Moshe is finally done in by the requests of the Jewish people in the desert – this time again for their water supply. In his exasperation about their constant litany of complaints and grumblings, he transgresses over God’s commandment to speak to the rock and instead he strikes the rock with his staff. His punishment for this act is swift and dramatic. He will not step into the Land of Israel but only be able to glimpse it from afar.
There are many questions and difficulties raised regarding the narrative of this incident in the Torah. Firstly, complaints about the lack of water are certainly legitimate complaints. Human beings cannot survive without water and now that the miraculous well of Miriam disappeared with her passing, the pressing need for a replacement water supply was obvious.
So, why does Moshe become so angry with them and describe them as a rebellious mob? And another perhaps greater and more difficult question is why this sin is the one that seals Moshe’s fate? Does the punishment really seem to be commensurate with the crime? All of the commentators to Torah over the ages have dealt with these two questions and have advanced a wide variety of insights and explanations regarding the issues raised. It is apparent that the Torah somehow wished these issues to be further explored and studied and therefore it left its own description of the matter somewhat vague and mysterious – hiding in the narrative more than it was willing to reveal.
Maimonides and other scholars throughout the ages see the events of this week’s parsha as the concluding part of a continuing and cumulative pattern of behavior, both on the part of the people of Israel in the desert and of Moshe as well. Moshe realizes, as do the people, that they require water to sustain them. But this request and the manner that it is presented to Moshe is part of their long- running, nagging behavior pattern in the desert.
For the Jewish people, there is still a vestige of resentment against God for redeeming them from Egypt. There they had water in abundance, and it was natural not miraculous water. Miraculous water binds them to a commitment to God and His Torah – a commitment that a portion of the people is always attempting to wriggle out from.
With their seemingly reasonable request for water, Moshe senses all of this background music. They really want to opt out of the entire mission of Sinai, which results in Moshe’s extreme display of displeasure. And Moshe’s anger again undoes him. There is an entire literature of rabbinic study about the moments and causes of Moshe’s anger that appear throughout the Torah.
For Moshe, the greatest of all human beings, it is agreed that this is his one failing. And, therefore, Moshe unwittingly becomes the model and example of the dangers involved in falling into the pit of emotional anger. The incidents of his anger – past and present – were now cumulatively judged by Heaven and the punishment is not for this one incident alone. Anger is a character trait to be avoided at almost all cost.
Rabbi Berel Wein
Rabbi Berel Wein- Jewish historian, author and international lecturer offers a complete selection of CDs, audio tapes, video tapes, DVDs, and books on Jewish history at www.rabbiwein.com