The tragic incident at Mei Merivah, which occurred towards the end of the desert trek, marked the low point in Moshe’s career as the prophet and leader of the people. Once again, the people demanded from him water and once again, they taunted him with outcries that he had brought them out of Egypt to die in the desert. As before, Moshe and Aharon pleaded with God to intercede and help them meet the people’s demands and God answered their request: “You and your brother Aharon take the staff and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water…” (Numbers 20:8) Moshe took his staff, assembled the people and addressed them sternly: “Listen you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” (20:10) Moshe struck the rock twice and out flowed water. For some unrevealed reason this episode ended tragically, for God punished Moshe and Aharon, by denying them permission to enter the land.
The Torah never makes it clear what Moshe and Aharon did to prompt God’s ire, fostering a plethora of different interpretive possibilities. (Far too many to recount all of them!) Situations like this, it is worth noting, provide great midrashic and homiletic opportunities affording us with windows into the thinking of the interpreters.
Rashi resolves this question technically through a careful reading of the plot. God said to talk to the rock, so that is what Moshe should have done; instead, he struck the rock. According to Rashi, this was a clear case of disobedience before God and a show of breach of faith before the people. Rabbeinu Hananel (11th century Kairouan – Tunisia), on the other hand, asserts the Moshe’s sin was that he seemingly took credit for himself in performing the miracle instead of attributing it to God. (See Ramban’s survey of the various interpreters)
For Rambam (Maimonides), Moshe’s sin was in exhibiting inappropriate behavior as a leader:
You know that He (God), may He be esteemed, said to the master of both earlier generations and later generations, Moshe Rabeinu (our teacher): ‘Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people’ (Numbers 20:12), on that you disregarded My command (20:24), for you broke faith with Me among the children of Israel (Deuteronomy 32:51).” All this on account of his sin, peace be with him, for veering to an extreme from the quality of moderation, by showing anger by saying: “Listen, you rebels” (Numbers 20:10) God criticized him since for a man like him it is inappropriate to become angry before the children of Israel… (adapted from Shmonah Perakim ch. 4, M. Schwartz ed. p. 25 Heb.)
Since proper behavior, according to Rambam, requires a person to act with moderation, a show of anger, particularly for a leader who represented God, was inappropriate. Rambam was not the first to assert that it was Moshe’s anger that “did him in”. (I would also not be surprised if the following midrash was the inspiration for his interpretation.) What this midrash adds, though, is a storyline for what prompted Moshe’s angry outburst:
And all Israel stood and saw the miracles of the rock. They began to say [to themselves]: ‘Moshe knows the ways of that [particular] rock. If he wants, he knows how to draw water for us from it (and therefore, there is no miracle in that!). So, they said to him: ‘Here is the rock. Just as you wanted to bring forth water from that rock, bring it forth from this rock.’ This put Moshe in a quandary over what to do. If he listened to the people, then it would be necessary to ignore the words of God. [In exasperation,] he yelled back at them: ‘Listen, you rebels, shall we get water out of this rock?’ (Numbers 20:10) (Adapted from Tanhuma Hukat 9)
Moshe, like most leaders, was constantly tested by his people. Should he abide by principle and follow God’s words or should he give in to popular demands. All this at the very end of his successful forty-year mission to transport his people to its homeland. Imagine the tremendous stress and anxiety thrust upon him. In the end, according to this midrash, he burst forth and blurted out an inappropriate response to the people, something a leader must never do, rendering himself no longer capable of leading the people.
What a tragedy! What a lesson for all of us in dealing with others.