Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are that of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the Union for Traditional Judaism, unless otherwise indicated.
by Rabbi Steve Suson
In this week’s Torah reading, we find the story of Moses and Aaron’s great sin. The story is only seven verses long and is found right in the middle of a parasha otherwise filled with exciting conquests and interesting rituals. But on these seven lines of scripture are written countless pages of commentary.
The commentary raises one major question: What crime did Moses and Aaron commit? The Torah seems to consider it an egregious sin, but what did they actually do wrong? They are accused of publicly exhibiting doubt in God:
Ya’an lo he’emantem bi lehakdisheini… Because you have not trusted me to sanctify me . . . (Numbers 20:12)
Moses and Aaron are being accused of not sanctifying God because of their behavior. A careful examination of the brief passages in the Torah shows that the answer is anything but clear. There is certainly room for speculation – and that is exactly what the mefarshim did in their commentaries.
The people complain after Miriam, sister of Moses, dies. Morale begins to dive again and the people complain to Moses that they are thirsty. God tells Moses to take his staff and Aaron, assemble the people, and “speak to the rock before their eyes and the rock will give its water.” Moses took his rod, as he was commanded, and he assembled the people before the rock and he said to the people; “Listen up you rebels! Shall we get water from this rock?” Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff and out came the water (Numbers 20: 1–11). As punishment, God informs Moses and Aaron that they are to die before the Children of Israel actually cross into the Land of Israel. Despite their leadership of the people all the way from Egypt, Moses and Aaron themselves would not actually see the promised land.
Moses and Aaron, who dedicated their entire lives to taking care of God’s people, leading them from Egypt through all of the trials and ordeals in the desert, are now informed that they will not be permitted to complete the last step of their journey. This begs the aforementioned question: What could they possibly have done to deserve such harsh criticism and severe punishment?
This question intrigues the commentators and each one has a turn at trying to explain this incident:
1) Rashi: the only thing that Moses did wrong was striking the rock and not speaking to it as God commanded.
2) Ibn Ezra: Of course he was supposed to strike the rock – that’s why God commanded him to take the staff in the first place. The real reason is that Moses struck the rock twice instead of only once.
3) Rambam: He struck the rock and spoke to it, just as he was commanded by God but what he did wrong was that he got so incensed with the people for their whining and complaining that he was insulting and called them an uncomplimentary name (morim – rebels). Since when do good leaders call their followers names? This is why he was punished.
4) Ramban: The sin was asking the question, “Will this rock give water?” (20:10) instead of phrasing it as a statement, as God had commanded, that the rock WILL give water. Moses thereby caused people to doubt.
Some of our most famous teachers and reliable commentators are unable to tell us clearly exactly what the original crime was, yet Moses and Aaron were punished heavily. And while we can’t exactly agree on which parts of his actions were wrong, Moses missed an opportunity to strengthen people’s faith in God. This is an allegory for what happens to all of us, all too frequently. People we care about are sometimes hurt by our words or actions and we don’t know exactly what we did to cause such offense.
What does God want from us as Jews? Is it enough simply to choose right from wrong? Is it enough simply to be a generally decent person? We must also constantly seek opportunities to sanctify God’s name by always making an effort to speak courteously to people, to be generally cheerful and happy, to avoid Leshon Harah, and to provide tokens of kindness that may seem small to us, but make other people’s day and help to affirm their faith and trust in God.
On a daily basis, we are susceptible to the same mindset that Moses was at Mei Merivah – so wrapped up in our own busy lives and thoughts that, while we have an opportunity to do something good for someone else (something that may even strengthen that person’s faith in God), we bungle it because we are too centered on ourselves. We end up externalizing our own internal feelings. We may not even realize that our words and actions are affecting others at all.
This is a constant struggle for each of us: to recognize the countless opportunities we have each day to perform acts of kindness and kiddush Hashem. May the lessons of the Parasha remain with us throughout the week and may our efforts achieve true kiddush Hashem.