“Moses gets Battered by the Commentaries”
(updated and revised from Chukat 5765-2005)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Chukat, we learn of the sin of מֵי מְרִיבָה, Mei Merivah–the 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 raise even 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: יַעַן לֹא הֶאֱמַנְתֶּם בִּי לְהַקְדִּישֵׁנִי לְעֵינֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לָכֵן לֹא תָבִיאוּ אֶת הַקָּהָל הַזֶּה, אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נָתַתִּי לָהֶם, “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 scripture, 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 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 simply 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 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 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 says that Moses failed in two ways. By lashing out at the people and saying (Numbers 20:10): שִׁמְעוּ נָא הַמֹּרִים, “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 publicly display such anger. 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 indicates that Moses failed to sanctify the name of G-d. By saying (Numbers 20:12), הֲמִן הַסֶּלַע הַזֶּה נוֹצִיא לָכֶם מָיִם? “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): אֲשֶׁר מְעַלְתֶּם בִּי, “You [Moses and Aaron] have trespassed against Me, and have caused the people to sin.”

R’ Abraham Ibn Ezra 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), וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן מִפְּנֵי הַקָּהָל, implying that they were forced to come, intimidated by the people.

The Or HaChaim 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’ actions at Mei Merivah confirm and fulfil his own self-description to G-d at the Burning Bush, (Exodus 4:10) לֹא אִישׁ דְּבָרִים אָנֹכִי, “I am not a man of words, I cannot speak.”

Some 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 Mei 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 the slave 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.