What did Moshe do wrong?

It is an exceptionally puzzling passage. In the 40th year in the desert, the Jews are thirsty and complaining for water. Moshe, commanded by God to perform a miracle, assembles the community before a rock. There, he hits the rock, and out pours water.

Immediately after this miracle, Moshe is informed:

‘Because you have not believed in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you will not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.’

Moshe’s sin remains elusive. All of the commentaries comb the text, hoping to find an element in the narrative that explains this sin.

Rashi explains that Moshe had specifically been commanded by God to speak to the rock. Since Moshe decided to hit the rock, he desecrated God’s name. Rashi says:

“For had you spoken to the rock and it had given forth [water], I would have been sanctified in the eyes of the congregation. They would have said,”If this rock, which neither speaks nor hears, and does not require sustenance, fulfills the word of the Omnipresent, how much more should we!”

Rashi’s explanation seems more puzzling than the passage itself! First of all, (as the Ramban notes), why would God ask Moshe to carry a stick if he wasn’t supposed to hit the rock? In addition, considering that it’s an inanimate object, what difference does getting hit or speaking make to the rock?

Even more perplexing about Rashi’s explanation is Moshe is simply repeating what he had done in the past. In the first year in the desert, Moshe is told to produce water by hitting a rock! (Exodus 17:5-6).

Perhaps this Rashi is better understood with Theodore Roosevelt’s famous proverb:

“speak softly and carry a big stick”.

This proverb is about leadership. Leaders use different tools to influence their followers. They can persuade with words, or coerce with the stick. The proper mode of influence depends in large part on the audience. For certain audiences one needs to carry a big stick; for others, it is critical to speak softly.

In Moshe’s early career, he was a leader that carried a big stick. When Moshe initially refuses to lead because he is “not a man of words”, the Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 3:14) explains that God tells Moshe he doesn’t need to use words. In dealing with a dictator like Pharaoh, a man used to the master-slave view of politics, all Moshe needs is a big stick. Pharaoh is not open to persuasion, and only will respond to brute force.

Moshe’s leadership of the Jews in those early years is also one of the “big stick” variety. Former slaves, they respond best to force and coercion. Even at Mount Sinai, the Talmud says the Jews accept the Torah under duress (Shabbat 88a).

In this context, we can understand why in the first year in the desert, Moshe is commanded to produce water by hitting the rock. Moshe must inspire former slaves, and that type of leadership requires a powerful show of force.

But the event at Mei Merivah takes place in the 40th year. At this point, we are dealing with a new generation, born free in the desert. Although their parents need to follow the leadership of the big stick, this generation must learn how to follow out of a sense of inner morality. Moshe must limit his use of the big stick, while this generation is persuaded to follow what is good on their own volition.

Rashi incisively leads us to the core of the Mei Merivah issue. In the 40th year in the desert, big stick leadership will diminish the second generation’s ability to truly listen to God.

Moshe’s sin is nearly imperceptible from the text, because it is unique to his situation. As a leader overseeing generational change, he was expected to understand that some generations require the big stick, while others require soft words.

For the second generation, soft words are the proper form of leadership. Without them, people will not open their hearts to God. And because he cannot learn the leadership of speaking softly, Moshe cannot be the leader to bring the second generation into Eretz Yisrael.

(This Dvar Torah was originally published here.)