Of Sticks and Stones
Yeshivat Har Etzion
series is dedicated
in memory of Michael Jotkowitz, z"l.
Of Sticks and Stones
Rav Chanoch Waxman
At Mei Meriva, at the start of the fortieth year of the Israelite's desert journey, God judged Moshe and Aharon. Immediately following Moshe's hitting of the rock, the miraculous flow of water and the people's quenching of their thirst (20:11), God declared the following to Moshe and Aharon.
Since you did not believe in me (he'emantem bi) to sanctify me in the eyes of the Children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this congregation into the land (20:12)
Finding the actions
and leadership of Moshe and Aharon wanting, God
decrees that they would not lead the people any further. Like the generation they had redeemed from
While God's judgment against Moshe
and Aharon is clear and to the point, the rationale
for the judgment seems far less transparent.
Apparently, the events at Mei Meriva were
intended to sanctify God in the eyes of the people, and such is the job of a
Moreover, God utilizes the formulation of "lo he'emantem bi," tentatively translated above as "you did believe in me," to describe the sin of Moshe and Aharon. Based upon God's previous description of Moshe as his "eved ne'eman," his trusted servant (12:7), the term "he'aemantem," also based upon the stem e.m.n. should probably be translated as "trust" rather than belief. In other words, God accuses Moshe of not placing trust in him. In fact he accuses him of betrayal, both of God and by implication, of his own identity as God's trusted servant.
In point of fact, in referring to
the sin of Moshe and Aharon on other occasions, God consistently
uses language with a similar if not more extreme connotation. In the second to last communication of God to
Moshe found in the Torah, God commands Moshe to ascend
Finally in perhaps the unkindest cut of all, in first instructing Moshe to ascend the mountain and see the land (27:12-14), God refers to the fact that Moshe "rebelled" against God at Mei Meriva. But of course this is the term that Moshe used to describe the people's behavior at Mei Meriva. Before striking the rock, Moshe berated the people, prefacing his words with the phrase "Hear you rebels" (20:10). In God's eyes, it is Moshe and Aharon, not the people who are the true rebels in the story.
To put this together, in addition to alluding to some potential kiddush Hashem Moshe and Aharon were supposed to perform, God variously views their actions at Mei Meriva as rebellion, breaking faith and breakdown of the trust of Moshe in God. All of the harsh language and of course the punishment itself lead to the inevitable conclusion that the error of Moshe at Mei Meriva was astoundingly serious. But this constitutes the nub of the matter. All Moshe did was hit the rock. Not much else happened. In other words, what was the severe sin of Moshe at Mei Meriva? What about it justifies God's harsh words? What was the "failure to trust," what was the "betrayal" and what was the "rebellion" of Moshe?
Turning our attention to the text itself should help us restructure the problem. The action unfolds along the following lines:
Confronted with a lack of water, the people "strive with Moshe" (20:3). They complain that they would have been better of if they had already died, lament the fact that Moshe has brought them and their cattle to die in the desert, and declare that Moshe should never have brought them up from Egypt to a bad place lacking water (20:3-5). In response, God issues a multi-part and complex command which can be parsed into five distinct stages. He commands Moshe to: i) take the stick ii) that he and Aharon should gather the community iii) to speak to the rock iv) to bring forth for them water, and finally, v) to give the congregation and their flock water (20:7-8).
At this point (20:9-11), the Torah reports Moshe's accomplishment of the divine command. The following chart should help us compare the "command" (20:7-8) and the "accomplishment" (20:9-11).
Take the stick
And Moshe took the stick from in front of the Lord as God commanded him
And gather the congregation together you and Aharon your brother,
And Moshe and Aharon gathered the congregation together before the rock
And speak to the rock before their eyes, it shall give its water
And Moshe said to the people: Hear you rebels.
You shall bring forth water for them (ve-hotzaita lahem) from the rock
Should we bring forth water for you (notzi lachem) from the rock? And Moshe lifted up his hand, and he hit the rock twice with the stick The water came out (va-yotzei) abundantly
And you shall give (ve-hishkita) the congregation and their cattle water
And the congregation drank (va-teisht) and their cattle as well.
The first two stages of the command go without a hitch. Moshe takes the stick from "in front of the Lord" (20:9) and gathers the community in front of the rock precisely as commanded (20:10). Emphasizing this point, the Torah inserts the phrase "as God commanded" in between the accomplishment of the first two command stages (20:9). But at this point, when it comes time to speak to the rock, stage three of the command, things begin to go awry. Instead of speaking to the rock, Moshe speaks to the people, informing them that they are rebels and that they do not really deserve the water they are about to receive (20:10). Instead of speaking to the rock, Moshe smites the rock (20:11). Speaking to the people and smiting the rock were not commanded by God. Moshe has clearly disobeyed God's command.
Nevertheless we may well wonder
whether the consequences are proportionate to the sin. After all, the people are rebels. As mentioned above, Moshe's disobedience is
preceded by the people's claim that they would have been better off already
having died (20:3). This complaint bears
an eerie resemblance to the complaint of their ancestors, thirty eight years
earlier upon the hearing the report of the spies (14:2). Like their forefathers the people prefer
death to a future under the leadership of Moshe. Identifying with the generation that left
Furthermore, the people refer to their preference for dying like their brothers "in front of the Lord." While this may be a reference to the gradual death of the previous generation, it most probably constitutes a technical reference to the last group portrayed as dying "in front of the Lord," the 250 members of Korach's assembly who stood "before the Lord" (16:7, 16-17) and were consumed by a fire that came out "from the Lord" (16:35).
Likewise, the people query Moshe as
to "lama he'elitanu," why did you
take us up from
Moreover, we can identify another
possible justification for Moshe's actions at Mei Meriva. Thirty-nine years previously, shortly after
The story recounted in Sefer Shemot (17:1-7) parallels the events of Mei Meriva in many ways. In both cases the people lack water (Shemot 17:1, Bamidbar 20:2). In both cases the Torah describes the people as "striving with Moshe" (Shemot 17:2, Bamidbar 20:3), complaining as to "lama he'elitanu," why have you brought us up (Shemot 17:3, Bamidbar 20:5), and bemoaning their impending death (Shemot 17:3, Bamidbar 20:4). Moreover, and most crucially, the solution in both cases involves a rock and a stick. At Masa U-meriva, God commanded Moshe to take his stick and smite a rock located at Chorev (17:6). As we should remember, in the story of Sefer Bamidbar, the events of Mei Meriva, God commands Moshe to take "the stick" and speak to the rock (20:8). While the commands certainly differ, the common denominator seems to outweigh the differences. Both resolutions involve a stick and a rock.
In this light, Moshe's actions, his "sin" of smiting the rock as opposed to speaking to it, seem far less severe. Last time around, in near identical circumstances, God commanded him to resolve the situation with a stick and a rock, by smiting the rock. This time around, in response to God's command to resolve the situation with a stick and rock solution, Moshe indeed does so, he repeats his actions at Masa U-meriva and smites the rock. While admittedly, God had commanded him to speak to the rock, should Moshe really be held accountable for the difference? Is not a stick and rock solution a stick and rock solution? Both are miracles, and both provide water for the people.
Turning back to Moshe's words at Mei Meriva and the command-accomplishment relationship outlined earlier may provide some insight. As argued until now, both Moshe's statement that the people are rebels and his hitting as opposed to speaking to the rock can be either justified or explained. The people are rebellious and Moshe had been previously commanded, in near identical circumstances, to strike the rock.
Yet this is not all that happens. In addition, and in clear contrast to the command of God, Moshe confronts the people with a rhetorical question, asking them whether Moshe and Aharon "should bring forth water for you (notzi lachem) from the rock?" (20:10). Moshe means to imply, in line with the first half of his declaration accusing the people of rebellion (20:10), that the people do not deserve water. As far as he is concerned, they deserve to die. But this is in direct contradiction to God's command. As emphasized in the chart above, God had commanded Moshe "ve-hotzaita lahem," that you should bring forth water for them (20:8). Yet as opposed to simply carrying out the word of God, Moshe questions the command, albeit indirectly. In rebuking the people, Moshe uses the same stem found in God's command (20:8), y.tz.a. meaning out or forth, to ask "Ha-notzi - should we?" But God has already stated that he should.
Moreover, Moshe's reluctance seems to come to fruition in his actual accomplishment of the divine command. While God had commanded "ve-hotzeita" an active conjugation of the verb stem y.tz.a implying personal action and involvement, the Torah informs us that upon Moshe's hitting of the rock, "vayotzei," and much water came out. The switch to the passive tense reflects the lack of personal involvement of Moshe, of his being the cause of the emerging waters. Moshe smites the rock and the waters emerge. But he has not actively and willingly "brought them forth."
This emerging sense of questioning, reluctance and disengagement is further strengthened by the last stage of the command-accomplishment structure outlined above. God had commanded Moshe with the term "ve-hishkita," literally meaning "to water," in the sense that a shepherd waters his flock. This of course is the action he performed in saving the daughters of Yitro and their sheep (Shemot 2:17). It is the original occupation that brought him to Chorev for the first time and his mission as leader (Shemot 3:1). In a similar vein, shortly after the events at Mei Meriva, in entreating God to appoint a replacement for him upon his death, Moshe entreats God that the Children of Israel not be left "like sheep that have no shepherd" (27:17).
In other words, God commands Moshe to practice the kind of leadership he knows so well, the management style he himself preaches. Not for naught does the command mention watering the people and "their cattle" (20:8). But in pointed contrast to the command of "watering," and its associated shepherding imagery, the corresponding response section utilizes a different verb altogether, the term "va-teisht," meaning drink. It reports simply that "the people drank" (20:11). Moshe views the people as rebels. Moshe is reluctant. Moshe is certainly not watering this flock.
To put this together, Moshe's primary sin is not so much the accusation of rebellion, the smiting of the rock, or even the reflexive repetition of the actions of thirty nine years previous. Rather, it is his overall attitude that comprises the problem. It is the factor which underlies the accusations, the smiting and the repetition. At Mei Meriva, Moshe fails not so much in precise fidelity to God's word, as an eved ne'eman, but as a ro'eh, as the shepherd of God's people. It is a failure, if but momentary, to deliver a certain kind of leadership.
Realizing that the "sin" of Moshe and Aharon at Mei Meriva is primarily related to the type of leadership they provide, brings us to a related point, back to the notion of kiddush Hashem, God's oft repeated statement that Moshe did not sanctify him in the eyes of the Israelites (20:12, 27:14, Devarim 32:51). Although not emphasized previously, while God sometimes states that Moshe lacked trust (20:12), sometimes accuses Moshe of breaking faith (Devarim 32:51) and sometimes labels him a rebel (27:14), each and every one of God's recountings of the incident contains the kiddush Hashem theme. This in fact, the lack of sanctification of God's name, seems to be what lies behind God's wrath, and the real reason that Moshe is punished. To put our two points together, the problem at Mei Meriva is the lack of a certain kind of leadership. This in turn, results in a failure to sanctify God's name and God's decree of Moshe and Aharon's fate.
A crucial point made by the Rashbam regarding the context of the Mei Meriva narrative should help to further elaborate. In commenting on God's command to Moshe to "take the stick" (20:8), the Rashbam notes that the stick referred to has already been mentioned in Sefer Bamidbar. It is the staff of Aharon placed in the sanctuary as "a sign to the rebels" (17:25).
Based upon the echo of the title "a sign to the rebels" found in our parasha, the fact that before smiting the rock, Moshe holds the stick aloft and states "Hear you rebels" (20:10), the Rashbam identifies the stick as the stick that constitutes the sign to the rebels. Although the Rashbam does not make the point, the text strongly supports this identification in another way as well. In reporting the accomplishment of God's command to "take the stick" (20:7), the Torah informs us that Moshe took the stick "from in front of the Lord as God commanded" (20:9). But the only stick located "in front of the Lord" is the one previously placed there, the staff of Aharon designed as a sign to the rebels and intended to put an end to the various complaints and murmurings of the people (17:25).
Although the Rashbam does not expand extensively upon the significance of this identity, the Rashbam's theory roots the story of Mei Meriva in the context of the rebellion of Korach and its aftermath, the previous mention of the "staff of Aharon." With this in mind, let us turn our attention to the aftermath of the rebellion.
Following the initial suppression of
the rebellion of Korach and his assembly, the
swallowing up of the rebel's encampment and the death of the 250 Israelite
princes while offering incense (16:31-35), the Children of Israel confront
Moshe and Aharon to voice a previously unheard
complaint. Rather than being cowed into
submission by the fire of God that consumed the incense bringers and the
miraculous swallowing up of the "mishkan"
of Korach, Datan and Aviram, defined by Moshe as "a new creation of
God," a way in which men have not died before (16:29-30), the people take
umbrage at God's show of force. But not
surprisingly, they blame Moshe and Aharon. The Torah informs us that the next day
"all the congregation of
God reacts harshly to this new complaint. For the second time in the larger "rebellion" narrative (16:1-17:28), God demands of Moshe to separate himself from "this congregation" so that he may destroy them (17:10). Once again, just as in the latter stages of the "rebellion of Korach" story, Moshe is forced to pray for the people (16:22, 17:10). But this time, Moshe's prayers turn out to be insufficient. A plague had already begun amongst the people. By the time Aharon, urged on by Moshe, runs to the people and extinguishes the plague by offering incense while standing amidst the dying, over 14,000 have died (17:11-15). In direct contradiction of their claim about the deadly nature of Moshe and Aharon's leadership, the people witness Moshe and Aharon saving their lives.
Yet, even this seems insufficient. In the final stage of the "rebellion" narrative (16:1-17:28), God commands a trial. The rules of the "leadership test" are such. Each tribe must place a staff inscribed with the name of its leader in the Tent of Meeting. The staff of Levi carries Aharon's name, and the tribe whose stick flowers will be the winner (17:16-20). By this means, God intends, as he phrases it to Moshe, "To remove from upon me the complaints of the Children of Israel" (17:20). The complaints of death dealing leadership are in fact complaints against the leadership of God.
Apparently, what could not be accomplished by fantastic miracles, divine fire, the opening of the earth, plagues and miraculous healing is accomplished by a flowering stick. The staff of Aharon "flowered brought forth buds, blossomed and yielded almonds." The rebellion ends and the stick is placed back in the sanctuary as a "sign for rebels" (17:20).
The miracle of the staff is in some sense the opposite of the miracles of divine fire, the opening of the earth and the plague. As opposed to turning life into death, it turns death into life. The dry wood of the staff springs back to life, it flowers, buds and blossoms, giving forth almonds, where before only lifeless wood had been present. Along with Moshe and Aharon's quelling of the plague, it symbolizes the life giving quality of their leadership. It is meant to show that God's leadership, as manifested through Moshe and Aharon, is in fact meant to lead to life.
This interpretation of the miracle of the staff is strengthened by a parallel to the "complaint" narrative of Sefer Shemot (15:23-17:7). Besides being called a "sign" for rebels, in ordering Moshe to place the staff back in the Tent of Meeting "in front of the testimony," God terms the stick a "mishmeret" (17:25). In this context the term means something guarded or watched. Similarly, the story of the manna, the sustenance provided by God, which comprises the centerpiece of the "complaint" narrative of Shemot, contains the term "mishmeret" (Shemot 16:32-34). Like the "rebellion" narrative of Sefer Bamidbar, the story of the manna ends with the placing of an object "in front of the testimony" (16:34), as something guarded or watched. God orders Moshe to place a measure of manna in front of the Lord, so that the people will see the bread that God fed them in the desert (16:32). The dual parallel between the measure of manna and the staff of Aharon suggests that the two placements serve similar purposes and the two objects embody similar messages. Just as the miracle of the flowering staff was intended to put an end to the people's complaints regarding leadership in the "rebellion" narrative, so too the miracle of the manna was intended to put an end to the people's complaints for food and water, for sustenance in the Shemot "complaint" narrative. Just as the measure of manna, the first object placed before the testimony, i.e. near the ark, symbolizes the miracle of life in the desert, of God's caring, provision and sustenance so too the second object, the staff of Aharon symbolizes the miracle of life, the life giving leadership of God as manifested through Moshe and Aharon. By this means, not through force and power is the rebellion quelled. It is this stick, the flowering stick, that Moshe is meant to take from "before the Lord" and hold in his hand while speaking to the rock.
Placing the story of Mei Meriva in the context of Sefer Bamidbar and unpacking the symbolism of the stick that constitutes part of the "stick and rock" solution commanded by God highlights a crucial difference between the story of Mei Meriva and the earlier stick and rock story, the events at Masa U-meriva.
At Masa U-meriva, God commanded Moshe to take "your stick with which you smote the river" (Shemot 17:5). First and foremost, the stick of the stick and rock solution at Masa U-meriva is Moshe's stick, it is the staff already known in Sefer Shemot. Moreover, the stick is identified as the stick which smote the river. It is the stick that performed the plagues.
Just prior to commanding Moshe to take his stick with which he hit the river "in his hand" (17:25), God commanded Moshe to "pass in front of the people" (17:25). In point of fact, God issues Moshe a four part command. He is i) to pass in front of the people, ii) taking along the elders of Israel while iii) holding the stick with which he smote the river in his hand. This procession will culminate with iv) Moshe's hitting the rock. Apparently, the procession and the identity of the stick are crucial to the miracle and the lesson taught at Masa U-meriva. But what is the point of the parade and its central prop?
In stressing the identity of the stick as the "stick which smote the river," by referring to it as Moshe's and by specifying that it be placed in the "hand" of Moshe, the Torah provides part of the answer to this question. A quick glance at the story of the first plague, the plague of blood should help clarify things.
unsurprising manifestation of a hard heart and refusal to release the Children
of Israel, God orders Moshe to meet Pharoah at the
river holding in his hand "the stick that turned into a snake" (Shemot 7:14-15), the stick previously used to
demonstrate God's power (Shemot 4:2-3,
5:29-30, 7:8-12). Moshe is to chastise Pharoah for his disobedience to God's word until this point
and to inform him that by "this" you will know that I am the
Lord. Finally, after his speaking to Pharoah, Moshe is to smite the river "with the stick
in his hand" turning it into blood.
The fish will die, and all of
Although staged in private, the show
put on for Pharoah's benefit is meant to be a show of
force. Moshe chastises Pharoah for not "knowing" God and being obedient
to his word. For his disobedience,
stemming from his cognitive failure, Pharoah is
smitten. In fact,
It is this stick that God
specifically commands Moshe to take in "his hand" and parade before
the people. Apparently, the
demonstration at Masa U-meriva
parallels the demonstration for Pharoah and
To complete the parallel, the
stories are identical in purpose as well as object and action. Like the show of force for Pharoah and
While power, force and the threat of violence are certainly not desirable educational methods, the need to resort to this method at Masa U-meriva is understandable. In the narrative of Sefer Shemot, the Children of Israel have just been redeemed from slavery. Power, force and the threat of violence is unfortunately a language they have been trained all too well in. It is the mode of communication they can understand.
This brings us full circle back to
Mei Meriva, the context of Sefer
Bamidbar and perhaps a fuller understanding of
Moshe's failure to sanctify God. The
Children of Israel who arrive at Mei Meriva, in the
fortieth year of their desert sojourn, are in fact a different people than the
people redeemed from
This larger "rebellion narrative" (16:1-17:28) is also about direction, goals and the destiny of a group that refers to itself as "the people of the Lord" or often as "the congregation of God." The narrative begins with the claim that "all are holy," the statement by the rebels that God is amidst them and the complaint against Moshe and Aharon's exclusive leadership over the "the congregation of the Lord" (16:3). On a similar note, in the latter part of the narrative, the people complain that Moshe and Aharon are killing the "people of the Lord" (17:6).
This trend reaches its conclusion at Mei Meriva. In this short story, the root k.h.l. meaning congregate or gather, appears seven times (20:2,4,6,8,10,10,12). Once again the people refer to themselves as the "congregation of the Lord" (20:4) and complain about their direction and destiny, the bad leadership they are subject to and their impending death.
What constitutes the solution to the crisis? The context of Sefer Bamidbar, the previous unfolding of the rebellion narrative has already provided the answer. For the generation of Egypt, referred to seven times throughout the Masa U-meriva narrative as an am (17:1,2,3,3,4,5,6) a newly emergent nation barely more than a rabble of slaves, force and power constitute the right means. In contrast, for the new generation, the fire of God, the opening of the earth and miraculous plagues will not resolve the crisis. Only a demonstration of the life giving and sustaining qualities of Moshe and Aharon's leadership will resolve the crisis. Only the sign of the flowering stick, or put differently, only persuasion, rather than force and power, can quiet the people.
While for the am, the newly
redeemed slaves of
To put this slightly differently, in accord with the needs and language of the new generation, God intends the events at Mei Meriva to unfold as a reversal of the events of Masa U-meriva. Where the culmination of the complaint narrative of Sefer Shemot, the story of Masa U-meriva, confirms that the people understand no language other than power and force, the story of Sefer Bamidbar is meant to reflect and lead to a new stage in the people's development. It is meant to help define a newly developed stage in which the people understand a new language. As kehal Hashem, they understand the language of persuasion, of speech, of signs, and perceive through their own intuition the life giving quality of Moshe, Aharon's and by implication, God's leadership. Consequently, God commands Moshe to grasp the appropriate symbol and speak to the rock. This was the kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of God intended at Mei Meriva, the teaching of the right lesson in the right way. God's leadership provides life rather than death. It rests upon persuasion rather than power.
Yet this was not to be. Out of frustration at the people, exhausted from their complaints and faced with the near same circumstances as thirty-eight years previously, Moshe berates the people. They are Pharoah at the river or they are the previous generation at Masa U-meriva. They do not know. They are rebels who understand nothing but power. Moshe hits the rock. But in doing so, although the people are certainly rebels, he commits a fatal mistake. He teaches the exact opposite lesson God intended. He uses the staff of Aharon just like the staff that smote the river. Without realizing, Moshe unwittingly undermines the lessons the new generation needs to learn. He sends the message that in the end of the day, the people are not incorrect. The leadership of Moshe and Aharon, and by implication God rests not upon caring, sustenance, provision of life and persuasion. Rather it rests upon power, force and the threat of death. In sum, Moshe sends the wrong message.
For this truly tragic error, God strips Moshe and Aharon of their roles. For their failure to sanctify God and betrayal of God's agenda, Moshe and Aharon receive the fate of the generation they led so faithfully for so many years. They too will not enter the Promised Land. That is reserved for a new generation and a new set of leaders.
1) See Rashi 20:12 s.v. lehakdisheni. Now see the Ramban's attack on Rashi in his comment to 20:1. Note his three main critiques of Rashi. The shiur above constitutes an attempt to work out Rashi's approach. Explain this statement while noting how the shiur above answers the Ramban's questions.
2) Reread 20:1-13. Now see 20:1-2. Try to explain the inclusion of 20:1. See Rashi 20:2 s.v. velo. Also see Shemot 15:20-21 and Bamidbar 12:1-16, 33:36-38, 20:22-24. Try to think of an alternative to Rashi's solution based upon the roles of Miryam and Aharon and the shiur above.
3) Review Shemot 17:1-7 and Bamidbar 20:1-13. Now see 21:4-9. Note three similarities between the stories. Try to explain the different outcome of 21:4-9.
4) Reread 20:7-11. See Shemot 2:11-12 and 4:10-17. What is God's original solution for Moshe not being a man of "speech"? Explain the significance of Mei Meriva and Aharon's inclusion in the story in this light.