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Parshat Chukat: Punishment Fitting the Crime?

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text – Bamidbar, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers

Unlocking the Torah Text Bamidbar Cover


Immediately following the death of Miriam, the nation rises in complaint against Moshe and Aharon due to a lack of water. When Moshe and Aharon turn to God at the entrance of the Sanctuary, God instructs Moshe: “Take the staff and gather together the assembly – you and Aharon, your brother – and speak to the rock before their eyes and it will give forth its waters. And you shall bring forth water from the rock and you shall give drink to the assembly and to their animals.”

Moshe takes his staff, gathers the people facing the rock and says to them, “Listen now, rebellious ones, from this rock shall we bring forth water for you?”

Raising his arm, Moshe then strikes the rock with his staff twice, and abundant water pours forth, providing for the people and for their livestock.

God turns to Moshe and Aharon and proclaims, “Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the land that I have given them.”

The Torah concludes this tragic event with the statement “These are mei meriva, the waters of strife, where the children of Israel contended with God, and He was sanctified through them.”

On three other occasions in the text, God explicitly identifies the events at Mei Meriva as the source of His refusal to allow Moshe and Aharon to enter the land of Canaan.


A number of years ago, on one of my synagogue’s numerous missions to Israel, we traveled to locations in Jordan, as well. Among the sites we visited was the mountain believed to be Har Nevo, the peak from which Moshe viewed the land of Canaan from afar, and upon which he died.

Like so many of us, I have long been troubled by God’s refusal to allow Moshe to enter the land of Canaan. As I stood alone, however, on that windy summit in Jordan, looking out, as once did Moshe, on a view that spans from the Dead Sea to the Galilee, I was struck as never before by the ultimate tragedy that marked Moshe’s life.

This humble, reluctant leader – pressed into service by divine command, pushed to the limit repeatedly by his backsliding flock, ever the defender of the nation before God – manages to lead his people successfully to the very border of their Promised Land. Yet, apparently because of a misstep at the scene of the waters of strife, he is denied the opportunity to enter that land himself. He leads the people to the realization of their dreams, but is denied the realization of his own.

Why does Moshe deserve this fate?

What specific sin does Moshe commit at the scene of Mei Meriva that is beyond forgiveness? And why, in addition, is Aharon punished simply for being a bystander?

In what way do the actions of these great leaders indicate a “lack of belief in God” and a “failure to sanctify Him”?


Some scholars, upon careful review of the narrative, cannot find any action taken by Moshe and Aharon at Mei Meriva that merits the severe punishment they receive. Disputing the overwhelming evidence of the text, therefore, these authorities claim that the guilt of Moshe and Aharon actually emerges from other, more powerful sources.

The Abravanel, for example, maintains that Aharon’s sin lay in his involvement in the fashioning of the golden calf, while Moshe’s transgression consisted of expanding the mandate given to the spies prior to their entry into the land of Canaan. The actions of these great leaders were well-intentioned, the Abravanel argues, and yet in each case they inadvertently contributed to the national disasters that ensued. God therefore balances His responses carefully. To protect Moshe and Aharon’s reputation, He does not punish them immediately, together with those guilty of intentional rebellion. He instead waits for them to commit an intentional sin, however minor, and then punishes them for their original transgressions. When Moshe deviates from God’s commandment and strikes the rock, God seizes the opportunity to exact retribution upon these leaders for their previous, more substantial failings.

The vast majority of commentaries, however, find the clear testimony of the text incontrovertible. As noted above, God explicitly and repeatedly identifies the events at Mei Meriva as the source of His refusal to allow Moshe and Aharon to enter the land of Canaan.

Rashi reflects the position of these authorities when, commenting on the sentence “Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the land that I have given them,” he adamantly argues, “The text openly reveals that had it not been for this sin alone, they [Moshe and Aharon] would have entered the land.”

Clearly, something specific happens at Mei Meriva to seal the fate of these great leaders. The question, however, is what?

The rabbinic search for an answer gives rise to one of the most heated debates in biblical interpretation to this day.

Building upon an earlier Midrashic source, Rashi chooses the most obvious explanation for Moshe’s sin. Moshe is punished for his failure to obey God’s explicit commandment. Commanded by God to speak to the rock, Moshe instead strikes the rock twice. This deviation from God’s instructions, although perhaps mitigated by circumstances, diminishes the sanctification of God’s name.

Had water rushed forth as a result of Moshe’s verbal command, the people would have concluded: If this rock, which neither speaks, hears, nor requires sustenance, fulfills the word of the Lord, how much more then should we!

Because Moshe does not follow God’s commandment to the letter, the Israelites lose an opportunity to glean a lesson critical to their developing relationship with God. Moshe thus fails to sanctify God’s name and loses his right to enter the land of Canaan.

While agreeing with Rashi’s contention that Moshe’s failure lies in striking rather than speaking to the rock, numerous other commentaries offer alternative insights into the significance of that failure.

The Rashbam, for example, defends Moshe’s misstep as resulting from a logical misunderstanding of God’s intent. Because God specifically instructs him to “take the staff,” Moshe assumes that he is meant to strike the rock, as he had been commanded to do under similar circumstances, years earlier, at Refidim.10 Despite the inadvertent nature of Moshe’s actions, God nevertheless punishes him severely because, as the Talmud notes, “God is exacting with those nearest to Him to the point of a hair’s breadth.”

The Sforno, for his part, relates the problem raised by Moshe’s striking of the rock to the essential character of divine miracles. All supernatural events recorded in the text, this scholar claims, can be divided into three categories, in increasing order of intensity:

1. Hidden miracles, performed by God through natural means.
2. Open miracles that can occur naturally but only through powerful forces and over a long period of time.
3. Open miracles that cannot occur at all through natural means.

The full extent of God’s power, the Sforno explains, is demonstrated only through miracles from the third, highest category. Such events also attest to the worthiness of the earthly messenger through whose agency the wonder is performed.

In response to the complaints of the Israelites, God decides to demonstrate His own full power to the people and to reestablish Moshe’s credentials with them. He therefore commands Moshe specifically to perform a miracle that cannot occur through natural means: “Speak to the rock before their eyes and it will give forth its waters.”

Moshe, however, has his doubts.

Unable to believe that God would perform a miracle at the highest level on behalf of the rebellious Israelites, Moshe consciously deviates from God’s commandment and strikes the rock, splitting it in a manner that can occur through natural forces, over time. By deliberately lowering the caliber of the miracle performed at Mei Meriva, Moshe thus fails to sanctify God’s name to the fullest possible extent.

In his ethical work Shmoneh Prakim, the Rambam breaks from Rashi completely, choosing an entirely different interpretive path to Moshe’s sin at Mei Meriva. In the midst of a lengthy discussion encouraging a golden mean of personal conduct, the Rambam cites Moshe’s actions at the scene of Mei Meriva as proof of the dangers of immoderate behavior: “Moshe’s entire sin lay in erring on the side of anger and deviating from the mean of patience.”

This anger, the Rambam claims, is clearly evidenced in Moshe’s declaration: “Listen now, rebellious ones, from this rock shall we bring forth water for you?”

Unwarranted anger, in and of itself, is considered sinful. Moshe’s public rage at Mei Meriva, however, constitutes an even more dangerous failing in God’s eyes. Not only does Moshe set a dangerous example for the entire people, but he also potentially causes the nation to erroneously conclude that God is “enraged” by their complaints. There is, in fact, no indication in the text of such divine wrath. While God is indeed “angered” on a number of other occasions by the people’s groundless complaints, at Mei Meriva, the Israelites, suffering from thirst, are justified in their protests.

The Ramban strongly disagrees. In a lengthy exposition, this scholar disputes the approaches of Rashi, the Rambam and others to Moshe’s sin. Concerning Rashi’s suggestion that Moshe is punished for striking rather than speaking to the rock, the Ramban insists that God would not have commanded Moshe to “take the staff” had He not intended him to strike the rock. The Ramban also harshly rebuts the Rambam’s interpretation on a number of counts, pointing out, most fundamentally, that God never chastises Moshe for anger, and that, in fact, God Himself must have been angered by the Israelites’ bitter complaints.

The Ramban therefore quotes Rabbeinu Chananel in offering an entirely different perspective on the events at Mei Meriva. Moshe and Aharon’s failings are reflected not in the first half of the passage quoted by the Rambam, but in its second half: “Listen now, rebellious ones, from this rock shall we bring forth water for you?”

The problem is at once clear and startling. In place of stating, “Shall God bring forth water?” Moshe instead proclaims, “Shall we bring forth water?” Moshe and Aharon’s public assumption of credit for the miracle, although obviously inadvertent, cannot go unanswered. Absent a strong response from God, the nation might erroneously conclude that Moshe and Aharon had produced the water on their own, through magical powers. Such an interpretation would undermine the very tenets of belief in divine authority that these leaders themselves had worked so hard to instill in the nation.

God’s accusation, “Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel…,” can, the Ramban explains, be interpreted to mean: You failed to instill belief in Me in the people’s hearts. Even further, through your incautious words, you undermined My sanctity in their eyes.

The Ramban concludes his remarks concerning the events at Mei Meriva by acknowledging the limitations of rational explanation for what is “one of the great mysteries of the Torah” and by offering an additional kabbalistic interpretation for the episode, which remains outside the scope of our discussion.

Moving in yet another, totally different direction, the Ibn Ezra maintains that the sin of Moshe and Aharon lies in their initial undignified reaction to the people’s complaints. Instead of demonstrating confidence in God’s ability to provide for the people, these great leaders approach the Sanctuary “as fugitives,” fleeing before the nation’s threats.

Centuries later, Rabbi Joseph Albo elaborates on the Ibn Ezra’s approach by arguing that Moshe and Aharon should have directly asked God to perform a specific supernatural act in response to the people’s complaints. “The failure of a prophet to perform miracles,” Albo explains, “is liable to make people doubt the truth of the text that the Lord estab-lishes the words of his servants.”

God therefore accuses these great leaders of a “failure of belief.” In their humility, Moshe and Aharon do not trust that God will respond to their direct request for miraculous intervention.

Many years ago, Rabbi Harold Kanatopsky, a brilliant teacher and orator who served as rabbi of my community during my teenage years, offered a new, innovative approach to the events at Mei Meriva. So profoundly did this approach impress me that I have not only remembered it and quoted it over the years, but I have also added some thoughts of my own. I can no longer remember where Rabbi Kanatopsky’s ideas end and mine begin, but the foundation of this approach is certainly his.

To understand the events at Mei Meriva, we first must add to the puzzle.

As the Rashbam notes (see above), this is not the first time that Moshe finds himself in the circumstances presented at Mei Meriva. An almost parallel event occurs earlier in Moshe’s career. Shortly after the Exodus, at a location known as Refidim, the Israelites find themselves without water and converge in complaint against Moshe. On that occasion God distinctly commands Moshe: “And you shall strike the rock and water will issue forth from it and the people will drink.”

This seems to make our questions concerning the events at Mei Meriva even more troubling. How can Moshe be blamed, as Rashi and so many others claim, for striking the rock at Mei Meriva when that was exactly what he was told to do – with success – on a previous occasion? Even more importantly, why does God command Moshe at Refidim to strike the rock and at Mei Meriva to speak to the rock? Given the similarity between these two parallel episodes, why does God change His instructions in such seemingly arbitrary ways?

Upon consideration, there is one powerful variable between the episodes at Refidim and Mei Meriva: the Israelites themselves.

At Refidim, Moshe and Aharon are confronted by the generation of the Exodus. At Mei Meriva, forty years later, they are confronted by the wilderness generation.

As we have noted (see Korach 6, Approaches B; Points to Ponder; Chukat 2, Approaches D), the transition between these two generations marks a major paradigm shift in God’s relationship with His people. Over a forty-year period, the nation moves from the relational level of yira, fear and awe, to the level of ahava, love.

The erstwhile slaves who comprised the generation of the Exodus and Revelation were able to relate to God only on the primitive plane of fear. Shaped by their decades under the taskmaster’s whip, they responded to brute force and power. God, therefore, commanded Moshe at Refidim to speak to this generation in a language that they could understand. Strike the rock, He commanded, and let the Israelites recognize the power of their new heavenly master.

Forty years later, at Mei Meriva, a new generation has emerged that has not known slavery on an adult level. Nurtured under God’s watchful care, this generation has learned to relate to their Creator through the more mature dimension of ahava.

God therefore commands Moshe: Take the staff. Show the people that you can use it, but that you deliberately will not. Instead, speak to the rock and, in doing so, “speak” to the people. Demonstrate to them, at this critical moment, that the power of love is infinitely stronger than the power of brute force. Through love, I will provide for them now; through love, we will relate to each other across the pages of time.

Moshe, however, slips….

Confronted again by the bitter complaints of the Israelites, he flashes back to Refidim. He sees before him not the Israelites of the day, but their parents and grandparents of yesteryear. Nothing has changed, he concludes. These people still understand only the power of the staff.

And in that one fell instant, as Moshe lifts his staff to strike the rock, he fails to transition with his people from one generation to the next, from one relational level to another. This failure seals his fate. He and Aharon (who makes no move to stop his brother) will remain forever part of their generation, consigned to perish in the desert without entry into the land.

Far from a minor misstep, Moshe’s actions at Mei Meriva emerge as a fundamental failure of leadership. This greatest of leaders remains rooted in the past, unable to respond to the internal changes that have transformed his people. God’s seemingly drastic response to Moshe’s failure at Mei Meriva now becomes understandable. Sadly, Moshe’s time has come and gone. A new leader must now emerge – a leader who will be able to transition with the next generation in its march towards a glorious future.