Moshe's Sin

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

Translated by Kaeren Fish


“God said to Moshe and to Aharon, ‘Since you did not believe in Me, to sanctify before the eyes of Bnei Yisrael, therefore you shall not bring this congregation to the land which I have given to them.’” (Bamidbar 20:12)

Three main explanations are offered for the sin of Mei Meriva:

  1. The Rambam, in the fourth chapter of his “Shemonah Perakim,” explains that Moshe’s sin lay in his unjustified anger at Am Yisrael: “Hear now, you rebels…” (Bamidbar 20:10).
  2. Ramban cites the opinion of R. Chananel that the problem was that Moshe said, “Shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?” Obviously, the miracle was an act of God and not attributable to Moshe or Aharon.
  3. Rashi understands Moshe’s sin as having struck the rock rather than having spoken to it.

According to the first two explanations, we can understand why Moshe was punished. Although his misdeed was relatively minor, we know that “the Holy One, blessed be He, is exacting with the righteous to the extent of a strand of hair,” and according to both understandings he did something wrong.

Rashi’s explanation, on the other hand, is a different matter. Every time we reach this week’s parasha and I read Rashi’s explanation, I am startled and shaken anew: Moshe was not punished because he did something wrong, but rather because he could have acted in a better manner and he failed to do so!

The Gemara tells us about two instances in which a verse from the Torah caused one of the Tannaim to weep. We learn:

“It is written: ‘He who does these shall never be moved’ (Tehillim 15:5). When Rabban Gamliel would reach this verse he would weep, saying: ‘Whoever does all of these shall not be moved, but whoever is deficient in (even) one of them – shall be moved.’” (Makkot 24a)

A similar anecdote is recorded in Kiddushin 81b:

“‘Although he was not aware of it, he is still guilty, and shall bear his transgression’ (Vayikra 5:17). When Rabbi Akiva would reach this verse he would weep: If the Torah says, concerning a person who meant to eat permitted fat but actually ate chelev (forbidden fat), ‘Although he was not aware of it, he is still guilty, and shall bear his transgression’, how much more so concerning one who meant to eat chelev and actually ate chelev!”

The verses describing the sin of Moshe, at least according to Rashi’s interpretation of them, should similarly lead us to weep if we internalize the message which they convey to each and every one of us. Not only an improper act is considered a transgression that is deserving of punishment, but even merely refraining from performing a good and proper act! This should be a strong incentive for us always to consider what is the best and most appropriate thing we can do, and to act accordingly.