Remember that feeling of "it's just not fair" after the first time you read the story of Mei Meriva? Whatever it may have been that Moshe did wrong - his punishment seems much too harsh.
In this week's shiur, we attempt to tackle this complicated "sugya" by viewing it from a broader perspective.
Although we are most familiar with Rashi's explanation of Moshe's sin - that he hits the rock instead of talking to it - other commentators offer numerous different opinions. For example:
Rambam argues that Moshe 'loses his temper' and speaks harshly.
Ramban (quoting Rabeinu Chananel) explains that Moshe's sin lies in his comments prior to hitting the rock. Instead of saying: "can God get water from this rock?" he says: "can we get water from this rock?" [thus suggesting that he and Aharon, not God, draw the water].
To better understand why there are so many different opinions, the first part of this week's shiur carefully analyzes the key psukim of this narrative. Then, by considering earlier events recorded in Sefer Bamidbar, we will ['join the club' and] offer an interpretation of our own.
To understand why there are so many opinions, we must begin with the Torah's own description of their sin:
"...because you did not trust Me enough to sanctify Me in the eyes of Bnei Yisrael, therefore you will not lead Bnei Yisrael into the land...." (see 20:12)This pasuk indicates that Moshe and Aharon could have done something great ["...to sanctify Me in the eyes of Bnei Yisrael"], but failed to do so. However, the Torah never tells us precisely what they did wrong.
Therefore, somewhere within the Mei Meriva incident there lies a flaw. But since it is so difficult to pinpoint that flaw, we find such a wide range of opinions.
So let's do on our own what (most likely) all of the commentators did on their own before they wrote their commentaries. Let's carefully compare what God's commands Moshe to do with what Moshe actually does! That would be the most logical way to figure out wherein lies his mistake.
[In other words, we must take 20:8 and compare it to 20:9-11. I highly recommend that you first attempt to do this on your own before continuing. (See study questions!)]
God's instructions to Moshe at Mei Meriva seem clear and straightforward:
"And God spoke to Moshe saying: take the staff, and gather the congregation together, you and Aharon your brother, and speak to the rock before their eyes that it should give water, and take out for them water from the rock, and give drink to the people and their animals." (20:7-8)Reread these psukim one more time, paying specific attention to the five commands that Moshe (and Aharon) must execute. (See Board #1.)
Now, to determine Moshe's sin, we must simply examine the following psukim (i.e. 20:9-12) in search for any deviation on Moshe's part. [As we do this, we will find the source for each of the aforementioned opinions in the rishonim.]
Command #1 - "Take the staff" (20:8)
"And Moshe took the staff from before the Lord, as God had commanded him..." (20:9)Nothing seems to be wrong here, and the pasuk even confirms: "as God commanded him." Certainly, this could not involve any wrongdoing. (See Board #2.) [We will return to this pasuk later in the shiur.]
"And Moshe and Aharon gathered the 'kahal' (congregation) together in front of the rock..." (20:10)Here, too, no crime appears to have been committed. [There is a slight discrepancy between "kahal" and "eydah," but these two words may simply be synonymous. (See
"...And he [Moshe] said to them: Listen here you rebellious people, is it possible that we can take water from this rock?" (20:10)At first glance, it seems that here we 'hit the jackpot!' God commands Moshe to speak to the rock, and he never does.
Based on this discrepancy, Rashi claims that Moshe is punished for later hitting the rock instead of speaking.
Rambam and Ramban disagree. They focus instead on Moshe and Aharon's sharp words of rebuke, which they administer on their own accord, without a divine command. However, whereas Rambam stresses the tone of this rebuke, Ramban sees its content as the basis of their sin.
Rambam claims that Moshe's sharp censure - "listen you rebels..." - reflects an inappropriately angry tone that caused a "chillul Hashem" (a desecration of God's Name). [See Rambam in "shmoneh perakim," quoted by Ramban in his pirush to 20:7.] (See Board #4.)
Ramban claims that by saying 'we' in their rhetorical question - "is it possible that we can take out water from this rock?" - Moshe and Aharon lead the people to believe that it was they (and not God) who produced the water from the rock. [See Ramban 20:7 in name of Rabbeinu Chananel.] (See Board #5.)
One may argue, however, that Moshe's rebuke is indeed warranted. He may have understood God's command to "speak to the rock" as "speak about the rock," i.e. about the possibility that it could "give water" ("v'natan meimav"). After all, rocks don't have ears, but people do! Doesn't it stand to reason that God wants Moshe to speak to the people about the rock, rather than to the rock itself?! (See Ramban's refutation of Rashi.) [Later in the shiur we will return to this possibility.]
"... and Moshe lifted his hand and hit the rock with his staff two times, then much water came out..." (20:11)Rashi, as we mentioned above, identifies this pasuk as Moshe's primary transgression: he hits the rock instead of 'talking' to it. (See Board #6.) However, based on our explanation above, God may have actually expected Moshe to hit the rock. After all, this is exactly how God had instructed him to produce water from the 'rock at Chorev' many years earlier (see Shmot 17:6). Moshe is commanded to take out water from the rock - why shouldn't he assume that this was to be accomplished by hitting? [Additionally, why else did God tell him to take the staff?] (Again, see Ramban's refutation of Rashi.)
Furthermore, once Moshe understands that 'speak to the rock' means 'speak about the rock,' then obviously "take out water" must refer to an action that would extract water - i.e. to hit the rock! Certainly, this would be no less of a miracle now than it was forty years earlier!
Ibn Ezra, after refuting all the other opinions, finds Moshe's flaw in a tiny detail in this pasuk. He focuses on the word "pa'amayim" (= two times), claiming that Moshe transgresses by hitting the rock twice instead of only once. [It seems that according to Ibn Ezra, this reason 'wins by default.'] (See Board #7.)
"...and the people and their animals drank." (20:11)Clearly, Moshe does nothing wrong in this final stage. (See Board #8.)
In any event, no matter how we explain Moshe's sin, the more basic question (raised in our introduction) remains - i.e. why is his punishment so severe? We will attempt to answer this question in Part Two of our shiur.