Excerpted from Rabbi Dr. Norman J. Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Numbers, co-published by OU Press, Maggid Books, and YU Press; edited by Stuart W. Halpern
Our sidra this morning tells of one of the most painful episodes in biblical history, one which was seared into the consciousness of the people of Israel. It is the incident of mei meriva, “the waters of contention” (Numbers 20:13). The Israelites, after the death of Miriam, complained about the lack of water. From a mere water shortage, they escalated their complaints to a general attack on Moses, expressing a preference for having remained in Egypt as comfortable slaves over being in the desert as starving and thirsty freemen.
Thereupon, the Lord told Moses and Aaron, “You shall address the rock [or, speak concerning the rock] before them, and it will give forth its waters” (v. 8). Moses and Aaron then turned to the Children of Israel and said, “Listen here, you rebels, shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?” Then Moses raised his hand with the staff in his hand he smote the rock twice and the water came out.
The punishment ordained for Moses and Aaron was severe: “Because you did not have sufficient faith to sanctify My Name before the Children of Israel, therefore you will not enter the Promised Land but will die on this side of the Jordan” (v. 12).
What was their sin? The biblical text is unclear, and many interpretations have proposed by commentators both ancient and modern. Rashi offers the most popular explanation: Moses was commanded to talk to the rock, and he hit it instead. However, Nahmanides is unhappy with this interpretation because everything Moses did during his ministry was performed by the striking of the staff. Besides, as we indicated above, Moses and Aaron were not commanded to speak to the rock, but about it. Maimonides maintains that the sin of Moses and Aaron was their anger. They lost their temper when they said, “Listen here, you rebels.” Nahmanides, however, criticizes this interpretation as well because, first, Moses was right in expressing his anger, and second, there are other occasions when Moses appeared to lose his temper and he was not reproached. Nahmanides therefore follows the interpretation of Rabbenu Ĥananel and maintains that the sin of Moses and Aaronwas to use the first person, “Shall we bring forth water,” rather than, “Shall He (the Lord) bring forth water.”
My own interpretation, which I respectfully submit to you, is an expansion and modification of that offered by Abarbanel and certain modern exegetes: The misdeed of Moses and Aaron was that of weakness. The first reaction of Moses and Aaron when they heard the rebellious plaints of the Children of Israel was not the immediate response of challenge, but of fear and retreat.
Moses and Aaron retreated from before the congregation to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and there they fell on their faces. When they should have stood up, they fell back.
More precisely, I believe we can pinpoint the sin of Moses in the second strike of the staff. Permit me to explain.
Moses and Aaron started to assert themselves when they confronted the Children of Israel and said, “Listen here, you rebels.” However, they kept themselves back. They restrained their response. Now psychologists, especially psychoanalysts, have taught us that inhibited aggression is usually directed against the self or against inanimate objects. If I am angry at someone and secretly wish to harm him I will stamp my foot or slap my thigh.
Now, the first time that Moses struck the rock was understandable. Everything he did, from splitting the Red Sea to bringing forth water, was performed with a strike by the staff. However, the second time he hit the rock, it was an act which expressed misplaced hostility, originally felt toward the Israelites, now redirected towards the rock.
Why was that wrong? What should he have done? Simply this: He should have expressed his anger directly to the Israelites, rather than the inanimate rock. Crudely put, he should have wielded the staff not on an innocent rock, but on the heads of this ungrateful and recalcitrant people who, after thirty-eight years in the desert, still proved that they were immature slaves, still whining, “Why did you take us out of Egypt?” One could expect this from a generation that was born in slavery and still primitive and immature – not from a generation born in freedom in the wild desert.
Moses and Aaron should not have fled, not have feared, not have conceded, not have compromised, not have taken it out hysterically on a rock. They should have encountered the Israelites with force and indignation.
In other words, Moses and Aaron were taught – and through them, we are taught – that weakness in a leader can be a fatal flaw.
Jewish leaders have always been commanded to be tender and loving. Moses and David are, in our tradition, the archetypes of gracious leadership. Both were taken from the sheepfold to become the shepherds of Israel. Just as a shepherd must learn to look after every stray lamb, to pick it up tenderly and hold it close to his breast, so must the leader of our people be a shepherd to human charges. But not always! There are times that strength and power and courage and resistance are called for in a leader. So, the first King of Israel, Saul, was deposed because he was too merciful, too compassionate, too soft, towards Amalek, where he should have been firm and strong. The Talmud (Ketubot 103b) tells us about the death of Rabbi Judah the Prince, who was both the most eminent scholar of his generation and the nasi, the political leader of all of Israel. On his deathbed, his children came in to bid him farewell. Rabban Gamliel, his son, entered, and his father transmitted to him the orders of leadership, telling him how to conduct himself as his successor. And he said to him, “My son, conduct your presidency with strength.” Lead from on high, with dignity and power and pride.
Leadership is not meant for diffident weaklings. A leader must often act against the masses. A leader need not necessarily be a “consensus president.” He must be at the head of his people and sometimes demand of them, reproach them, rebuke them. That vox populi vox dei, that the voice of the people is the voice of God – is not a Jewish idea!
The Torah teaches us something of historic importance in recording the punishment meted out to Moses because of that second strike. Weakness is a fatal flaw in Jewish leadership. Sometimes you think you are being good when you are really doing evil. You think you are helping, and you are destroying. You submit to momentary compassion, and in the process you lose the Promised Land.
A Jewish leader must be gentle but must also be strong. He must be considerate but must know how to use power. Power, of course, can corrupt. But the attainment of a good life requires the benevolent use of power. Without it, we are in contempt of emuna (faith) and we have failed to perform kedushat Hashem (the sanctification of God’s Name).
When we do use power benevolently, then it becomes a source of blessing: “Blessed are You, O Lord, ozer Yisrael bigvrura (who girds Israel with strength).”
And blessed is Israel when it responds with its own strength.
*June 24, 1972