We read in Parashat Chukat the story of Mei Meriva, when God instructed Moshe to produce water for Benei Yisrael from a stone in the desert of Tzin. Moshe angrily shouted at Benei Yisrael for their fierce complaints and accusations against him when they found themselves without water, and he struck the rock. God responded by decreeing that Moshe would die in the wilderness and not lead the nation into Eretz Yisrael.
It has been suggested that this incident be understood off the backdrop of a famous story told by the Midrash (Shemot Rabba 2:2) about Moshe as he shepherded his father-in-law’s flocks. The Midrash relates:
When Moshe Rabbenu a”h was a shepherd for Yitro’s sheep in the wilderness, a kid escaped from him, and he ran after it until it reached a shady place. The kid chanced upon a pool of water, and it stood to drink. When Moshe came near it, he said, “I did not know that you were running because you were thirsty, you were weary.” He placed it on his shoulders and walked.
The Almighty said: “You have compassion to lead human sheep…”
It was because of the compassion Moshe showed for this sheep that he was assigned the position of leader of Benei Yisrael.
Chazal here depict the great challenge and responsibility of leadership in an especially poignant and compelling way. It occasionally happens that a “sheep” will “escape” far from the “flock,” straying well beyond the path the shepherd has charted for them for their benefit. The patient “shepherd” does not ignore, reject or resent the runaway “sheep.” Instead, he follows him, wherever he is, even if the “sheep” has strayed far off the beaten track. And he understands that the “sheep” has “fled” because he is “thirsty” and “weary,” because he felt dissatisfied with the path he was taken on; he had a thirst that needed to be quenched. The devoted “shepherd” does not resent or ignore the criticism, but responds with empathy and concern. He lovingly takes the “sheep” on his “shoulders,” selflessly and compassionately caring for him and doing what he can to lift his spirits and provide him with the “water” for which he so desperately yearns.
With this background, we can perhaps understand God’s stern reaction to Moshe’s conduct at Mei Meriva. This time, when his flock was thirsty, and when they steered from the course, complaining bitterly about having been taken along this route from Egypt into the wilderness, Moshe angrily berated them. This time, he did not take note of their thirst, of their fears, of their inner turmoil, and scolded them for their defiance. And thus God declared that he would not continue leading the people along the final leg of their journey.
The contrast between these two stories teaches of the need to acknowledge the “thirst” and “fatigue” of those who stray from the course they ought to be following. The appropriate response is not anger or rejection, but rather compassion and love, attempting to understand and genuinely empathize with their plight, so we can then lift them on our shoulders and care for them to the very best of our ability.
(Based on Rav Shmuel Yaakov Rubenstein’s She’eirit Menachem)