Much water came forth, and the assembly and their animals drank.
Meshech Chochmah: The episode of drawing water from a rock does not redound to the credit of the Jewish people, and cost Moshe and Aharon their entry ticket into Israel. It seems ironic that the Torah would stress that the less-th stellar performance all around resulted in a great abundance of water. Were they rewarded for getting it wrong? Should not Hashem have made a point of providing them with their needs – as they asked! – and nothing more?
We are distracted from the truth by a common misconception, which looks at “more” as “better.” In fact, Divine blessing shows itself in quality, not in quantity. When Hashem tells of a blessing of prosperity, He says, “You will eat your bread to satiety,” which Rashi tells us means eating only a small amount, which nonetheless is blessed with providing complete satisfaction to the body. The mohn, coming as it were directly from the Hand of Hashem, did more than that. It was a spiritual food that gladdened the spirit as well as the body. (Chazal offer splendid detail of its spiritual nature, showing how it was responsive to the spiritual accomplishment of each individual, both in the ease or difficulty of its collection and of its preparation.)
Had Moshe and Aharon not departed from their Divine instructions, the people would have received miraculous water that behaved like the mohn, where quantity simply didn’t matter. Gathering extra mohn got a person nowhere. Each person received precisely what sufficed for his needs. The water they asked for in our parshah would have come to them in the same way. Quantity would have been irrelevant; an uncharacteristically small amount would have sufficed to satisfy all their desire for water.
This blessing, however, would only have been available for people. Animals would have required large amounts, appropriate to satisfying their physiological needs. Thus, the original plan was to supply them with “water from the rock, and give drink to the assembly and to their animals.” They are not promised “much” water, because the people would have been blessed with extraordinary satisfaction from an insignificant amount of water. (Not so, the animals. This is why the word “v’ess” intervenes between “assembly” and “animals,” as if to suggest – as is usually the case with two subjects separated by the word “ess” – that the two would be very different. Animals would be fed an abundance of water; people would enjoy the superior blessing of satisfaction through just a little.)
Alas, this did not happen. Moshe and Aharon departed ever-so-slightly from the script; the people did not have a chance to observe a kiddush Hashem of the highest order. The water-miracle was therefore downgraded. It was “much water” that came forth. To the observers who did not even realize that they had passed up something much better, quantity did mean a great deal. Furthermore, “the assembly and their animals drank,” both together, both responding to the physical properties of the water, while missing the boost that at least the people could have received from the water’s spirituality.
Just what was the kiddush Hashem that would have resulted in a higher-order miracle? R. Yosef Albo argues that it would have been accomplished had Moshe taken the initiative on his own, and pledged to produce water from a rock. People would then not only have witnessed Hashem caring for them miraculously, they would have seen Hashem comply with the wishes of His faithful servants.
This leads us to a mystifying observation. Several prophets did act on their own, performing miracles by calling for – and getting – Divine assistance. Eliyahu did this at Har Carmel, bringing fire down from heaven to consume his offering; Shmuel did it years before, in bringing a thunderstorm in the middle of a usually rain-free summer. Now, Moshe was arguably at the pinnacle of prophetic power. Why did he almost never – with the exception of the earth’s swallowing up Korach’s rebels – order the miraculous on his own?
An answer can be found in the unique place of Moshe’s prophecy. It was entirely clear to all observers that other prophets were human beings, endowed with a prophetic spirit. Moshe, however, was in a class of his own. He prophesied while fully conscious; he seemed to be a demi-god, independently possessed of godly powers.
To make it quite clear that Moshe was not an independent agent – that he acted only when empowered by HKBH, and succeeded only through His power – Moshe did not perform miracles on his own. He demonstrated that he acted only as an extension of Hashem’s Will.
The Korach rebellion offered the only exception to this practice. Korach’s minions gathered around Moshe, and challenged him. “Everyone in this nation is holy. We are not in need of your services. You have nothing to offer that we don’t already possess.” They undervalued Moshe, not overvalued him. There was no danger of their believing him to be Divine. This was the one occasion where Moshe could safely call for a miracle on his own, without fear of untoward consequences.