In the first three verses of Numbers 20, Moshe brings the people into the wilderness of Tsin, the people set up their tents at Kadesh, Miriam dies, the water runs out, and the people declare they would have rather have died with the followers of Korach. The midrash reads this compression of events to be saying that there was magical well that followed Miriam around wherever she went, and the people were desperate for water because upon her death it had dried up.

God responds to the people by inviting Moshe to take his staff and go to “the rock”, to talk with the rock, so that it will bring out water. Instead, Moshe raises his staff, yells out, “Listen you rebels/morim,” and hits the rock, twice. God then disciplines Moshe, and decrees: “Because you didn’t believe in Me to make Me holy in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you will not bring this community into the land which I gave to them.” (Num 20:12)

But what was Moshe’s sin? It is famously difficult to make sense of why hitting the rock is something so terrible that Moshe would be denied the fulfillment of his life’s work, bringing the people into Canaan. Why does God count this as so grave a sin that it merits death – for indeed Moshe and Aharon must die, rather than be allowed to go to Canaan with Joshua and the people?

Some midrashic explanations say that Moshe’s sin was that he was angry at the people and called them “morim” — some translate this as “morons”. He was relieved of his duties because he showed that he was unable to continue to nurture the people. Others say that simple disobedience was the problem, and that when you are on as high a level as Moshe, there is no room for such mistakes. Something I’ve also heard is that Moshe had lost his resiliency as a leader — he rotely did the same thing he had done last time when he had to get water from a rock. It wasn’t so much that he sinned, but that he was no longer able to fulfill the role that the people needed.

One midrash that relates to this says that the rock Moshe struck twice was the same one that gave forth water when Moshe struck it many years ago in the desert at God’s command, “the rock,” and that this rock was now a “grown-up” rock, able to respond by being spoken to. Moshe, however, failed to recognize this. The rock had grown up, but in some sense Moshe had not.

But this last midrash suggests to me another reason why Moshe needed to speak to the rock. He was supposed to demonstrate to the people that everything is alive, even rocks, and that we can be in dialogue with the world around us, rather than taking from it, beating and breaking it. Moshe was the only one able to actually see this way – after all, he had rightly seen the divine life burning in a bush – and what we think of as Moshe’s sin was really an incredible opportunity that was lost.

This year, I had a new insight into this interpretation. I was studying a teaching from Yaakov Lainer, the son of Mordechai Lainer, the Izhbitser Rebbe, in order to include it in my book on Kabbalah and ecology. The teaching was about the soul or essence of a rock.

In this teaching, from Lainer’s commentary on the book of Leviticus (section 18), Lainer teaches that the essence of rocks is that they are attached more directly to God’s throne than human beings are. He applies a principle from Kabbalah to explain why: when the world shattered in the first rendition of creation, what was highest fell furthest. But for Lainer, the rock is still right next to God’s throne – it’s manifestation fell into the physical world, but its soul did not:

“The silent ones from this world (rocks etc.) branch off from a very high place. Here is a parable: One who stands before the king voids himself completely because of the awe he feels – because of this, there is no movement in him. And one who looks upon him from behind, it appears to him that there is no life in this person, but in truth there is true life there.”

Lainer’s parable isn’t just a parable for him. He explains that when we see rocks, we are seeing their “backs” because “whoever is closer to God, his back is seen” by those further away. Even when we are facing God’s throne, all we can see of rocks is their backs, because they are closer to God than we will ever be. God sees rocks differently, though.

When God told Moshe to speak to the rock, God was inviting Moshe to see the rock from a “God’s-eye” view, to understand the inner reality of the rock – “that there is true life there” – and to show the people that that was the true reality.

One could imagine that showing this reality to the people was so important – perhaps even the purpose of the whole trial of the desert – that Moshe and Aharon could no longer lead them after this moment of failure. The punishment God metes out – Moshe and Aharon dying in the wilderness – still seems unfair when I think about it, but for entirely different reasons.

If indeed there was no water because their sister Miriam had just died and the well was gone, then God was expecting Moshe not only to be the perfect leader, the perfect visionary, and the perfect executor of God’s will — but also to do all this while in deep mourning for his sister. When I imagine being in that position, it seems like it would be impossible.

Nevertheless, seen in this light, one could imagine a very different reason for why Moshe needed to speak to the rock, a reason full of compassion. Perhaps Moshe was not the only one who had the potential to see the true face of a rock. Maybe Moshe was being invited by God to see the reality that Miriam had known for her whole life, the reality that let a well spring up in the desert – water from rocks – in every place the people of Israel came to. Perhaps, then, Miriam knew about the secret life of rocks, their awakened presence before the divine throne.

If God was indeed inviting Moshe and Aharon to create a fitting tribute to their sister, who could bring forth water from rocks without striking them, then the whole episode looks different. Moshe and Aharon weren’t able to speak to the rock because they had lost the capacity to remember and memorialize their sister, because the burdens of leadership prevented them from being able to mourn. To put it in modern psychological terms, Moshe and Aharon had lost the capacity to show their own inner life and to know their authentic selves. If Moshe and Aharon needed to step down as leaders, maybe it was not because they were being punished, but because God recognized that the toll on them had become too great.