The congregation had no water; so they assembled against Moshe and Aharon. (Sefer BeMidbar 20:2)
The sin of Moshe and Aharon and their punishment
The above passage introduces one of the most disturbing incidents in the Torah. The nation is in the wilderness of Tzin. The people have no water. They confront Moshe and Aharon. The incident concludes with Moshe and Aharon providing water to the nation but being punished for the manner in which they conduct themselves. They will perish before leading the nation into the Land of Israel.
The commentators deal with two obvious and troubling questions. First, the Torah does not specifically identify the sin committed by Moshe and Aharon. What was their sin? Second, Moshe and Aharon had dedicated themselves to leading the Jewish people from bondage into the Land of Israel. Hashem punished them by depriving them of the opportunity to complete their mission. Why did they deserve such a severe punishment? In order to properly understand this incident and the answers to these questions, we must return to Parshat Korach.
Korach accused Moshe of implementing a personal agenda
Parshat Korach described the revolt of Korach and his followers. The specific issue that provoked this rebellion was the appointment of Aharon and his sons as Kohen Gadol and Kohanim – as High Priest and priests. Korach and his followers believed that the priesthood belonged to the firstborn. They accused Moshe of acting on his own accord in depriving the firstborn of their prominence and reassigning the priesthood to his brother and family. In other words, their contention was that Moshe was not acting at Hashem’s direction and as His agent. Instead, he was implementing a personal agenda.
Moshe responded by challenging his opponents to a test. They would join with Aharon and each would offer a sacrifice of incense. Hashem would indicate the one whom He has selected by accepting his offering. The challenge was accepted. The following day the incense sacrifices were offered. Hashem sent forth a fire that consumed Korach and those of his followers who participated in the test. At the same moment, the earth opened. The fissure swallowed Korach’s other followers.
On the following day the congregation of the Children of Israel complained against Moshe and Aharon saying: You have killed the nation of Hashem. (Sefer BeMidbar 17:6)
Hashem responds to the people’s continued suspicion of Moshe
These events did not resolve the doubts surrounding Moshe’s actions. The people accused Moshe of bringing about the deaths of those who opposed them. Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra explains that the people were not convinced of Moshe’s and Aharon’s legitimacy. They suspected that somehow Moshe had effectuated the wonders that killed his opponents. And even if these wonders were acts of Hashem, perhaps, He was responding to Moshe’s prayers that his adversaries be punished. In other words, those killed died directly or indirectly at the hands of Moshe and not as punishment for their wickedness.
Hashem responded to these accusations by bringing a plague upon the nation. Then, Hashem commanded Moshe to organize an overt demonstration of His selection of Aharon and his sons to serve as His Kohanim. He directed Moshe to collect the staffs of the princes of the twelve tribes. Aharon was to inscribe his name on the staff for the tribe of Leyve. All the staffs were to be placed before the Sacred Ark. Hashem would demonstrate whom He wished to serve as His Kohanim and Kohen Gadol through the blossoming of one of these staffs. Moshe acted as directed. The staff of Aharon blossomed.
The reasonable conclusion for the nation to draw from the blossoming of Aharon’s staff was that Moshe had appointed Aharon and his sons as Kohanim and Kohen Gadol at Hashem’s direction. The plague Hashem brought upon the nation in response to the accusations made against Moshe communicated that he acted as Hashem’s agent. The commandments that he communicated to the people were given to them by Hashem. Moshe was merely the messenger acting as Hashem’s intermediary with the nation. However, in Parshat Chukat, the Torah explains that the doubts regarding Moshe’s agency remained unresolved.
And the nation contended with Moshe and they said, saying: If only we had died the death of our brothers, before Hashem! Why did you bring the assembly of Hashem to this wilderness to die there – we and our livestock? Why did you bring us up from Egypt to bring us to this evil place? It is not a place for planting, fig, vine, and pomegranate. And there is no water to drink. (Sefer BeMidbar 20:3-5)
Moshe is challenged at Tzin
The nation arrives at the wilderness of Tzin. There is no water. The people fear for their lives. They cannot understand their situation. They conclude that their tragic circumstance is the result of Moshe’s failed leadership. He has brought them to this place. He is responsible for their inevitable deaths. Underlying their conclusion is the same doubt voiced by Korach and his followers. It is the doubt expressed by the nation in response to the death of Moshe’s opponents. Is Moshe truly Hashem’s agent? If he is His agent, then how can the nation now be facing death in this wilderness.
This doubt undermines the foundation of the Torah. If Moshe is not Hashem’s agent, then the nation cannot be certain that the commandments he has communicated are from Hashem. They cannot know with certainty that Moshe has acted solely as Hashem’s faithful scribe and communicated to the nation only the word of Hashem.
And Hashem spoke to Moshe saying: Take the staff and assemble the congregation – you and Aharon, your brother. And you should speak to the rock before them. It will give forth its water. And you will bring forth to them water from the rock and give water to drink to the congregation and to its livestock. (Sefer BeMidbar 20:7-8)
The sin of Moshe and Aharon
In these passages, Hashem directs Moshe to bring forth water from a rock. Moshe and Aharon assembled the nation and proceeded to fulfill this directive. However, they sinned. In some manner, their actions did not conform to Hashem’s directive or wishes. What precisely was their sin?
The most well-known response is provided by Rashi. Hashem directed Moshe and Aharon to speak to the rock. They were to command it to give forth water. The Torah describes Moshe striking the rock rather than commanding it. This detracted from the intended miracle.
One of the most interesting explanations of Moshe’s and Aharon’s sin is provided by Rambam – Maimonides. Before striking the rock, Moshe rebuked the people. He said, “Listen now, those who are rebels.” He expressed his anger toward the people. Hashem expected Moshe to model appropriate behavior for the nation. In becoming angry and demonstrating to the people his temper, he failed to fulfill this expectation. Furthermore, in observing Moshe’s anger the people reasoned that his reaction reflected Hashem’s response to their complaints. They concluded that Hashem was angry with them. Hashem had not communicated to Moshe that He was angry with the people. In demonstrating anger, Moshe misrepresented Hashem.
The simplest interpretation of Moshe’s and Aharon’s sin is provided by Rabbaynu Chananel. Moshe challenged the people. He said to them, “Will we bring forth for you water from this rock?” This challenge was poorly phrased. Moshe should have said, “Will Hashem bring forth for you water from this rock?” Through his phrasing, Moshe suggested that he and Aharon were more than Hashem’s agents. He implied that they were somehow causing the water to emerge.
Adding a personal element to the execution of Hashem’s command
Let’s further consider these interpretations. According to Rashi, Moshe and Aharon were punished because they did not perform Hashem’s commandment in the manner He had instructed. According to Rambam, Moshe and Aharon did not actually deviate from their instructions. However, they were expected to model ideal behavior and communicate clearly Hashem’s position. In expressing their anger, they failed to meet this expectation. They incorporated personal feelings into their response to the people. According to Rabbaynu Chananel, they did not violate their instructions. However, Moshe expressed himself in a manner suggesting that he and Aharon were more than agents of Hashem; they were active participants in causing the miracle. According to all these interpretations, Moshe’s and Aharon’s sin was the insertion of a personal element into the execution of Hashem’s command. Through this insertion, they actually engaged in or appeared to engage in the very behavior of which they were suspected. They stood accused of being more than agents of Hashem and they indeed sinned by becoming or appearing to be more than His agents.
The message of the punishment
We can now better understand the punishment Moshe and Aharon received. Rashi and Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra explain that their punishment sanctified Hashem. How did their severe punishment accomplish this? This punishment conclusively addressed the accusations of the nation and provided absolute proof of Moshe’s authenticity as Hashem’s prophet. It demonstrated that Hashem would not tolerate Moshe and Aharon acting as other than His agents or misrepresenting Him. Now, there could be no question that the commandments were Hashem’s word and not Moshe’s inventions. Hashem’s punishment of Moshe and Aharon showed that He demanded perfect fidelity from His prophets and would immediately respond to any attempt to misrepresent His will.
Rambam outlines thirteen principle that are the foundations of the Torah. One of these principle is that the Torah was given to us by Hashem. This means that the Written Torah and the fundamental material in the Oral Tradition were communicated to us by Hashem through Moshe. Parshat Korach and Parshat Chukat both deal with the importance of this principle and the means through which it was firmly established.
All thirteen principles are important. However, the principle that has had the greatest practical impact upon Jewish religious practice is that the Torah is from Hashem. This principle distinguishes Orthodoxy from the other branches of Judaism.
The Jewish people is a political/national and religious entity. As a religious movement, the branches of Judaism have different perspectives. These differences relate to fundamental principles and should not be minimized. However, as a political entity, we must seek unity and fellowship. This creates a tension. Can we work together for the benefit of our people despite real and substantial religious differences?
There are two approaches to this challenge. One is to minimize the religious differences. This means reducing differences to a matter of opinion. Opinions are subjective. If religious perspective is just opinion, then all positions have equal claim to legitimacy. Unfortunately, the corollary is that all positions are subjective and have very limited legitimacy. If we adopt this approach, then we compromise the foundations of Judaism.
The other approach is to agree to disagree. In other words, to respect or accept differences without minimizing them. This is much more difficult. It requires that we acknowledge that we do not recognize the legitimacy of each other’s religious perspectives. Yet, despite these important differences we seek common-ground and work in unity as a political entity. If our religious views are to remain meaningful, we must find the means of treading on this more difficult path.
 This characterization of the dispute is developed by Ibn Ezra. See part 1 for a more extensive discussion of the dispute.
 Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar, 17:6.
 Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 20:11-12. Ramban objects to this interpretation. The miracle was that the rock gave forth water. This wonder was not lessened through striking the rock. Rashi responds to this issue enigmatically. Hashem told Moshe to command the rock to give forth water. Hashem intended to teach a lesson to the people. A rock is inanimate. Its obedience to Hashem’s commands does not secure a reward and its disobedience does not result in punishment. Nonetheless, it is faithful. Human beings whose obedience and disobedience have consequences should certainly adhere to Hashem’s commands. This response does not seem to completely address Ramban’s objection. How did striking the rock undermine this lesson? See Moshe ben Avraham of Przemysl (Met), Hoe’il Moshe, Parshat Chukat. He explains that Hashem commanded Moshe and Aharon to speak to the rock and to not employ any substantial material action in bringing about the miracle. Any action taken by Moshe or Aharon might be interpreted as having some role in the emergence of the water. Rather than being understood as the rock responding to Hashem’s command, the event would be interpreted as somehow caused by their action.
 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Commentary on the Mishne, Mesechet Avot, Introduction, Chapter 4.
 Rabbaynu Chananel, Commentary of Sefer BeMidbar 20:12.
 Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 20:13. Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 20:13.
 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Commentary on the Mishne, Mesechet Sanhedrin 10:1.