For centuries, commentators have struggled with and argued about the incident of the Mei Meriva (the waters of strife). After the Children of Israel complained about the lack of water in the desert, God ordered Moshe to speak to a rock and draw forth water, but, as is well known, he hit the rock instead (Bamidbar 20:1-11).
Moshe was punished harshly for his failure to adhere strictly to the details of this command. Indeed, his ultimate dream to enter and live in the Land of Israel was shattered because of this one seemingly small mistake, and in spite of all his pleas for forgiveness, God did not allow him to lead the Israelites across the Jordan.
God’s severity in this narrative is unprecedented. Four times the Torah refers to this divine expression of “anger,” and five times God condemns Moshe for this sin: 1) “Because you did not have faith in Me” (Bamidbar 20:12); 2) “You defied My word” (Ibid. 20:24); 3) “You disobeyed My command” (Ibid. 27:14); 4) “You betrayed Me” (Devarim 32: 51); 5) “You did not sanctify Me in the midst of the Children of Israel” (Ibid.).
The sin is even more perplexing when one considers that causing water to gush forth from a rock by hitting it is no less miraculous than producing the same effect via speech. Only one slight blow produced enough water to quench the thirst of millions of people. No scientific explanation could ever account for this! What was it in Moshe’s actions that reflected such flagrant disbelief and rebellion as to warrant that harsh response? What changed as a result of Moshe’s decision to hit the rock rather than speak to it? And why did God insist that water be produced miraculously by speech and nothing else? Why not leave this seemingly small decision in Moshe’s hands? After all, Torah “lo bashamayim he” (Devarim 30:12). The Torah is no longer in Heaven, and its rulings are up to humans to decide.
To Paraphrase Sophocles in his Philoctetes: I see that everywhere among the race of men, it is the tongue that wins and not the coercive act. Hitting implies coercion – a brute force that leaves the other no option but to follow the orders of the attacker. Obedience, therefore, does not demonstrate any real willingness, or agreement with the resulting action. Even the threat of physical coercion casts suspicion on one’s deeds, and usually implies a complete lack of authenticity.
Speech, on the other hand, is a means of persuasion that does not bypass or disable the listener’s decision-making process. Any response to speech will therefore be genuine. This is actually alluded to in Meshech Chochma (ad loc. See also Maharal).
In many ways, the revelation at Sinai was an intensely coercive event. This position is borne out by the Talmud’s famous remark that God threatened to drop the mountain on the Israelites if they chose not to accept the Torah (Shabbat 88a). Rabbi Acha ben Yaakov protests this divine intimidation, saying that God indeed threatened to kill the Jews if they refused to be party to the covenant, and therefore the legality of the agreement, which was reached under coercion, is called into question. This implies that perhaps the Jewish people are not really obligated to keep the commandments in the Torah! Some Chassidic masters even suggest that it was this threat and this feeling of having been forced that led to the sin of the golden calf. (See, for example, Chiddushei HaRim on Parshat Yitro.) If so, it would seem that the harsh coercion was too much for the Israelites to bear and at a certain level became counterproductive.
That said, it was of utmost importance that the Jewish people accept the Torah. Sometimes coercion can be beneficial to people, serving as an essential ingredient for their education. Homines enim civiles non nascuntur, sed fiunt (Civil men are not born, but made), said Spinoza (Thomas Hill Green, Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation [London: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1895] p. 53), reflecting an old Jewish truth. But Law must ultimately lead to moral freedom. This means that liberty is primarily an issue of education. To be an agent of freedom, and not constraint, lawful coercion must lead to awareness in people that had they understood the values inherent in the laws, they would have accepted them with even the gentlest forms of persuasion.
King David expressed this concept when he said: “I will walk in freedom, for I have sought out Your laws” (Tehillim 119:45). Using a beautiful exegetical wordplay, the Sages read the description of the tablets, on which God wrote the Ten Commandments, not as “the writing of God engraved (charut) on the tablets,” but as “freedom (cheirut) on the tablets” (Pirkei Avot 6:2). Only when we engrave the laws into our hearts do we experience absolute freedom – self-expression in the deepest and truest sense. (*)
When standing at the border of the Land of Israel, the Jewish people underwent a radical change of “weltanschauung.” At Sinai, and during their years of wandering in the desert, God used coercion as a necessary device to prepare them for lives as Jews. Suddenly, as they entered the land and became more spiritually independent, they began to understand that the survival of Judaism would depend upon the effectiveness of gentle persuasion. While bound by the Law, they realized that to build a deeply religious society, Jewish educators would need to use the power of the word – gentle and inspiring – and not the rod, if they hoped to foster conditions in which Jews would be willing and feel privileged to live their lives according to the Torah’s mandate.
Had this not become clear at the inception of the first Jewish Commonwealth, the nation’s government could have become a tyrannical and fundamentalist dictatorship. This mode of leadership would have been a sign of weakness: Do the Jews have to be beaten into observing God’s law? It would have called into question the inherent truth and persuasive powers of the Torah, thereby profaning God’s name.
This, then, was at the core of Moshe’s sin. For the sake of later generations – who would need to know that the ways of the Torah are ways of pleasantness, of the gentle word and not the hard strike – God denied Moshe the merit of living in the land. In this way, He made it clear to all that leaders who seek to turn Israel into a holy nation by way of threat or by force may very well bring disaster to themselves and their people.
(*) This is not what the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin calls “negative liberty” (i.e., freedom from…), but rather a constitutional freedom in which one’s own freedom automatically respects that of the other, and for which one is prepared to make sacrifices. Otherwise, “Freedom for the pike is death for the minnow.” Berlin explains this at great length in “Two Concepts of Liberty,” Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford University Press, 1969) pp. 118–173.
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— Nathan Lopes Cardozo