In Parshat Beshalach (Shmot 17), one month after B’nai Yisrael left Egypt, they camped at Refidim and complained that they wanted water. God told Moshe to take some of the elders of Israel as well as his staff. God promised to be at a rock in Chorev which Moshe would strike with his staff and water would come forth for the people to drink. Moshe followed God’s instructions and water poured out of the rock. He called the place Masa u’Meriva because of the contention of B’nai Yisrael and because of their test of God.
Nearly thirty-eight years later, in Parsha Chukat (Bamidbar 20), we see a similar story: B’nai Yisrael arrived at Kadesh where Miriam died and the community was without water.
In Bamidbar 20:3-5, the people quarrelled with Moshe saying, “If only we had perished when our brothers perished before God. Why have you brought God’s congregation into the wilderness for us and our beasts to die there? Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this terrible place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink!”
Moshe and Aharon fell on their faces before God at the entrance of Ohel Moed. God told Moshe (verse 8), “You and your brother Aharon, take the staff and assemble the community and speak to the rock before their eyes that it shall give its waters. You shall bring forth for them water from the rock and give drink to the assembly and to their animals.”
Rashbam points out that God did not command Moshe to take the staff in order to strike the rock as he did in Shmot 17:6. He only commanded Moshe to display the staff to remind them that they had again been very obstinate. The water was to be produced merely by speaking to the rock.
Unfortunately, Moshe and Aharon err (verses 9-11);
Moshe took the staff from before God, as He had commanded him. Moshe and Aharon assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, “Listen you rebels, shall we get water out of this rock?” Moshe raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod; abundant water came forth and the assembly and their animals drank.
Rashbam comments that Moshe struck the rock twice and then angrily asked them “Did you really think that we would produce water from this rock?” Moshe said this because he harbored doubt; seeing that God had instructed him to take the staff with him, he did not think that speaking to the rock was meant to result in the rock yielding up its water, but that striking it may be required, just as he had done in Refidim.
Although God allowed the water to flow from the rock even though Moshe did not carefully follow His instructions, God said to Moshe and Aharon (verse 12): “Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of B’nai Yisrael, therefore you will not bring this congregation to the Land that I have given them.”
Rashi explains why the Torah reveals Moshe and Aharon’s transgression. If it had not been for this single sin (of hitting the rock), Moshe and Aharon would have entered the Land of Israel. God wanted to make sure that nobody would say: “Like the transgressions of the rest of the generation of the desert (complaints, spies etc) against whom it was decreed not to enter the Land- so was the transgression of Moshe and Aharon.”
Rashbam adds that God employs more stringent rules when dealing with the righteous such as Moshe than He applies to ordinary mortals. That is why his punishment is so much more severe.
Although we are not on the level of Moshe and Aharon, we have been blessed with the opportunity to enter the Land of Israel.
Unfortunately, due to Covid-19, the borders of Israel are temporarily closed to tourists and Jews around the world who would like to visit can now empathize with Moshe and understand his heartbreak in not being able to even briefly enter the Land. In our case, we are hoping that this momentary situation will end soon and all of the tourists will be able to come in. With Moshe, there was greater despair knowing that due to one mistake he would never have the opportunity to set foot in the Land of Israel.