In a sedra which starts out with one of Judaism’s most mysterious and misunderstood laws, of the Para Adumah/Red Heifer, it is often easy to overlook an equally mysterious and misunderstood story, which takes place in the text immediately after this.
Miriam passes away and the be’er that had followed the Jewish People in their journey disappears soon afterwards. The thirsty nation gathers around Moshe and expresses their displeasure: “למה הבאתם את קהל ה’ אל המדבר הזה למות שם אנחנו ובעירנו,” they demand. “Why did you take us out of the rich and fertile Egypt to die here in the wilderness?!”
Hashem’s presence appears over the Ohel Mo’ed, effectively calling a time-out for a team huddle with Moshe and Aharon. He commands Moshe:
קַח אֶת הַמַּטֶּה וְהַקְהֵל אֶת הָעֵדָה אַתָּה וְאַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ וְדִבַּרְתֶּם אֶל הַסֶּלַע לְעֵינֵיהֶם וְנָתַן מֵימָיו וְהוֹצֵאתָ לָהֶם מַיִם מִן הַסֶּלַע וְהִשְׁקִיתָ אֶת הָעֵדָה וְאֶת בְּעִירָם
Take your stick and gather the congregation, you and your brother Aharon, and speak to the rock in front of their eyes, and it will give its water and you will take its water and feed the congregation… (במדבר כ:ח)
Moshe obliges, getting up before the nation with his staff, telling them off for their rebellious nature, then… He hits the rock twice, letting out water to quench the thirst of the Jewish nation.
All of the sudden, Hashem calls out to Moshe and Aharon, and says:
יַעַן לֹא הֶאֱמַנְתֶּם בִּי לְהַקְדִּישֵׁנִי לְעֵינֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לָכֵן לֹא תָבִיאוּ אֶת הַקָּהָל הַזֶּה אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נָתַתִּי לָהֶם
Since you didn’t believe in me to sanctify myself before the Jewish People, you won’t bring this congregation into the land that I will give them. (שם כ:יב)
Moshe has made a few mistakes in the past, and has been often disciplined by Hashem for these errors. But this seems to be a little bit extreme — that Moshe would have his access to Eretz Yisrael revoked, all because he hit a rock instead of speaking to it, producing the same result in the end anyways. Ramban strengthens our question by reminding us that Moshe was commanded “קח את מטה” when he went to speak to the rock, a phrase which usually implicitely involves hitting something with it (like by most of the plagues in Egypt). How was he supposed to know that this was the one time that “קח את מטה” meant “stand there with the staff” and not “hit the rock with the staff?” Why were Moshe and Aharon punished so severely for what seems to be a “Simon Says”-esque mix up?
Rashi answers, quoting a famous midrash that we all learned at some point in elementary school, that, simply put, Moshe should’ve known better. For a tzadik on the high level of Moshe Rabbeinu, even a small mistake like hitting the rock with the staff even though “Simon didn’t say” counts as a much bigger error and Moshe and Aharon were out of the “game” of entering Eretz Yisrael as soon as they made this mistake.
Rav Avraham Ibn Ezra takes a more psychological approach, explaining that Moshe’s mistake was not at all connected to hitting the rock, but rather in the anger he publicly expressed at the Jewish People, calling them “המורים, rebellious ones.” As a leader and public figure, Moshe had a responsibility to remain calm and collected during difficult times, no matter how much pressure he was under. As with Rashi, Ibn Ezra cites Moshe’s high spiritual level and says that he could not afford to make even one mistake — once he showed anger, he was finished as leader.
Ramban, in his lengthy commentary on this story, also tries to tackle our question of Moshe’s punishment. In his usual diplomatic style, Ramban begins by vigorously disproving both Rashi and Ibn Ezra’s answers. He asks on Rashi: even if Moshe’s apparent misunderstanding was actually a mistake worthy of such a terrible punishment, why would Hashem accuse Moshe of not believing in Him to sanctify Himself before the people — hitting the rock accomplished the same exact miracle as speaking to it would have, water coming from a rock. Surely, Hashem wouldn’t have revoke Moshe’s entry visa to Israel because of this small ad-lib which ended up with the result anyways!
Turning to Ibn Ezra’s psychological analysis, Ramban brings pesukim which show that this kind of wording (“שמעו נא המורים”) is not reflective of anger (see Ramban’s commentary for the specifics), so Moshe could not have been punished for his excessive anger if he didn’t have any.
Finished with finding problems in other approaches, Nachmanides then begins to elucidate his answer, based on Rambam (Shemoneh Perakim 4). Maimonides teaches there that Moshe’s error at Mei Meriva was not his lack of speech with the rock, and it was not his apparent anger at the Jewish People, but rather a more subtle nuance in the passuk — the fact that Moshe hit the rock twice (“ויך את הסלע במטהו פעמים”). Rambam teaches that Moshe was commanded by G-d to take his staff, hit the rock (based on the dual command of “קח את המטה”), and then speak to it. But, under the pressure of a rebellious people standing over him, threatening to turn back to Egypt, Moshe was afraid that the water might not flow from the rock (perhaps he didn’t hit it hard enough), so he hit it a second time.
Hashem let water flow from the rock so that the people would not begin to riot, but could not forgive Moshe’s lack of faith (“יען לא האמנתם בי”) that one soft tap would be enough to let water flow from a rock in the middle of the desert. For this small but quite serious transgression, Moshe lost his right to lead the Jewish People into Eretz Yisrael.
I believe that it is especially fitting that Moshe would not lead the Jews into Israel as a punishment for “יען לא האמנתם בי,” no matter how these words are explained, because of the nature of the Holy Land. We know that Eretz Yisrael is a land of miracles, of Hashem’s direct Divine Influence (השרעת השכינה), where anything can happen.
Think about the miracles that happened to the next generations of Jews, the ones who entered the Land of Israel — Yehoshua conquering Jericho by doing Hakafot and blowing shofar, David killing the giant Goliat with a slingshot and a few stones, the miracle of the completion of the wall of Jerusalem in the time of Nechemia — the list goes on and on. Moshe was the best leader that the Jewish People ever had and ever will have (As Daniel ben Yehuda Dayan of Medieval Italy famously wrote: “לא קם בישראל כמשה עוד”), and He had the utmost faith in Hashem of all of the Jews, but, at the end of the day, there is no room in Eretz Yisrael for a leader who hesitates when confronted with the challenge of executing a miracle in front of a mob — this was a challenge that Moshe regrettably failed, and this ultimately led to his death in the desert on the Plains of Moab.
We need to all strengthen in our faith in Hashem to do miracles, especially in Eretz Yisrael. The State of Israel’s mere existence (if its existence could ever be called mere), is a testament to Hashem’s strength and His ability to sanctify Himself before our people and all of the nations of the world. If each and every one of us can embrace this emunah, then, with Hashem’s help, we will all merit the ultimate miracle of the ge’ulah very very soon. Shabbat Shalom.