Chukat | Missing Nuances in Moshe's Sin
Our parasha contains one of the most perplexing episodes in the Torah. The faithful shepherd of the Jewish people for forty years, the man who grew up in Pharaoh’s palace and ultimately confronted him, who led the slaves from Egypt through the Yam Suf and the Sinai desert, suffering their serial ingratitude all along the way, who ascended Har Sinai to bring the word of Hashem to his people and who prayed to Hashem for mercy on their behalf – Moshe Rabbenu is told by Hashem that he will not live to cross the Jordan River and enter Eretz Yisrael.
When we read the text, the story seems lucidly clear. Almost forty years have passed since the Exodus. Most of the generation that remembered Egypt has died, as has Miriam, Moshe’s beloved sister. Close to their final destination, the people arrive at Kadesh, where they find themselves without water. Once again, as they have done so many times before, they complain:
“If only we had perished when our brothers perished in the presence of Hashem. Why have you brought the assembly of the Hashem into this wilderness for us and our livestock to die? Why did you take us up from Egypt to bring us to this vile place, where nothing grows, not of seed nor figs, not vines nor pomegranates?! There is not even any water to drink!
Just as the complaint seems familiar – so, too, does the response of Moshe and Aharon:
Moshe and Aharon went from the presence of the congregation to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and fell on their faces. The glory of Hashem appeared to them. Hashem spoke to Moshe and said, “Take the staff, and then with Aharon your brother assemble all the community and, in front of them all, speak to the rock and it will yield water. You shall bring forth for them water from the rock, for them and their livestock to drink.”
Moshe took the staff from before Hashem, as he had commanded him. Then he and Aharon gathered the assembly together in front of the rock, and said to them, “Listen to me, you rebels. Shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?”
Moshe raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed forth in abundance, and they all drank, men and beasts.
Once again, another miracles, and the problem is solved. The people have water – but Hashem is not happy:
But Hashem said to Moshe and Aharon, “Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not lead this assembly into the land which I promised to give them.”
What had Moshe done wrong? What was his sin? In Seforno’s words – “There are many opinions regarding the sin of the waters of Merivah. Many are confused about what it was that Moshe and Aharon did that would justify statements like ‘you did not believe in me.’” In this week’s study, we will examine several of the traditional explanations of the sin and present a modern suggestion as well.
In an effort to uncover Moshe’s failing and sin in this episode, Professor Nechama Leibowitz zt”l was wont to quote the nineteenth century Italian exegete R. Shmuel David Luzzatto as a warning: “Moshe committed one sin, yet the commentators have accused him of thirteen or more – each inventing some new iniquity!” Similarly, at the beginning of his interpretation to this issue, the Or Ha-Chayim Ha-Kadosh lists ten separate sins (as does the Abravanel on Devarim 1:37, who summarizes ten different opinions; and proves why each one is incorrect!). Among them, the following suggestions are the most prevalent among the commentators:
 Rashi offers the simplest and best-known explanation. Accordingly to him, Moshe’s sin lay in striking the rock rather than speaking to it. Had Moshe done as he was commanded, the people would have learned an unforgettable lesson: “If a rock, which neither speaks nor hears nor is in need of sustenance, obeys the word of Hashem, how much more so should we do no less.”
 The Rambam says that Moshe’s sin lay in his harsh anger and fury, as demonstrated by his intemperate words to the people, “Listen to me, you rebels.” “Hashem considered it a desecration that someone like Moshe should express anger when there was no reason” (Introduction to Pirkei Avot, Shemoneh Perakim ch. 4). For anyone else, this slip would have been a minor offence. However, Hashem sets higher standards for greater people. Moshe was not only the leader; he was also the Jewish People’s supreme role model, and he failed to meet Hashem’s exacting expectations. From his behavior, the people may have concluded that either Hashem was angry with them, which He was not, or that anger is permissible.
 The Ramban rejects the Rambam’s suggestion, preferring instead the suggestion of Rabbeinu Chananel: “The verse states, ‘You rebelled against My word’ (20:24), which implies that they sinned against His command… The most acceptable of the explanations – one that at least serves to put off those disturbed by this issue – is the one offered Rabbeinu Chananel, who suggests that the sin lies in the statement, ‘Shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?’ as opposed to ‘Shall Hashem bring forth water for you from this rock?’ What was at issue was the people mistaking a Divine miracle for human accomplishment.
 R. Joseph Albo in Sefer Ha-Ikkarim and others (including the Ibn Ezra) suggest that the sin lies in the fact that Moshe and Aharon fled from the congregation and fell on their faces, rather than standing their ground, confident that Hashem would answer their prayers. Their mistake was in the tepidity of their original response to the crisis until Hashem instructed them what to do.
 In addition, the Ibn Ezra notes that Moshe strikes the rock not once, but twice: “... and Moshe lifted his hand and hit the rock with his staff TWO times; then much water came out...” (20:11).
 In a modern variation of the approach of R. Joseph Albo that the error was in the original response, Rabbi Menachem Leibtag suggests that Moshe’s mistake arose from his failure to fulfill the instructions given to him at the end of last week’s parasha, when the rebellion of Korach was finally extinguished with the contest of the staffs. In Bamidbar 17:25-26, Hashem told Moshe that the next time the Jewish people complain or rebel, he should take out Aharon’s staff from the Ohel Moed and remind them of what happened to the participants in Korach's rebellion. His failure to due follow those instructions suggested that a change was necessary.
 Skirting the issue, perhaps due to the difficulties we have outlined above, the Abarvanel makes the ingenious suggestion that Moshe and Aharon were not punished for what they did at Merivah, but due to offences that lay in the distant past: Aharon sinned by making the Golden Calf, while Moshe sinned in sending the spies. For these reasons, Hashem did not allow them to enter the land. However, Hashem chose to defend Moshe’s and Aharon’s honor and did not made the connection between sin and punishment explicit in the narrative. The actions at the rock were the proximate rather than underlying cause of their punishments (a hurricane may be the proximate cause of a bridge collapsing; the underlying cause, however, was a structural weakness in the bridge itself).
Having reviewed the various approaches, we note that difficulties remain, not only with each individual suggestion, but in general. First, Moshe himself attributes Hashem’s refusal to let him enter the land to Divine anger with the Jewish people, and not just with himself: “At that time, I pleaded with Hashem, ‘Hashem, You have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand… Let me cross over and see the good land that is on the other side of the Jordan, the fine hill country and the Lebanon.’ But Hashem was angry with me because of you…” (Devarim 3). More explicitly, in Tehillim (106:32), the Psalmist states, “By the waters of Merivah they angered Hashem and trouble came to Moshe because of them.” Second, the reader senses that whatever the sin that occurred, the punishment is entirely disproportionate, despite Moshe’s lofty stature. Moshe’s sin was at most “shogeg” – unintentional. If, because of Moshe’s prayers, Hashem could forgive the Jewish people for idolatry and disbelief, why couldn’t Hashem forgive Moshe? Depriving Moshe of seeing the culmination of a lifetime’s efforts seems exceptionally harsh, and the loss of their beloved leader would have untold consequences and ramifications on the Jewish People throughout their history, despite the best efforts of Yehoshua and those who followed in Moshe’s footsteps. Finally, we note that in similar circumstances on a previous occasion, Hashem told Moshe to take his staff and strike the rock - precisely the act for which (at least according to Rashi) he was now punished.
Because of these reservations, I wish to, with the deepest respect and trepidation, suggest a different approach that focuses on the punishment that Hashem meted out.
C. LISTENING THROUGH THE CRIES
If we were to ask people what punishment Moshe and Aharon received at Merivah, most would instinctively answer that they were forbidden from ENTERING the land of Israel. However, this popular assumption is not precise. Let’s look at how the Chumash explains their punishment:
“And God told Moshe... because you did not trust Me enough to sanctify Me... Therefore you shall NOT BRING this nation into the LAND which I promised them...” (20:12)
Note that Hashem does not state that they cannot ENTER the Land; Hashem states that they cannot LEAD the people into the Land. In other words, the punishment is not addressing personal failings, but qualities of leadership. As the Chief Rabbi of Britain, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, points out eloquently in his discussion of this issue:
One of the most striking features of Judaism is that it is not centered on a single figure – a founder – who dominates its entire history. To the contrary, each age gave rise to its own leaders, and they were different from one another, not only in personality but in the type of leadership they exercised. First came the age of the patriarchs and matriarchs. Then came Moshe and his disciple Joshua. They were followed by a succession of figures known generically as “judges,” though their role was more military than judicial. With Saul, monarchy was born – though even then, kings were not the only leaders; there were prophets and priests as well
Leadership is a function of time. There is a famous dispute about Noah, whom the Torah describes as “perfect in his generations.” According to one view, had Noah lived in a more righteous age, he would have been greater still. According to another, he would have been merely one of many. The fact is that each generation yields the leadership appropriate to it… “Yerubaal (Gideon) in his generation was like Moshe in his generation; Bedan in his generation was like Aharon in his generation; Jepthah in his generation was like Samuel in his generation.”
Each age produces its leaders, and each leader is a function of an age. There may be – indeed there are – certain timeless truths about leadership. A leader must have courage and integrity. He must be able, say the sages, to relate to each individual according to his or her distinctive needs. Above all, a leader must constantly learn (a king must study the Torah “all the days of his life”). But these are necessary, not sufficient, conditions. A leader must be sensitive to the call of the hour – this hour, this generation, this chapter in the long story of a people. And because he or she is of a specific generation, even the greatest leader cannot meet the challenges of a different generation. That is not a failing. It is the existential condition of humanity.
With Rabbi Sack’s dictum that the leader must match the age in which he leads, let us return to the story of Moshe. Moshe, in his behavior, observes the precedent that he set for himself years before. At Refidim, a generation earlier and facing similar circumstances, Hashem told him to take his staff and strike the rock. At Merivah, Hashem told him once again to take his staff, and apparently Moshe inferred that he was being told to act as he had before. What did he fail to comprehend? That times had changed. He was facing a new generation. The people he confronted the first time were those who had spent much of their lives as slaves in Egypt; those he now faced were born in freedom in the wilderness. What was the critical difference between the generations? Let us compare their words with a similar phrase uttered forty years earlier:
NOW at Merivah
FORTY YEARS EARLIER at Kivrot Ta’avah
Why did you take us up from Egypt to bring us to this vile place, where nothing grows, not of seed nor figs, not vines nor pomegranates!
And the Jewish people wept again, and said, “O, that we had meat to eat? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic!”
Comparing the foods listed in each, we reach one, inescapable conclusion. The generation of Kivrot Ta’avah, despite all the miracles done for it, still dreams of Egypt. At Merivah, the new generation also dreams of leaving the desert - but for Israel. They are impatient, not ungrateful. Sadly, Moshe did not hear this distinction; at the moment of crisis, Moshe reverts to behavior appropriate forty years ago, not for the new generation. His inability to discern this was not a sin, but his inability to listen beyond the people’s complaints and understand what motivated them demonstrated that he was no longer the person to lead them to their dream. To his credit, Moshe recognized this as well; he took the initiative in asking Hashem (in Bamidbar ch. 27) to appoint a successor who would “go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out, and BRING them in.” (27:17)