One of the focal points of this week’s Torah portion is Mei Merivah — also known as the waters of strife — where Moses struck a rock to bring forth water for the thirsty nation traveling in the desert. The verses state: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Take the staff and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and speak to the rock in their presence so that it will give forth its water. You shall bring forth water for them from the rock and give the congregation and their livestock to drink.”(Bamidbar 20:7-8) Contrary to God’s direct command, Moses did not speak to the rock but rather struck it with his staff in order to draw water from it. The consequences of his actions are explained later in the Chapter:“Because you did not believe in Me, to sanctify Me before the Nation of Israel – therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the Land which I have given to them”(ibid,12) Because of this seemingly small deviation from the explicit command, Moses was found no longer fitting to lead the Jewish people into the Land of Israel. What exactly was at the core of the sin of striking rather than speaking to the rock, which caused Moses to be punished so severely?
To this question there are almost as many answers as there are commentaries on the Torah.Rashi’s commentary follows the opinion found in the Zohar (Bereshit 20) and the Midrash (Yalkut Reuveni 70). He writes,“Hashem did not command them to strike the rock, but rather to speak to it. Had they spoken to the rock and produced water it would have been a tremendous sanctification of the Divine Name. If a deaf and dumb rock, which is not dependent upon G-d’s mercy, does G-d’s bidding when spoken to, how much more so must human beings fulfill the Divine commands.” (Bamidbar 20:8-12 with Rashi). The Ramban differs in his commentary, explaining that Moses was commanded to take his staff (ibid. v. 8), thus implying that he was supposed to have used it. He questions Rashi’s explanation and asks why it would be any less miraculous to draw water from a rock by hitting it with a staff rather than by speaking to it – both are supernatural events which exemplify God’s dominion over the natural world. Though there remains a debate between Rashi and the Ramban as to what exactly the nature of the sin was, it seems clear that all revolves around Moses’ choice of hitting vs. speaking to the rock in order to produce water.
Within this discussion it becomes important to question why there is such an emphasis placed on the distinction between “striking” and “speaking” to the rock. What is the substantial difference between the two, and how does it reflect on the true essence of Moses transgression?
In his work Tal Chermon, Rav Shlomo Aviner offers an enlightening explanation to this question. In Judaism, man is set above the rest of the animal kingdom due to the fact that he can perceive abstract ideas and moral imperatives and then express them into words. Through man’s verbal ability, he communicates with and influences the society around him; he is able to translate thought into action. Similarly, the fundamental nature of speech is also one of the foremost qualities that is needed in a leader. When God wished to appoint Moses to lead the nation of Israel out of Egypt, he felt unworthy of the task due to the speech impediment that inhibited his ability to communicate directly to the people. The verse states, “I am heavy of mouth and of tongue.” (Shemot 4:6) However this was only a temporary obstacle, for we know that with time Moses was able to confidently lead the people by utilizing his power of speech and persuasion. The phrase “And Moshe spoke” appears countless times in the Torah, and the entire book of Deuteronomy is one long, continuous speech given by Moses to the nation just before his death. (Tal Chermon, pg. 354)
While elegant speech and persuasion is important in leading the nation, so too there a place for the use of coercion and force in keeping order within a community of people. For example, we would not depend on the power of persuasion to convince a thief to compensate for his theft; for that there is a need for courts and police to enforce the rule of law. But these coercive tools are only to be utilized as secondary forces, when the primary and optimal course of guiding a nation through the power of speech and persuasion cannot for whatever reason be effectively implemented. (ibid, pg. 355) Speech and positive persuasion have the potential to lead a nation on the right path by empowering them to take personal ownership over their identity. It has the power to foster true spiritual growth by allowing a person to tap in and discover that which is their inner essence. Coercion, therefore, is secondary because it is only an external factor; it does engender lasting positive change in the person because it does not come from within.
From the time of the Exodus and throughout the Jewish people’s 40 years of travel in the desert, the only effective method of leadership was coercion. After the hundreds of years of slavery and absorption deep into the mindset of the Egyptian culture, it was not conceivable that the necessary changes that the Jewish people needed to undergo before entering the Land of Israel would come about through the power of speech and persuasion alone. However, as the period of sojourning in the desert was coming to a close, and the Jewish people as a nation progressed in the actualizing of their full potential, it became clear that another leadership method was required. Writes Rav Aviner, Moses mistake at Mei Merivah was not simply that he hit the rock instead of speaking to it; rather hitting the rock was a reflection of his failure to recognize the great strides that the nation had accomplished. They had effectively transitioned from a nation in need of a coercive leader to a nation in need of a persuasive leader. Mei Merivah witnessed Moses hitting the rock – leading by coercion and force –rather than speaking to the rock – leading through speech and persuasion. Since he failed to exhibit the appropriate method of leadership, his punishment was that he would be unable to continue to lead the people through this new era and enter with them into the Land of Israel. (ibid pg. 355)
I believe that the lesson of Mei Merivah is that we as a community must recognize and appropriately apply the power of speech/persuasion and coercion within all areas of Jewish life. There is a time and place to employ both within religious practice, however, it must be done with great thought and care. Coercion may have a place before a child is mature enough to understand the depth and beauty of mitzvah observance, but when a young person reaches the stage whereby they can grasp such concepts it is our responsibility as parents and educators to shift our focus and facilitate their growth through speech and positive persuasion – this will allow them to fully take ownership of their Jewish identity in a most positive way.