Two Strikes And They're Out?
Though we may challenge the severity of Moses' and Aaron's punishment for striking the rock, rather than speaking to it, we affirm sacredness by trying to comprehend it.
This incident takes place against a backdrop of continued devolution, specifically after the death of Miriam. What significance might be accorded to the absence of an official mourning period for Miriam? What do you think of the following teaching by Rabbi Moshe Alsheich (quoted in The Stone Edition Chumash, p. 843): "Because they [the Israelites] did not shed tears over the loss of Miriam, the source of their water dried up?"
Moses and Aaron's sin "constitutes the climax of a series of rebellions: first by the people, then by the Levites and chieftains, and finally by the leaders, Moses and Aaron" (The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, p. 163). What lesson in political and personal dynamics is being offered here?
By the Way…
For had you spoken to the rock [rather than struck it] and it would have brought forth water, I would have been sanctified before the eyes of the assembly. (Rashi on Numbers 20:12)
His whole sin lay in erring on the side of anger and deviating from the mean of patience when he used the expression "you rebels." (Maimonides, Sh'monah P'rakim 4:5)
At Meribah of Kadesh, the rock of "strife and holiness," the ancient leadership was shattered. It broke because a new age demanded new vision, new faith, and undiminished capacity to sanctify the God of Israel to the people of Israel. If the Torah implies sin on the part of Moses and Aaron, it can only be the sin of failure: For leaders are always held responsible for the performance of those they lead. Both Moses and Aaron apparently considered the divine judgment to be just and knew it to be irreversible. Aaron never raised his voice concerning it, and Moses did it once and then ever so briefly (Deuteronomy 3:23-25). (W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, p. 1,156)
The Holy One, blessed be God, said to Moses, "The first offence that you committed was a private matter between you and Me. Now, however, that it was done in the presence of the public, it is impossible to overlook it, as it says [Numbers 20:12], 'because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people.'" (Midrash Rabbah 19:10)
The sin consisted of their saying, "Are we to bring you water out of this rock?" They should not have said "we" but rather "Shall the Eternal bring you water out of this rock?" (Rabbeinu Hananel on Numbers 20:10, cited by Nachmanides)
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