Lessons from the Rock

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

While it can be difficult to ever truly identify one moment in a parsha as the defining moment, one is hard pressed to argue that the punishment handed out to Moshe and Aharon does not occupy a unique place in Parshas Chukas. The entire incident regarding the rock, the hitting, the water emerging, and the change in the destiny of the Jewish people occurs in a few quick verses. And the parting message taught to us is, in fact, quite vague. What are we to take from the story beyond the “premature” deaths of Moshe and Aharon? As we will see, the commentaries hone in on the end of the story to demonstrate the different ideas to be gleaned from this incident. 

We are all familiar with the incident at Mei Merivah, where the decree was issued from God that Moshe and Aharon would not enter the Land of Israel. After the death of Miriam, and the subsequent loss of the well that accompanied them throughout the desert, the Jewish people complain that they have no water. God instructs Moshe and Aharon to speak to the rock in front of the entire nation, and water will then emerge. The Torah then tells us (Bamidbar 20:10-11):

“And Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said unto them: 'Hear now, ye rebels; are we to bring you forth water out of this rock?' And Moses lifted up his hand, and smote the rock with his rod twice; and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their cattle.”

God then speaks to Moshe and Aharon (ibid 12-13):

“And the LORD said unto Moses and Aaron: 'Because ye believed not in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.'  These are the waters of Meribah, where the children of Israel strove with the LORD, and He was sanctified in them (va’yekadesh bam). ”

The final term highlighted above is quite obscure – what is “them” referring to? Rashi, the Ibn Ezra and the Ramban offer competing opinions as to the intent of this description. 

Rashi tell us (ibid 13, based on Zevachim 115b):

”For Moses and Aaron died because of them. When God judges His holy ones, He is feared and sanctified by mankind. Similarly, it says, “You are awesome, O God, because of Your holy ones” (Ps. 68:36). And likewise it says, “I am sanctified by those close to Me” (Lev. 10:3).”

Essentially, Rashi is explaining that God enforcing judgments specifically on those who are sanctified, meaning tzadikim, results in a greater reverence by mankind. 

The Ibn Ezra (ibid) essentially takes the same approach as Rashi, with one small twist. Rather than the word “them” referring to the waters, the Ibn Ezra maintains that it actually refers to Moshe and Aharon. 

The Ramban challenges Rashi’s (and the Ibn Ezra’s) interpretation, questioning Rashi’s implied assumption that the nation was aware of the punishment leveled by God on Moshe and Aharon. Instead, he offers an entirely different take on this description. The purpose here is to differentiate between this incident of rock-producing-water and the first time this occurred, back in Parshas Beshalach. In the first incident, the people “quarreled with Moshe,” and challenged him. As a result, the miracle was performed only in the presence of the zekeinim, the elders, rather than in front of the entire nation. However, in this incident, the attack was not against Moshe. Instead, it was directed against God, and therefore, according to the Ramban, the miracle was performed in front of the entire nation.

There clearly is a significant debate between these three different opinions. Whereas Rashi and the Ibn Ezra see the central point of the incident with the rock being the punishment leveled out to Moshe and Aharon, the Ramban sees the need to distinguish between the two “rock episodes”. 

In such a debate, it is imperative to establish the basic approach employed, and then develop the particulars of each opinion. In this case, Rashi and the Ibn Ezra seem to line up on one side, agreeing about the central focus of the story, whereas the Ramban sees the main point as being the distinction between the two stories. What is the nature of their debate? The entire objective of this incident was to sanctify God, mekadesh Hashem, with Moshe and Aharon as the messengers entrusted to bring this about. When analyzing the idea of kiddush Hashem, one can see two parts. There is the process of bringing the sanctification about (speaking to the rock) and then there is the result (water coming from the rock). In this instance, there was a defect in the process, in that Moshe hit the rock, rather than spoke to it. As such, according to Rashi/Ibn Ezra, the Kiddush Hashem was unable to be completed – there was a defect. However, according to the Ramban, while it may be true there was a lack in the process, the overall impact of the miracle was still present. Whether the rock was spoken to or hit does not change the incredible miracle that resulted. Looking at this in terms of the effect, the kiddush Hashem was complete. 

With this basic approach, we can move ahead with understanding the particulars of each opinion. Let’s begin with the Ramban. As we mentioned, he focuses on the distinction between the two rock incidents. He writes that in Parshas Beshalach, the complaint of the Jewish people was directed against Moshe Rabbeinu, a challenge of sorts (see the Ramban there for more insight into the nature of their complaint). As a result, God directs Moshe and the elders to a secluded location to bring about the miracle of the water emerging from the rock. Why not do this in front of the entire nation? The complaint of the people was an attack on Moshe’s leadership. It was therefore imperative to demonstrate to the people that Moshe was indeed the unique shaliach, or messenger, of God for the Jewish people. On the one hand, this exclusive role needed to be emphasized; therefore, Moshe had to be an integral part of its coming about. On the other hand, had Moshe been the only one involved in the miracle, accomplishing the task in a secretive manner, the wrong impression would emerge that the power emanated from him, and not God. Therefore, Moshe was accompanied by the elders, witnesses to the entire event. However, the second episode of the rock involved a complaint against God. It was essential the miracle be done in front of the entire nation, a clear rebuke to their complaints. These two events needed to be clearly defined and distinguished, as each story teaches completely dissimilar ideas. Thus, according to the Ramban, the Torah creates a clear distinction between the two events.

This brings us to the more complex position of Rashi and the Ibn Ezra, who both maintain the punishment meted out to Moshe and Aharon is the essential idea here. As we mentioned above, it seems the kiddush Hashem was incomplete due to the change from speaking to the rock to hitting the rock. The main concept surrounding sanctifying God is emphasizing how God is unique and distinct from all created beings. This is manifested in two manners. The first is through God’s control over nature – miracles being a prime example. And the second is through God’s system of Objective Justice, s’char v’onesh. According to Rashi and the Ibn Ezra, there was a defect in the miracle’s objective of kiddush Hashem in our case, a result of the actions of Moshe and Aharon. The judgment proffered by God against them was one in line with Objective Justice, as without a doubt, any melech basar v’dam (mortal king) would surely give them both a pass. When it is patently evident that God is operating in a purely objective manner, removing any concept of “playing favorites”, a kiddush Hashem emerges. At this moment, with the meting out of the punishment, the sanctifying of God through His system of justice was clear. This brings us to the debate between Rashi and the Ibn Ezra. According to Rashi, the defect in the sanctification of God through the miracle was rectified with the sanctification of God through schar v’onesh. In a sense, the two “combined” together to produce a complete kiddush Hashem. Therefore, the emphasis had to be on the “waters”, as the entire incident brought about this complete sanctification. The Ibn Ezra, however, seems to maintain that once the kiddush Hashem was defective, it could not be “repaired”. The miracle was still a reality, but it could never produce its true intended effect. It was then replaced by the sanctification via ‘schar v’onesh. The focus of this entire episode becomes the kiddush Hashem that emerged through the punishment handed to Moshe and Aharon. In essence, the debate between Rashi and the Ibn Ezra deals with whether there can be an incomplete sanctification of God. According to Rashi, the situation can be modified and resolved, whereas according to the Ibn Ezra, it must be replaced entirely.

With this said, we can now see some of the “take home” concepts to which the Torah directs us. According to the Ramban, we see clearly how the audience present for a miracle can produce two completely distinct ideas. And according to Rashi and the Ibn Ezra, we are made aware of deeper insights into how the sanctification of God was to emerge through this episode. While it is crucial to focus on the punishments given to Moshe and Aharon, we must also realize the important lessons that emerged from this pivotal moment in history.