“Moses gets Battered by the Commentaries”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Chukat, we learn of the sin of May Meriva, Waters of Rebellion, where both Moses and Aaron lose their right to enter the land of Israel.

The portion of the Waters of Rebellion is one of the most challenging portions in the Torah. The Torah commentators struggle valiantly to provide some clarity. But rather than shed light on the difficulties, they wind up questioning the elucidations suggested by the other commentaries and raising more issues than they answer.

Clearly, Moses and Aaron’s punishment was very severe. The Torah in Numbers 20:12 records G-d’s stern decree: “Ya’ahn lo heh’eh’mahn’tem bee l’hak’dee’shay’nee l’ay’nay B’nay Yisrael la’chayn lo ta’vee’ooh et ha’ka’hal ha’zeh el ha’aretz ah’sher nah’tah’tee la’hem,” because you [Moses and Aaron] did not believe in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel, therefore you will not bring this congregation to the Land that I have given them! In addition to the severe punishment, the reason for their punishment as cited in scriptures, is also exceedingly grave. “Because you did not believe in Me, to sanctify Me.”

And yet, despite the unsparing punishment, the actual sin itself is not at all clear, leaving many of the classical commentators struggling to understand the relationship between the punishment and the sin.

The Akeidat Yitzchak (R. Isaac Arama, 1402-1494, Spain, philosophical-homiletical commentator) graphically illustrates the difficulty presented by this episode in the following manner: The table is set, there is meat, there is a knife, yet we have no mouth with which to eat it. Arama’s point is that we have the entire episode of Waters of Rebellion in front of us, but we cannot grasp what exactly was the sin. Because of this lack of clarity, dozens of commentators labor diligently to define the sin, suggesting a whole litany of possibilities. The Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, 1707-1746, great Italian Jewish ethicist and kabbalist) caustically describes the commentators’ efforts by saying that Moses committed one sin, but our commentators have heaped upon him thirteen or more.

Let us now review the opinions of some of the major commentators. Rashi’s (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) opinion, which is quite frequently cited, is that by not explicitly following G-d’s instructions to speak to the rock, Moses led the people to sin. Now that Moses himself has defied G-d by striking the rock, the People of Israel can say: If Moses doesn’t follow G-d’s instructions, why should we?

Maimonides (the Rambam, the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician, 1135-1204) says that Moses failed in two ways. By lashing out at the people and saying (Numbers 20:10): “Shim’oo nah ha’mo’rim,” listen you rebels, Moses demonstrates that he is not the model human being that the people consider him to be. After all, how could a person of his exalted stature allow himself to display such anger publicly. Secondly, Moses misleads the people into thinking that G-d was angry with them for asking for water, which was not true. The Torah does not record at any point that G-d displays any anger at the People. But now as a result of Moses and Aaron’s sin and subsequent punishment, the people all feel that G-d is cruel.

Ramban (Nachmanides, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator) indicates that Moses failed to sanctify the name of G-d. By saying (Numbers 20:12), “Ha’min ha’sel’ah ha’zeh no’tzee la’chem mayim?” Will we bring water out of this rock? Moses and Aaron leave the people with the mistaken impression that they, not G-d, drew water from a particular rock, rather than from a random rock. As a result, the people may once again be attracted to sorcery. That is why G-d says (Deuteronomy 32:51): “Ah’sher m’ahl’tem bee,” you [Moses and Aaron] have trespassed and have caused the people to sin.

R’ Abraham Ibn Ezra (1098-c.1164, Spanish Bible commentator) says that Moses and Aaron’s sin was that they appeared before the people as followers, not leaders. As the verse notes (Numbers 20:6), “Va’ya’vo Moshe v’Aharon mip’nay ha’kahal,” implying that they were forced to come, intimidated by the people.

The Or HaChaim (Torah commentary by the famous Kabbalist and Talmudic scholar R’ Chaim ibn Attar, 1696-1743) identifies four shortcomings of Moses: 1) You failed to believe, after all, I told you not to strike the rock and you struck it. 2) You failed to sanctify my name, after all, you should have brought water out of any rock. 3) You trespassed, by stating that water would come from this particular rock. 4) You rebelled against Me, after all, I specifically instructed you to speak to the rock and you violated My word.

My student and friend, Allan Leicht, insightfully pointed out that Moses’s actions at May Meriva confirm and fulfill his own self-description (Exodus 4:10): “Lo eesh devarim ah’no’chee,” I am not a man of words; I can’t speak.

Some of the contemporary commentators see this episode as a would-be confirmation of the failure of Moses and Aaron’s entire mission. After forty years of wandering in the wilderness, the old slaves are finally gone. For four decades Moses has been trying to teach this new generation to adopt the values of free people. Instead the old values are now back. At May Merivah Moses realizes that he has not won the confidence and trust of the new nation, so he speaks with bitterness and anger and strikes the stone. The rebellious people identify, not with a new generation of hope, but once again appear to be more in sync with the slave generation and mentality. Moses and Aaron’s whole life’s work now seems wasted. In their youth, Moses and Aaron surely would have known how to address the crisis and recover from the peoples’ failings. This time, however, they make no plea for G-d to forgive the people, there are no prayers–only two broken men seeking refuge in the Tabernacle. How sad.

It is indeed a most challenging chapter. And even though the commentators heap upon Moses and Aaron many shortcomings, perhaps unfairly, there are many lessons for us to learn from the insights of the commentators, as well as the deeds or misdeeds of Moses and Aaron.

May you be blessed.