Parashat Chukkat presents the story of Mei Meriva – where the Am Yisrael complained to Moshe that they had no water and were on the verge of dying of thirst and expressed a preference for having remained in Egypt. Moshe and Aharon turned to God for salvation, and He instructed them to speak to a certain rock which would then bring forth water. Moshe struck the rock twice and water gushed out. However, God was dissatisfied with Moshe’s actions, presumably because he hit the rock rather than speaking to it.
These are the pesukim (verses) which immediately follow Moshe’s striking the rock and the water gushing out:
The Lord said to Moshe and Aharon, “Since you did not have faith in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the Land which I have given them.” These are the waters of dispute (Mei Meriva) where the Children of Israel contended with the Lord, and He was sanctified through them. [Bamidbar 20:12-13]
God’s punishment of Moshe and Aharon was denying them the privilege of entering Eretz Yisrael, “Since you did not have faith in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel.”
Our classical commentators have delved into this reason, but we shall focus on one central point and an additional point which branches off the central point –
One, why was Moshe and Aharon’s punishment specifically being denied entry into Eretz Yisrael? This seems too severe a punishment for two great tzadikim who devoted their lives to bring Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel) from the impurity of Egypt to the Land desired by our Fathers.
Two, the secondary question concerns the wording of the posuk: “You shall not bring this assembly to the Land which I have given them.” God told Moshe that he and Aharon would not bring Israel into the Land. The question which begs asking is: if the punishment is barring Moshe and Aharon from entering Eretz Yisrael, why was it not worded “You shall not enter the Land?”
Rambam’s Explanation of Moshe Rabbeinu’s Sin
In his introduction to Avot, Rambam analyzes the depth of the sin of Moshe, the great leader of Am Yisrael. Rambam first deals with the proper way to rectify one’s qualities (tikkun hamidot), asserting that the starting point is following the golden mean, the middle path. Based upon this fundamental concept, Rambam explains Moshe’s sin:
God said to the master of the early generations and the later ones, Moshe Rabbeinu, “Since you did not have faith in Me” and “Because you defied My word” [ibid. v. 24] and “Because you did not sanctify Me” [Devarim 32:51]. Moshe’s sin was leaning towards one extreme of the quality of patience, when he was inclined towards anger, as he said “Now listen, you rebels” [Bamidbar 20:10] God was strict with him, for a man of his stature should not have been angry at the community of Israel, when such anger was unwarranted. For a person of Moshe’s stature, inclination to anger constituted a desecration of God’s name, since all of his deeds and words should serve as models (for the entire nation) and should engender success in this world and the world to come. How can he have demonstrated anger, which is an evil trait, as we have explained, which emanates from a wicked quality of the soul. [Sh’mona P’rakim, 4]
In Rambam’s analysis, the essential aspect of Moshe’s sin was his departure from the middle path and going to an extreme. Moshe should have remained patient instead of giving in to the trait of anger.
Of course, we must understand that everything is relative to Moshe’s lofty level. Moshe Rabbeinu’s expression of anger might be appropriate for an ordinary person, but on his level it constituted leaning towards an evil quality.
We may note that Rambam chose his words carefully; he did not write that Moshe expressed anger, but that he was inclined towards anger. It was for this inclination that God punished Moshe.
The Depth of the Sin and Its Punishment – Rabbi Kook’s Exposition
Rabbi Avraham Yitzḥak Kook zt”l wrote:
The secret of the sin of hitting the rock is in the inclination which developed in the greatest mind, in the most luminous yearning soul (Moshe), who longed to forcefully realize perfection. This necessarily involved his individual personality, which is unavoidable for any creature. This mild inclination in the soul of every spiritual being had widespread influence, and instead of speaking to the rock, Moshe struck it, attempting to achieve spiritual ascendance on behalf of the nation. But this powerful characteristic had to be concealed. Those who hit the rock were replaced. Moshe died and Yehoshua led Israel into the Land. The national administration could no longer be immoderate and the aggressive approach had to be abandoned. The moon (Yehoshua) does not have the same brilliance as the sun (Moshe); it allows for numerous stars to be seen, as well as candle light in every corner.
Rabbi Kook relates to the sin of hitting the rock as part of the transition of leadership between Eretz Yisrael and abroad. Moshe is compared to the sun, while his disciple Yehoshua, who will lead the nation into the Land, is compared to the moon.
The sun, as a source of tremendous energy, is an apt metaphor for Moshe’s unique spiritual powers. Bringing water forth from the rock demonstrates this quality of Moshe – hitting the rock to bring out water is an aspect of Moshe’s power to bend reality to his needs. Likely, this ability is also an expression of deviance from Rambam’s golden mean, and the inclination towards anger.
Rabbi Kook explains that departure from the middle path decidedly involves shortcomings, but it is necessary in certain situations, such as leadership outside the Land; while in the Land it is an inappropriate form of leadership.
The proper leadership within the Land is represented by the moon, the moderated leadership, which gives expression to a wide variety of strengths without negating its surroundings. Unlike the sun, which blocks the light of the stars, when the moon shines at night, the light of a vast number of stars is visible. The metaphor is that Eretz Yisrael is the moderated Land, uniquely suited for the confluence of spiritual and temporal aspects. Thus, leadership which is not moderated is not suitable for the Land.
Thus, we can explain Moshe’s sin and answer our first question: Moshe’s powerful and vigorous leadership guided Israel out of Egypt, to receive Torah at Mount Sinai, but upon entering Eretz Yisrael, the nation required a different type of leadership. Moshe’s striking the rock at Mei Meriva was an expression of his type of leadership, which was not suitable for the Land. It was not necessarily the severity of the sin, but its nature, the fact that it is not appropriate for Eretz Yisrael, which prevented Moshe’s entry into the Land. Indeed, the previous time water was lacking in the wilderness, Moshe was commanded to strike the rock [Sh’mot 17:5] since this was appropriate for the Children of Israel in the wilderness.
Our second question, why the Torah does not state simply that Moshe and Aharon will not enter the Land, is effectively answered by what we have explained above. The reason Moshe did not lead Israel into Eretz Yisrael is not that he was unworthy due to his sin, but rather, had Moshe entered the Land, he no doubt would have remained the leader, while the Israelites required a different form of leadership within Eretz Yisrael; therefore Moshe was prevented from entering the Land. It was not in punishment, but a consequence – since “therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the Land which I have given them,” you (Moshe and Aharon) will not be able to enter the Land.
As a result of the sin of Mei Meriva, God decreed that Moshe and Aharon would not be allowed to enter Eretz Yisrael.
We raised two questions:
One, why was the punishment so severe?
Two, why was the punishment phrased in a round-about manner?
We explained that the reason Moshe and Aharon were prevented from entering the Land was not the severity of the sin, but the fact that Am Yisrael required a different form of leadership in the Land than they had in the wilderness. This approach answered the second question as well – the Divine decree was worded “therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the Land which I have given them,” because the leadership of Moshe and Aharon was not suited to Eretz Yisrael.