The Sin of Moshe and Aharon

  • Prof. Yonatan Grossman

Parshat HaShavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


The Sin of Moshe and Aharon

By Rav Yonatan Grossman

Parashat Chukat is the parasha of the fortieth year. The events described within it occurred during the last year of the travels of Benei Yisrael in the wilderness, and the parasha concludes with the last encampment - "The Israelites marched on and encamped in the plains of Moav, across the Jordan from Jericho" (Bamidbar 22:1). In this location, the entire Sefer Devarim will be delivered, and only after the five books of the Torah are completed do the Israelites enter into the land, as described in the book of Yehoshua.

Our parasha is thus a parasha of a journey's completion, the journey from Mt. Sinai to the plains of Moav. In this context, our parasha clearly parallels parashat Beshalach in Sefer Shemot, where we read about the first journey Israel took - from Egypt to Mt. Sinai. We are therefore not surprised to find occurrences that repeat themselves in these parshiot, because both contain events typical of life in the wilderness (the need for water and food, etc).

If we make specific comparisons between these two parshiot, we will be surprised at how many motifs that appear in the first journey - to Mt. Sinai, re-appear in the second journey - to the plains of Moav.

Let me remind you of the structure of parashat Beshalach:

1. The drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea and the song of the Sea (shirat ha-yam).
2. The complaint at Mara - water.
3. The complaint in Midbar Sin - meat
4. The complaint in Refidim - water
5. The victory of Israel over Amalek.

The structure of the parashat is chiastic: The outline of the journey deals with an external enemy that becomes excited and attacks Israel (1 - Egypt, 5 - Amalek). Subsequently, we encounter the two complaints about water (2 - Mara, 4 - Refidim). In the middle comes the longest complain which occurs when the manna is given to Israel and the nation is commanded to keep the Shabbat (3 - Midbar Sin).

In our parasha as well, parashat Chukat, we read about two preparations for war: First we read that the "The king of Arad dwelt in the Negev;" and at the end we read about the conquering of the eastern trans-Jordan (Sichon and Og).

We also find a parallel to the shirat ha-yam in our parasha with a second song that Israel sang in the wilderness - the song of the well. The beginning of the song: "Then Israel sang this song ..." (21:17) certainly reminds us of the shirat ha-yam which begins: "Then Moshe and the Israelites sang this song ..." (Shemot 15:1)

The chain of problems which afflict Israel in Chukat are identical to the problems in Beshalach - problems of water; problems of food in general. ("We have come to loathe this miserable food ..." - Bamidbar 21:5), and again, the problem of water (that, admittedly, is not depicted as a complaint but as a problem that God solves: "And from there to Be'er, which is the well where God said to Moshe, 'Assemble the people that I may give them water.'" (21:16)).

(The Mishna creates another connection, "Moshe's hands" which do not really wage the war on Amalek in Beshalach to the "serpent" which does not really kill or cure in Chukat.)

It seems to me that paying attention to the tight connection between the two parshiot can help us elucidate the sin of Moshe and Aharon in this parasha, the sin which denies them access to the Land of Israel.

As we know, the sin of Moshe and Aharon in the chapter of the waters of Meriva is not explicit. Many different explanations have been given in order to explain what was wrong with their behavior. And while the sin is not specified, the punishment is specified in all of its harshness: "Because you did not trust enough in Me to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the Land which I have given them" (20:12). The only hint that appears in these verses, "Because you did not trust enough in Me to affirm My sanctity," is not sufficiently clear. The different explanations given by the different commentaries can be divided into two basic types:

a. Moshe's ACTION - Instead of talking to the rock, Moshe hit it; he hit it twice instead of once; he hit a different rock than the one he was commanded to hit, etc.
b. Moshe's WORDS - "Listen you rebels" (ibid. 10) teaches us about Moshe's anger; the words of Moshe express doubt in the possibility of a miracle, etc.

There are several problems with these explanations. It is hard to accept that hitting the rock twice instead of once justifies such a heavy punishment. The expression "to affirm My sanctity (le-hakdisheni)" negates the possibility of focusing on Moshe's anger at the nation, since such anger does not constitute a defect in his loyalty to God (and possibly even the opposite!). There is also difficulty with the standard explanation that Moshe hit the rock instead of speaking to it. Rashi states here:

" ... since at first it brought out only drops, for God had not commanded him to hit it but (v. 8) 'order the rock,' and they spoke to a different rock which did not bring forth water. (Therefore) they said: Perhaps it is necessary to smite it as on the former occasion ... For if you had spoken to the rock and it had brought forth (water), I would have been sanctified in the eyes of the congregation."

This commentary explains why the sin was considered so grave, since Moshe lessened the magnitude of the miracle, hereby weakening the effect on the nation's fear of God and awe at His greatness (and we must add that the action was carried out after conferring with Aharon, which is why he also was punished). However, the verse specifically states: "Moshe took the rod from before God, AS HE HAD COMMANDED HIM."(ibid. 9). If God commands Moshe to take the rod, it seems clear that Moshe is to use it. All of the other times Moshe was commanded to take the rod, he was commanded to use it, and there is no reason to think that this time he is to deviate from the standard practice.

Furthermore, as we have said, this journey parallels the first journey, when Israel left Egypt and traveled to Mt. Sinai. The story of Mei Meriva parallels nearly identically the third complaint of Israel in Refidim. There too there was no water for the nation, and therefore Moshe went and hit the rock until water flowed out of it. Here are two stories so similar that they are occasionally confused one with the other. Just as in the previous story (in Refidim) Moshe is told to hit the rock, here too it is logical to assume that the purpose for taking the rod is to hit the rock. If God wants to deviate from the previous practice, He needs to say so explicitly.

Before I suggest a solution, I wish to point out that if the Torah conceals the sin, or at least does not explicate it, we are apparently being told to relate to it accordingly. The reason for the concealment may be out of consideration for Moshe and Aharon; and it may be for some other reason. In any event, any explanation is necessarily speculative, and one can only raise some general suggestions.

The course of thought that I would like to suggest is based on a comparison between the journey and the complaint in our parasha (Chukat) and the previous journey and its associated complaints.

The first complaint described in parashat Beshalach focuses on the lack of drinking water: "They came to Mara, but they could not drink the water of Mara because it was bitter ... And the people grumbled against Moshe, saying 'What shall we drink?'" (Shemot 15: 23-24). This is a "justified" complaint and indeed, there is no anger on God's or Moshe's part; instead, a solution is provided and water is given to the nation. The second complaint is more complicated and I do not wish to discuss it at length except to say that the emphasis is different: "In the wilderness, the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moshe and Aharon. The Israelites said to them, 'If only we had died by thhand of God in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots ... for you have brought us into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death" (16:2-3).

In this case, the complaint focuses on the actual exodus from Egypt, and subsequently, criticism is heaped upon the complainers. In contrast to the wilderness, the complainers hold up as an example the land of Egypt, where the situation was that: the people "died by the hand of God." It seems that part of this complaint focuses on a religious question: Is the hand of God present during the nation's journey in the wilderness; or perhaps, Moshe and Aharon, out of their own initiative, are leading the nation in the wilderness, while God is not watching over this desolate place? Thus, the text emphasizes that the complaint was "in the wilderness." The wilderness itself is the subject of the complaint. Does the hand of God exist in the wilderness or is it found only in a civilized area, like Egypt. Because this is the complaint, the response is also tied to this concept. In addition to the manna and quail that fell down from the sky, providing the nation with what to eat, God also reveals Himself to all of the nation in the wilderness: "... and there in a cloud appeared the Presence of God" (ibid. 10). The text emphasizes that God is revealed in the wilderness, in direct reaction to the nation's claim that the "hand of God" is found only in Egypt and not in a desolate place like the wilderness.

The third and last complaint in the first journey contains both types of complaints:

a. "The people quarreled with Moshe, saying: Give us water to drink."
b. "... and the people grumbled against Moshe and said: Why did you bring us up from Egypt to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?" (17:2-3)

In the beginning, the nation complains about its extreme thirst and requests water. Afterwards comes the second complaint, essentially about the exodus from Egypt into the wilderness. Here God tells Moshe to strike the rock and water flows from it; and here again the nation will see the glory of God - "I will stand there before you on the rock at Chorev" (ibid. 6) - which will be "in the sight of Benei Yisrael." Two solutions to the two problems - the water coming out of the rock solves the request for water, and the descent of God onto the rock re-emphasizes to the nation that Moshe did not take Israel out of Egypt of his own accord, but it is God who watches over the nation in the wilderness.

Now we can return to the complaint in our parasha. Which of the two types of complaints that we encountered in Beshalach fits the complaint before us?

"The community was without water and they joined against Moshe and Aharon. The people quarreled with Moshe saying, 'If only we had perished when our brothers perished before God! Why have you brought God's congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die here? Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, and there is no water to drink!'" (20:3-5).

It seems to me that it is clear that even if the reason for the complaint is lack of water, the content of the complaint contains far more than that. Here again, "this wilderness" is emphasized, and again the concept is placed in contrast to those who were worthy to die "before God." In contrast to those lucky ones, claim the complainers, we stand to die in the wilderness without the protecting hand of God.

It seems to me that for a nation who has wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, this is a most important and critical question. For 38 years there has been no communication between God and Moshe (assuming, correctly I believe, that this event took place in the 40th year). If the traveling in the wilderness is not done under the supervision of God and is not part of a Divine plan that leads to the land flowing with milk and honey, all of the sufferings of the journey would be for nothing, and this thought breeds despair in the heart of the nation.

In response, we also find here the revelation of God's glory, emphasizing that God is present and guiding the nation in the wilderness: "Moshe and Aharon came away from the congregation to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting (ohel mo'ed) and fell on their faces, and the Presence of God appeared to them" (ibid. 6). Immediately, God emphasizes to Moshe and Aharon that a clear miracle must be performed, by which the nation will understand that God is the one giving water to the nation in the wilderness. Moshe is instructed to perform the miracle IN FRONT OF ALL OF THE PEOPLE: "Take the rod and assemble the community, you and your brother Aharon, and before their eyes order the rock to yield its water ..." (ibid. 8). In other words, the nation suspects that Moshe and Aharon have been leading them of their own accord, and thus, it is important that all of the nation see that God is the one giving water.

And, so it was. Moshe gathers the people before the rock, hits it and out comes water. However, the main purpose of the lesson is not fulfilled as God desires. The verse states: "Listen you rebels, shall WE get water for you out of this rock?" (ibid. 10) On this verse, the Chizkuni explains: "For this reason, God was strict (with Moshe) for he was commanded to be specific in his use of language, so that all would know clearly that God is the one giving them the water, and Moshe was not precise with his words." The problem with Moshe's speech is in the following text: "shall WE get water for you?" From this language, it is possible to understand that Moshe and Aharon have special and supernatural powers, and even wresting water from a rock was within their power - they have the magic and they find the water.

Under normal conditions, we would not expect an inaccurate or imprecise wording to engender such a severe punishment. However, because this was exactly the problem gripping the nation - who are the leaders in the wilderness? Is it God or Moshe and Aharon leading us through the vast wilderness? - the precise wording has higher importance. The main educational message God requests to impart to the nation is thwarted, and even more so, the opposite could be infered from the words of Moshe, that indeed he and Aharon have the power. Moshe himself does not mean this to happen, of course, but he does not emphasize in his words that the absolute sovereignty of God also applies during the nation's trek through the wilderness; and so he is punished: "Because you did not trust enough in Me to affirm my sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the Land which I have given them" (20:12).

God is "as exacting as a hairsbreadth with righteous people," and He who authored the Torah decided to obscure the exact description of the sin. With this in mind, I tried to show that we must read the complaint of the nation in our parasha keeping in mind the background of a parallel journey to Mt. Sinai, and with this in mind, we can try to understand the sin as well. This shiur is only meant to suggest a general direction, and I will be happy to read replies or other suggestions.