Humanity’s Role in its Partnership with Hashem

And Hashem spoke to Moshe saying: Take the staff and you and your brother Aharon gather the nation. Speak to the rock before their eyes and you will bring forth from the rock water for them. You will give the congregation and their cattle water to drink. (Sefer BeMidbar 20:7-8)

1. Moshe’s trespass in striking the rock
Parshat Chukat describes one of the most tragic incidents in the Torah. Bnai Yisrael arrive to the Wilderness of Tzin and they have no water. They complain to Moshe and Aharon; they accuse them of failing to fulfill their promise to bring them to a rich and fertile land. They tell them that they would prefer to have died earlier rather than face the miserable death by thirst that now confronts them. Hashem commands Moshe and Aharon to bring forth water from a rock. Moshe and Aharon assemble the nation; Moshe sternly chastises them for their failure of faith – referring to the people as rebels. Then, Moshe completes the mission. He strikes the rock and brings forth water.

But Hashem criticizes Moshe and Aharon for their conduct. He tells them that because they acted inappropriately, they will not lead the people into the Land of Israel. Indeed, they will perish in the wilderness. However, the Torah does not reveal the exact nature of their transgression.

Rashi suggests that Moshe sinned in striking the rock. Hashem instructed Moshe to speak to the rock and to bring forth its water without exerting physical force upon it.[1] Rashbam essentially agrees with Rashi. However, his comments include a curious and important observation. He acknowledges that Hashem told Moshe to “speak” to the rock. However, Moshe has good cause to misinterpret this command. Moshe assumed that this instruction should not be understood literally. Hashem had also instructed him to take with him his staff. Rocks are not sentient. Moshe understood that “speaking” in this context communicated an instruction to use this staff to strike the rock. [2]

Gershonides adds another important observation. The above passage includes the exact instructions that Hashem communicated to Moshe. The instructions specify that Moshe should speak to the rock. However, Gershonides notes that the phrase can be properly understood to mean that Moshe should speak to the people regarding the rock. This was the interpretation that Moshe adopted.

Moshe and Aharon gathered the congregation before the rock. And he said to them: Listen now rebels. Will I bring forth for you water from this rock? (Sefer BeMidbar 20:10)

2. Moshe’s misinterpretation of Hashem’s instructions
Moshe executed Hashem’s instructions as he understood them. He gathered the nation at the site of the rock and he addressed the assembly regarding the rock. He observed that the rock before them was a common bolder strewn upon a barren expanse. It could not be a source of water. Yet, he proposed to demonstrate that through Hashem’s miracle the rock would indeed be transformed into a spring of fresh water. After delivering this address – as he understood he had been instructed – he lifted the staff he had been directed to bring and brought it down upon the rock. As Moshe had prophesized, water gushed forth from the rock and the people were rescued from their suffering.[3]

Moshe had misinterpreted Hashem’s instructions. Hashem had not directed him to take the staff in order to strike the rock. Hashem had not intended for him to speak to the people regarding the rock but to speak to the rock and to instruct the rock to bring forth water. Through his misinterpretation of Hashem’s instructions Moshe diminished the magnitude of the miracle and Hashem’s glory.[4]

This raises an interesting question: Why did Moshe misinterpret Hashem’s instructions? Why did he not even recognize that the instructions required further clarification and seek more specific instructions?

Geshonides suggests that the answer to this question is contained in the above passage. Moshe, in anger, rebuked the nation. In this moment of irritation Moshe acted without fully considering what exactly Hashem required of him. Because he acted in anger and without adequate forethought he misinterpreted, Hashem’s instructions.[5] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno takes this explanation a step further. He explains that Moshe concluded that Hashem had instructed him to perform the lesser miracle of striking the rock because it was inconceivable to him that the people deserved the greater miracle that would occur through speaking to the rock.[6] In short, Moshe was blinded from fully understanding Hashem’s instructions by his anger with the people. Instead, he interpreted Hashem’s instructions in a manner that corresponded with his disappointment with the nation. What was the source of Moshe’s anger and disillusionment?

And Bnai Yisrael – the entire congregation – came to the Wilderness of Tzin, in the first month. The nation was situated in Kadesh and Miryam died there and was buried there. (Sefer BeMidbar 20:1)

3. The thirty-eight year gap in the Torah
The twentieth chapter of Sefer BeMidbar begins by announcing that the events that will be described occurred in the first month of the year. The Torah does not clearly state to which year it refers. However, Rashi indicates the year in his comments on a latter phrase in the passage. The passage states that “Bnai Yisrael – the entire congregation” arrived in the Wilderness of Tzin. The phrase “the entire congregation” seems superfluous. However, Rashi suggests that the phrase is intended to communicate an important message. According to Rashi, the phrase communicates that Bnai Yisrael arrived at the Wilderness of Tzin as a complete congregation. It was no longer a mixture of those who would merit to enter the Land of Israel and the members of the generation that had been condemned to die in the wilderness. Those who were condemned to die in the wilderness had died, and now, their children composed a new generation that was destined to possess the Land.[7]

This means that the events described in Parshat Chukat occurred in the fortieth year of the nation’s sojourn in the wilderness. Furthermore, the Torah is revealing that it is discussing a new generation. Through Parshat Korach, the Torah discussed the experiences of the generation that was redeemed from Egypt. Parshat Chukat resumes the description of the Bnai Yisrael experiences after a passage of thirty-eight years – in the fortieth year of the nation’s journey toward the Land of Israel.

Forty years prior to the events in Parshat Chukat Moshe had led the people out of Egypt. They were destined to shortly enter the land promised to the Patriarchs. However, the generation that was redeemed from Egypt never saw the fulfillment of this promise. They rebelled against Hashem and they were condemned to die in the wilderness. Even this harsh consequence did not reform that generation. Parshat Korach describes the continued lapses of the generation and their contentions with Moshe and Hashem.

Finally, that generation passed. A new generation is now poised to enter the land promised for the Forefathers. The promise to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov will be fulfilled. The historic moment has arrived. It is at this very moment that this new generation addresses Moshe and Hashem with the same contentious attitude that condemned their parents to forty years of wandering in the wilderness.

In this context, the full meaning of Moshe’s rebuke and the feelings it expressed can easily be imagined. Moshe feared that he was seeing the errors and sins of the past take root in this new generation. All of his labor and toil over the past forty years would be wasted. This generation was adopting the same poisonous attitudes that had condemned their parents to banishment in the desolate wilderness. This fear quickly transformed into anger and found expressions in Moshe’s judgments, words, and actions.

And Hashem spoke to Moshe and Aharon: Because you did not have faith in Me to glorify Me you will not bring this congregation to the land that I gave to them. (Sefer BeMidbar 20:12)

He said: It is not your responsibility to complete the work but neither are you free to disregard it. (Avot 2:16)

4. The partnership between humanity and Hashem
Ultimately, this account ends in tragedy. Moshe is punished for his misdeed. He will not be permitted to accompany the people into the Land of Israel. This generation that Moshe so feared would squander its opportunity would take possession of the land. But Moshe, their shepherd, would not be among them. How does this severe consequence correspond with Moshe’s sin?

In the above passage, Hashem tells Moshe that he did not have complete faith in Him. Moshe acted in anger. He certainly acted improperly. But wherein was his lack of faith in Hashem? Apparently, Moshe’s fear and anger expressed this lack of faith. Hashem promised the Patriarchs that their descendants would possess the Land of Israel. He redeemed these descendants from Egypt. When the redeemed generation did not merit to enter the land, Hashem patiently nurtured a new more courageous generation that would confidently conquer its enemies. Hashem had entered into a covenant with the Forefathers and it would be fulfilled. It was not Moshe’s responsibility to bring about the fulfillment of this covenant. It is our responsibility to serve Hashem.

Moshe’s fear and anger expressed his deep dread that he would not succeed in leading this generation into the Land of Israel. He would fail in his mission. Again, the conquest of the land and the fulfillment of the covenant would be delayed. Gripped by this fear and anxiety, he acted to save the generation and to move his mission forward to its conclusion. However, Moshe’s feelings and actions indicate that he so indentified with Hashem’s mission – fulfillment of the promise made to the Forefathers – that he adopted it as his own. In doing so, he confused his role with Hashem’s. Hashem would be true to His covenant. We must be true to Hashem.

Moshe’s punishment gave eloquent expression to this message. The mission that Moshe had adopted as his own would be fulfilled through another leader. The message communicated is the realization of Hashem’s covenantal promise is His responsibility. Each of us is to serve the role to which we are assigned. We are to fulfill our obligations with diligence and wisdom. However, we are members of a partnership with Hashem. In this partnership we are assigned a specific role. We must trust in Hashem that He will fulfill His role. Through Moshe’s punishment we are told that Hashem does not require the assistance or agency of a specific human being in order to fulfill His promises. The nation would possess the land without Moshe. Instead, our efforts and toils to accomplish His will are privileges and we must execute our responsibilities with wisdom and understanding.[8]

This concept is beautifully expressed by Ribbi Tarfon in Avot. We are responsible to act as Hashem and the Torah requires of us. We must fulfill the role assigned to us. However, we must also recognize that the outcome of our efforts and toils is never assured. It is Hashem who determines the outcome.

[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 20:12.
[2] Rabbaynu Shemuel ben Meir (Rashbam) Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 20:10.
[3] Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar, 20:8.
[4] The commentaries who explain that Moshe’s sin was that he struck the rock agree that by doing so he diminished the intended miracle. However, it is not self-evident that the rock’s production of water was rendered less miraculous, through Moshe’s error. Therefore, these commentators also discuss this issue. They present a variety of views regarding the inferiority of the actual miracle – initiated with the striking of the rock – as compared to the intended miracle. Rashi and Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno are two the commentators who discuss this issue and come to different conclusions.
[5] Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar, 20:8.
[6] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar, 20:8.
[7] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 20:1.
[8] This interpretation of Moshe’s state of mind and his punishment corresponds with an explanation I recall hearing many years ago from my rebbi, Rav Israel Chait.