One of the key events in this week's parashah is Moshe's
hitting the rock to draw forth water. Immediately afterward,
Hashem decreed that Moshe would not enter Eretz Yisrael.
The commentators struggle mightily to understand the nature of
Moshe's sin and why Hashem responded as He did. (Eleven
different explanations are offered inside this issue.) Why are
there so many different explanations? Why doesn't the Torah tell
us more explicitly what Moshe's failing was?
The commentary Esh Dat notes that just as Moshe's sin is
unknown, so his burial place is unknown. The midrash records
that after Moshe's death, Bnei Yisrael quarreled with each other.
One said, "He was buried to the right," while another said "To
the left." One said, "Up there," but his friend retorted, "No,
it was down there." What does this teach us? That just as Moshe
is a mystery to us in his death, so, too, his life is beyond our
complete comprehension. In particular, any sin that he may have
committed was too subtle to be recognized by us. (Quoted in
Likutei Batar Likutei)
Then why even discuss this subject? Should even our greatest
commentators be judging Moshe Rabbenu, the "Master of all
Prophets"? R' Yitzchak Meir Alter z"l (the first "Gerrer Rebbe";
died 1866) explains: If a story is included in the Torah, then
clearly we are meant to study it. Each generation and each
community is steered by G-d towards finding a lesson in the story
which provides useful ethical teachings for that generation or
community. All of the interpretations offered by the
commentators may legitimately be found in the story of Moshe's
sin because each of them teaches a valuable ethical lesson.
Why Didn't Moshe Rabbenu Enter Eretz Canaan?
Our parashah relates that after Miriam's death, the fresh-water
spring which had miraculously traveled with Bnei Yisrael
disappeared. Bnei Yisrael complained to Moshe, who turned to
Hashem. He said: "Take your staff and talk to the rock, and it
will provide water." Instead of doing this, Moshe yelled at Bnei
Yisrael, and then hit the rock (twice). Immediately, Hashem
informed Moshe that he would die in the desert.
What was Moshe's sin? Below is a sampling of answers:
Rashi (to 20:12): Had Moshe spoken to the stone as he had been
told to do, Bnei Yisrael would have said, "If an inanimate stone
which has no needs obeys Hashem's commands, how much more so must
we obey Him?!" By not bringing about this kiddush
Hashem/sanctification of G-d's Name, Moshe caused a chillul
Hashem/desecration of G-d's Name.
Rambam (in Shemoneh Perakim, ch. 4): Bnei Yisrael believed that
every word that Moshe spoke came from Hashem. Therefore, when
Moshe yelled at them, they assumed that G-d was angry at them.
This caused a chillul Hashem because there was no reason for Him
to be angry at the moment.
Ramban (to 20:1, quoting Rabbenu Chananel): Moshe said (20:10),
"Notzi"/"We will give you water," instead of, "Yotzi"/"He
[Hashem] will give you water." This minimized the miracle and
implied that Moshe would find water using his own wisdom.
Later commentaries note that Moshe's death sentence is
mentioned ten times in the Torah. This may be an allusion to his
failure to use the letter "yud" (in yotzi" instead of "notzi").
The gematria of yud is ten.
Rabbenu Bachya (to 20:8, as explained by later commentaries):
In an earlier incident (Shmot 17:6), Moshe brought forth water by
hitting a rock once. By now hitting the rock twice, Moshe
implied that Hashem had weakened.
Sforno (to 20:8): Moshe and Aharon made a conscious decision to
lessen the miracle from a wholly supernatural one (in which a
stone would turn to water when it was spoken to) to a more
concealed miracle (in which water would appear to flow out of a
rock naturally). They did this because they believed that Bnei
Yisrael were unworthy of an open miracle and that their attempt
to cause such a miracle would therefore fail. In fact, however,
Bnei Yisrael needed to see an open miracle at just that moment to
refute their belief that Hashem had taken them from Egypt to
abandon them in the desert.
R' Yosef Albo (in Sefer Ha'ikarim): Moshe should not have
waited for Hashem's instructions. He should have felt pity for
them and ordered water to appear. "A tzaddik decrees and Hashem
R' Yitzchak Abarbanel: Moshe's death had been decreed earlier
because he had caused the spies to err through his instructions.
Aharon's death was decreed because of his part in the Golden
Calf. A leader who does not protect his people will be found
lacking and unfit to lead. For some reason, however, Hashem
waited until our parashah to announce His decrees.
Maharal (in Gur Aryeh): All of Moshe's actions during this
incident showed a slip in the level of his own emunah/faith. For
example, he hit the stone twice (not once) and he yelled at Bnei
Yisrael. One whose faith is perfect never loses his temper
because he knows that all of his troubles are from G-d. A person
with faith is always happy.
Me'am Lo'ez: By losing his temper, Moshe slighted the honor of
G-d's people, and therefore, of G-d himself.
Sefat Emet (R' Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter z"l, the "Gerrer
Rebbe"): Moshe's death was not a punishment per se. Rather, the
actions of hitting the stone and talking to it represent two
different kinds of leadership. [On various occasions, the Rebbe
offered different descriptions of the two types of leadership -
see Sefat Emet: Years 5647, 5650, 5654.] Moshe's actions showed
that he could not provide the kind of leadership that the new
generation needed. Because of this "generation gap," Moshe had
to be replaced.
R' S.R. Hirsch (The Pentateuch, p.371): Moshe's loss of his
temper showed that he had lost hope in Bnei Yisrael's ability to
fulfill their destiny as a people. He wondered if all that he
had toiled for was in vain. For this, he died.
R' Hirsch adds: "[T]he impressive fact remains that, on account
of such a small, easily to be understood, momentary weakness in
their emunah, the leaders had to suffer the same fate that was
meted out to the generation of the wilderness for their
continuous lack of emunah. The grave of the great leader at the
very border of the Promised Land to which he had at last brought
his people, next to the graves of those who died in the
wilderness, now bears everlasting witness to the impartial
justice of the Divine rule, in the scales of which the slightest
errors of the great saintly men weigh equally to the worst sins
of ordinary mortals."
Letters from Our Sages
This week's letter was written by Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Yechiel
Weinberg z"l (1878-1966), pre-war rector of Berlin's
Hildesheimer Seminary and post-war rosh yeshiva in Montreux,
Switzerland. R' Weinberg was one of the leading halachic
authorities of the post-Holocaust period, as alluded to in
the title of his collected responsa, Seridei Esh/"Remnants
of the Fire."
This letter follows up on one of R' Weinberg's more famous
halachic responsa. In that earlier letter (printed in
Seridei Esh Vol. II No. 8), R' Weinberg discussed the
propriety of Shabbat youth groups in which teenaged boys and
girls sang zemirot together. He wrote that although it was
not the halachic ideal, there were special circumstances
where such activities could be permitted.
B"H, Tuesday of Vayishlach, 9 Kislev 5517 , Montreux
My honorable friend, our teacher, Rabbi ____ shlita,
editor of [the journal] Hamaor:
I received your letter in its time and I immediately wrote to
Rabbi Dr. Jung, may his light shine, and passed on to him the
arguments of your honor's Torah, but without the words that might
have insulted him. In my opinion, one must take care not to be
an instigator of fights among the Orthodox, even when there are
differences of opinion [among us], for we are the minority in the
war against heresy and against those who throw off the yoke of
Torah and mitzvot. We are forbidden to weaken ourselves and
lessen our own honor through quarrelsome words and insults.
Regarding that which you wrote against me in your long
responsum [in the journal Hamaor], I do not have even the hint of
a complaint against you. Such is the way of the Torah [for
scholars to disagree], and I do not consider myself to be the
final arbiter whom one cannot question. In truth, though, I
found nothing in your words that could persuade me to retract my
instructions to the French community. However, I do not want to
debate with you; to the contrary, I am pleased that there are
those who are more stringent. May they be blessed, and hopefully
they will succeed in retaining that stringency and observing
tzniut/modesty in Yisrael in purity. . .
Your friend who admires you,
Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg
The Stern and Edeson families
in honor of the 37th wedding anniversary of
Esther and Jacob S. Edeson