Using “We” Was Anything But a “Wee” Mistake
One of the major topics in Parshas Chukas is the incident of Mei Merivah. It begins with the death of Miriam: “And the Children of Israel, the entire congregation, came to Midbar Tzin in the first month, and the nation resided in Kadesh, and Miriam died there and was buried there.” (Bamidbar 20:1) Chazal say that the miraculous “Well” (Be’er) which provided water for the Jewish people during their forty-year sojourn in the Wilderness was present in the merit of the righteous Miriam. When Miriam died, the Be’er ceased, the people didn’t have water, and they complained to Moshe Rabbeinu.
Moshe’s response to this request somehow contained within it an aveyra (sin), which—based on Moshe’s high level of righteousness—triggered Divine Punishment that prevented him from going into Eretz Yisrael. The exact nature of the “Sin of Mei Merivah” is the subject of a tremendous dispute among the classic Chumash commentaries. The most widely-quoted interpretation is that Moshe Rabbeinu hit the Rock rather than speaking to it. There are a wide variety of other interpretations as well.
The Ramban, in his Chumash commentary, quotes an interpretation from Rabbeinu Chananel, one of the earliest commentaries, who says that Moshe’s aveyra was that he said “…Do you think we will extract for you water from this Rock?” (Bamidbar 20:10). The aveyra was basically one word (or in Hebrew a single letter prefix) – “we”. Rabbeinu Chananel says that Moshe’s rhetorical question should have been “Do you think Hashem will extract for you water from this Rock?” By using the first-person plural, Moshe gave the impression that “we are going to be the water givers.” This minor grammatical slip might cause the people to mistakenly think that Moshe and Aharon would be able to extract water from the Rock through their own wisdom. According to Rabbeinu Chananel, this carelessness, in this crucial theological matter, was the aveyra which caused Moshe and Aharon to die before reaching Eretz Yisrael. The pasuk alludes to this when writing “…Since you did not sanctify My Name in the midst of Bnei Yisrael” (Devorim 32:51). They could have made a kiddush Hashem by attributing the miracle to G-d, but they forfeited that opportunity by implying that they would be responsible for extracting the water from the Rock.
Rabbeinu Chananel’s interpretation is quite shocking. Remember, this event took place forty years post the Exodus from Egypt. The Jewish people witnessed Moshe’s leadership style for forty years, during which he always attributed their miraculous emergence from slavery and survival in the Wilderness to the direct intervention of the Ribono shel Olam. Not only that, even within this particular pasuk, the Torah begins by stating: “Moshe and Aharon gathered the Congregation in front of the Rock…” (Bamidbar 20:10). Rashi here notes that this is one of the places in Chumash where a small area miraculously held a huge number of people. There were a couple of million people, and Chazal say that everyone was right in front of the Rock. Obviously, such a thing is not physically possible under normal circumstances. There was no denying that this was a miracle, and that the Ribono shel Olam was 100% responsible for all that was transpiring at this moment.
If that is the case, how could it be that Moshe’s use of the expression “Notzi lachem mayim” (we will extract water) would cause anyone to think that he was referring to his own skill and knowledge? No one would have thought that!
Rav Simcha Zissel Brody (the Head of the Chevron Yeshiva) says that we see from here that a person can always make a mistake, regardless of the circumstances. Something can be as clear as the nose on my face, but if I want to make a mistake, indeed, I can make a mistake. Someone who wants to deny the Almighty’s intervention in his life, as obvious at that may be, can deny it. This is what the Navi says: “…for the ways of Hashem are straight, and the righteous will walk on them, and the sinners will stumble on them.” (Hoshea 14:10). Hashem placed in creation something called “Bechira” (Freedom of Choice). A person always has the ability to make choices. He can make the right choice or he can make a choice which is irrational, but the option to choose belongs to man. Moshe Rabbeinu, by using the word “Notzee” (We will bring forth), opened the door for them to this opportunity to think the wrong thing.
This can help explain an interesting Rashi. Rashi quotes the words in this very pasuk “…Hear ye, you rebellious ones…” (Shim’u nah ha’morim) and interprets the word “morim” to be “sarbonim” (stubborn ones), people who refuse. Then Rashi brings a second interpretation, based on Greek etymology: “Shotim” (Fools), those who are “morim es moreihem” (try to teach their own teachers).
It is not clear whether Rashi is offering three interpretations, or only two. Rashi mentions Sarbonim, shotim, and morim es moreihem. This could be three different interpretations. However, the Imrei Emes writes that there are only two interpretations here. “Morim es moreihem” is an elaboration of “Shotim“. A person who does not listen to the advice and guidance of his teachers and elders, but rather tries to teach them a thing or two—such a person is a fool!
Since it is always possible for a person to make a mistake, how can he ever be sure that what he is doing is correct? The answer is “Aseh lecha Rav” – Make for yourself a teacher (Avos 1:6). Everyone needs a Rebbe, a mentor, a guide—someone who can give him frank and honest advice and tell him, when necessary, “You are making a mistake here.”
The people Moshe gathered by the Rock did not fully accept upon themselves such a teacher. As a result, they were vulnerable to making such a colossal mistake as to think that it was Moshe and Aharon who were giving them the water.
Transcribed by David Twersky; Jerusalem [email protected]
Editing by Dovid Hoffman; Baltimore, MD [email protected]
This week’s write-up is adapted from the hashkafa portion of Rabbi Yissochar Frand’s Commuter Chavrusah Series on the weekly Torah portion. A listing of the halachic portions for Parshas Chukas is provided below:
- #018 – Rending Garments on Seeing Yerushalayim
- #063 – Intermarriage
- #107 – Rabbonim and Roshei Yeshiva — Do Sons Inherit?
- #152 – Halachic Considerations of Transplanted Organs
- #199 – Stam Yeinam: Non Kosher Wines
- #245 – Skin Grafts
- #335 – Postponing a Funeral
- #379 – The Jewish “Shabbos Goy”
- #423 – Tefilah of a Tzadik for a Choleh
- #467 – Detached Limbs and Tumah
- #511 – Autopsies and Insurance
- #555 – Women Fasting on 17th of Tamuz, Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur
- #599 – Blended Whiskey
- #643 – Choshed Bekesherim and Daan L’kaf Z’chus
- #687 – Water, Coffee and Tea
- #731 – Shkia – 7:02: Mincha 7:00 A Problem?
- #775 – Wine At a Shul Kiddush
- #819 – Mayim Geluyim – Uncovered Water – Is There a Problem
- #863 – Shabbos In The Good ‘Ol Summertime
- #907 – Bracha Acharono on Coffee and Ice Cream
- #951 – The Body Works Exhibit
- #994 – Bilam and His Donkey: A Problem with Tzar Ba’alei Chaim?
- #1038 – Flowers At The Cemetery?
- #1082 – Should You Buy An Expensive Esrog Box?
- #1125 – Saying Kaddish For More Than One Person; Lo’aig Le’rash for Women?
- #1167 – “If Hashem Saves Me, I Make A Neder to…….” Good Idea or Not?
- #1210 – Postponing A Funeral Revisited
- #1255 – I keep 72 Minutes, You Keep 45 — Can I Drive Home With You After 45 Minutes?
- #1256 – The Last Day of Sheva Brachos Starting Before Sh’kia, Bentching After Tzais — Are There Sheva Brachos? And other such Shailos.
- #1299 – Can You Remove Your Yarmulka for a Job Interview?
- #1343 – Making a Mi’she’bairach for a Choleh on Shabbos – Is It Permitted?
- #1387 – May A Kohain Attend the Funeral of the Gadol HaDor
- #1431 – Reuven Has Yahrzeit for Father; Shimon Has Yahrzeit for Mother -Who Gets Maftir?
- #1475 – Can You Pay Someone to be a Shomer for a Mais? – Can You Use a Used Matzeiva?
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