader, surely subject to bouts of self-doubt and frustration?
And let us remember too that Moses was grieving--he had just lost his big sister, the one who helped save his very life when he was an infant. The loss of a close family member must have surely impaired his functioning. What exactly then did Moses do to deserve such a severe punishment? Should God not have shown more mercy to his most faithful servant?
Generally it is understood that Moses was punished for disobeying God's instructions. God clearly instructed him to "speak" to the rock, but instead he hit it, not just once, but twice. Rashi suggests that God seemed to be dismayed that Moses robbed him of the opportunity to impress the people with the miracle. More simply, Moses displayed a lack of faith or compliance with God's command, something that was common among the people.
But Moses was not just an average Israelite; he was the leader of the people and therefore expected to set a higher example. As the Zohar (foundational Kabbalistic text) teaches (ii, 47a), "The acts of the leader are the acts of the nation. If the leader is just, the nation is just; if he is unjust, the nation too is unjust and is punished for the sin of the leader."
Aaron, who witnessed the incident, is also held accountable. If Moses had only hit the rock once, only he would have been punished for the act. But since Moses hit the rock twice, Aaron is deemed culpable as well. After seeing Moses hit the rock once, Aaron should have stopped him before Moses hit the rock a second time.
According to Moses Maimonides, (also known as the Rambam), the main sin of Moses and Aaron was in the language they used when they spoke to the people: "Listen you rebels..." Surely, all the prophets (of which Moses is one) spoke to the people with harsh language, and it was effective and deserved. But here it is deemed inappropriate since the people only sought water, a basic human need. There was no reason to speak to the people as Moses did, except for his own needs. He compromised his own leadership, and therefore was punished by not be allowed to lead the people into the Promised Land. He could only the lead the people so far.
Did you like this article? MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.