Part II -
Did Moshe Do Anything Wrong?

From the above analysis, a very interesting possibility arises. If we combine all the arguments posed by each commentary to reject the other interpretations, we might conclude that Moshe does nothing wrong at all! [See the commentaries of Ibn Ezra, Ramban, and Abrabanel on this sugya. Each presents very convincing arguments why the other opinions are wrong.]

In fact, Abrabanel himself raises this possibility before advancing his own opinion (based on Devarim 1:37). He considers the notion that Moshe and Aharon are actually punished for earlier sins - Moshe for Chet HaMergalim and Aharon for Chet Ha'Egel. Mei Meriva, he explains, serves as a kind of 'cover-up' to isolate Moshe and Aharon's wrongdoing from that of the nation.

However, his interpretation contradicts the text's explicit attribution of Moshe's punishment to the incident of Mei Meriva. [See not only here in 20:12-13, but also in 20:24, 27:14 and Devarim 32:51.] Therefore, to look for the primary reason elsewhere would contradict simple "pshat."

But, where else can we look to find Moshe's sin? It must be at the events of Mei Meriva, but when we examined those psukim, we could not pinpoint a 'sin' - certainly not a sin deserving of such a harsh punishment.

Let's Start from the Very Beginning
The answer to this question is actually quite simple. In our study of the Mei Meriva incident thus far, we have overlooked the opening six psukim (i.e. 20:1-6). These verses are generally understood as only the 'background' to Moshe's sin. However, when we examine these psukim more carefully, we will find that they may contain just what we are looking for!

Let's now take a closer look at the opening events at Mei Meriva:

"And Bnei Yisrael arrived at Midbar Tzin... but there was not enough water for the people, and they gathered against Moshe and Aharon. They argued with Moshe saying:
It would had been better had we died with our brethren 'lifnei Hashem' [before God]...
So - why did you bring us to this desert to die?...
and why did you take us out of Egypt to bring us to this terrible place... there are no fruits here and there is no water to drink." (See 20:1-5)
How do Moshe and Aharon respond to these blasphemous complaints? Do they argue? Do they defend God? Do they offer the people encouragement? Let's see how Chumash describes their reaction [or rather lack thereof]:
"And Moshe and Aharon came to the Ohel Moed [in fear] from the congregation, and they fell on their faces..." (20:6)
Is it not precisely in situations such as these when leadership must take a stand? Take for example a very similar incident, when Bnei Yisrael complained for water at Refidim many years earlier (see Shmot 17:1-7). Note Moshe's immediate response:
"Mah trivun iy'madi, mah t'nasun et Hashem? Why are you arguing with me, why are you testing God?" (17:2)
At Refidim, Moshe immediately challenges their complaints and condemns their criticism as a reflection of their lack of faith. Only afterward, when the people continue to complain, does Moshe cry out to God and beg for a solution (see 17:4).

At Mei Meriva Moshe's reaction is quite different. Instead of confronting these complaints, Moshe and Aharon immediately 'run away' to the Ohel Moed in cowardly fashion and 'fall on their faces' (20:6). [Even if this means that they 'dovened,' is this a time for prayer? Compare with Shmot 14:15 and its context!]

Is 'running away' the proper reaction? Should they not have assured the people that God will indeed take care of their needs? Should they not have challenged the people's brazen assertion that "it would have been better had they remained in Egypt?"

One could suggest that already at this early stage in the narrative, Moshe and Aharon fail as national leaders; they do not sanctify God's name when the opportunity arose. In fact, this may be precisely what God intends when He reprimands them:

"Because you did not trust Me enough to sanctify Me in the eyes of Bnei Yisrael..." (20:12)

However, if this interpretation is correct, why do we need the story of 'hitting the rock' (20:7-11) before God's admonishment? Let the Torah first inform us of Moshe's punishment, and then let God provide water for the people. [The simplest answer would be that God must first stem the immediate problem of the 'rebellion' at hand by supplying the people with water, and only afterward returns to 'punish' Moshe and Aharon. However, a closer examination shows that there may be something deeper involved.]

To answer this question, and to understand this entire incident in its broader perspective, we must turn back a few pages to a related event a few chapters earlier.

Whose Staff Is It?
To our surprise, the key to understanding this complicated sugya lies in its connection to Parshat Korach! To appreciate that connection, let's pay careful attention to how the narrative continues (after Moshe and Aharon run away to the Ohel Moed):

"And God spoke to Moshe saying: 'kach et ha'mateh' - take the staff and gather the people..." (see 20:8)
It is commonly assumed that Moshe is to take his own staff, i.e. the very same staff with which he brought the plagues, split the sea and produced water from the rock at Chorev.

However, this cannot be. The pasuk states explicitly:

"And Moshe took the staff milifnei Hashem - from before God, as God had commanded him." (20:9)
In Chumash, "lifnei Hashem" usually refers to in front of the Aron, the Ark of the Covenant located in the holiest domain of the Mishkan (see Shmot 29:11,42; 30:8; etc.). Surely, Moshe would not keep his staff "lifnei Hashem!" Would he use the "kodesh kedoshim" as his personal closet?!

[Note also that God commands Moshe - "kach et ha'mateh" - the staff, not "matecha" - your staff. Contrast with Shmot 14:16 and 17:5.]

If it is not his own staff that Moshe must take, then whose staff is it? Is there someone else who keeps his staff in the "kodesh ha'kedoshim?!"

The answer, as Rashbam so beautifully explains, is quite simple - it is Aharon's special staff!

Recall that God had commanded Moshe to conduct a test between the staffs of the tribal leaders (see 17:16-24), verifying the selection of Levi for the sacred service of the Mishkan. Carefully note God's command to Moshe after Aharon's staff wins that test:

"... return the staff of Aharon 'lifnei ha'eydut' - in front of the 'tablets of testimony' [i.e. the Aron] for safe keeping, in order that it be a sign for any rebellious group ['ot l'bnei meri'] so that they will stop complaining and not die..." (17:25-26)
In other words, God tells Moshe that the next time Bnei Yisrael complain or rebel, he should take Aharon's staff from the Ohel Moed to remind them of what happened to Korach's rebellion.

And sure enough - the next time Bnei Yisrael complain is at Mei Meriva!

This not only explains Rashbam's pirush, but it also clarifies the Torah's need to inform us that Moshe takes specifically the staff "milifnei Hashem" - from before God. Moshe doesn't take his own staff; he takes the staff of Aharon that is kept "lifnei Hashem" - set aside for precisely this purpose. In other words, in 20:8 God instructs Moshe to do exactly what Moshe should have done on his own!

This also beautifully explains why Moshe prefaces his rebuke with: "shim'u na ha'morim" [listen o' you rebellious ones; see 20:10]. Considering that God had instructed Moshe to take the "mateh Aharon" set aside for an "ot l'bnei meri," it is only appropriate that he rebuke the people accordingly - "shim'u na ha'morim!" ["Meri" and "morim" are derived from the same shoresh (root).]

The Torah's use of the word "gavanu" in both these parshiot provides additional (textual) support for this interpretation. Recall how the complaints at Mei Meriva first began:

"And the people quarreled with Moshe saying: 'lu gavanu bigva acheinu...' - if only we had perished with our brothers." (20:3)
This complaint echoes the cry of Bnei Yisrael in the aftermath of Korach's rebellion (immediately after Aharon's staff is set aside - see 17:25-27):
"And Bnei Yisrael said to Moshe: 'heyn gavanu avadnu' - lo, we perish, we are lost... anyone who comes close to the Mishkan will die, alas we are doomed to perish..." (17:27-28)
[Compare also 20:4-5 with 16:13-14.]

In fact, once we understand that Moshe is commanded to take mateh Aharon, almost all his subsequent actions make perfect sense:

Since mateh Aharon serves as an "ot l'bnei meri," Moshe justifiably understands "speak to the rock" as "speak about the rock," and, accordingly, he begins his rebuke with "shim'u na ha'morim."

Furthermore, Moshe's following statement - "Can we take water from this rock?" - thus constitutes the accurate fulfillment of God's command - to speak about (or at) the rock - "v'natan meimav" - that it should give water. In other words, God instructs Moshe to challenge the people and ask them - is it possible for a rock to give water?! And this is exactly what Moshe does!

This also explains why Moshe hits the rock. Once he understands that "speak to the rock" means "speak about the rock," then God's next instruction - "v'hotzeita" [you shall take out water] - must imply that Moshe himself must produce the water. How? Exactly as he did forty years earlier by the rock in Chorev, using his own mateh (not Aharon's; read 20:11 carefully - "matey'hu").

[This implies that there were actually two staffs at Mei Meriva:

The only unresolved issue pertains to Moshe's hitting the rock twice (see Ibn Ezra's commentary). However, as Ramban asks, does the second smack of the rock lessen the miracle's impact? Furthermore, God does not specify how many time Moshe should hit the rock! He simply enjoins him to 'take out water.' Certainly, Moshe should have the leeway to hit the rock as many times as he deems necessary. [Even with regard to the incident at Chorev, we are never told how many times Moshe hit the rock. Even if the extra blow does involve some wrongdoing, could this slight 'transgression' warrant such a severe punishment?]

This explanation of "mateh Aharon" only strengthens our claim that Moshe indeed executes God's instructions meticulously. He and Aharon are punished for not having sanctified God's Name earlier - when Bnei Yisrael first complained at Mei Meriva.

But our original question still remains: why is their punishment so harsh? Why are they not permitted to enter the Promised Land?

Punishment or Demotion?
To answer this questions, we must carefully examine their punishment.

It is commonly assumed that Moshe and Aharon's punishment is that they are denied entry into the Land of Israel. However, this popular assumption is imprecise. Let's look once again at how Chumash presents their punishment:

"And God told Moshe... because you did not trust Me enough to sanctify Me... therefore you shall not lead this nation into the land that I promised them." (20:12)
This pasuk suggests that Moshe and Aharon have failed as leaders. God informs them that because of their behavior, they are unable to lead Bnei Yisrael into the Promised Land. They are punished not as individuals, but as national leaders.

Thus, they are punished not for a 'technical' flaw in their execution of God's command, but rather as a result of a more significant flaw in the nature of their leadership.

In fact, the same pasuk that outlines their punishment alludes to this flaw in leadership:

"...Because you did not trust Me enough to sanctify Me in the eyes of Bnei Yisrael..." (20:12)
God here implies that He had expected Moshe and Aharon to somehow create from the rebellion at Mei Meriva a "kiddush Hashem" - a sanctification of God's Name. They failed to do so.

Failure in leadership does not require the leader to have done something 'wrong' or committed a sin. Leadership, as the term implies, must lead the people; it must take initiative. As individuals, Moshe and Aharon do not sin at all at Mei Meriva; as leaders, however, they fail.

Based on this interpretation, we can suggest an alternate understanding of the word "emunah" (used in the pasuk that explains the reason for their punishment):

"Ya'an lo he'emantem bi - because you did not have faith in Me in the eyes of Bnei Yisrael." (see 20:12)
"Emunah" in this pasuk cannot refer to belief in God in the theological sense. Surely, Moshe and Aharon 'believe' in God. However, they are not 'supportive' enough of God in the eyes of the people. The Hebrew word "emunah" stems from the shoresh aleph-mem-nun, which means to support or sustain.

[See for example, Shmot 17:12 - "vayehi yadav emunah..." regarding the war against Amalek, when Aharon and Chur support Moshe's arm; Megilat Esther (2:7) - "va'yehi omein et Hadassah..." - Mordechei supported (or adopted) Esther; see also Bamidbar 11:12 - "ka'asher yisa ha'omeyn et ha'yonek..."; "omnot ha'bayit" were the pillars supporting the Beit Ha'Mikdash (II Melachim 18:16); finally, the word "amen," which confirms or supports a bracha or statement made by others, etc.]

Although God immediately gives Moshe and Aharon detailed guidelines how to deal with the situation, it is already too late. As soon is the incident is over, God informs them that their days as leaders are numbered, despite their careful compliance with God's instructions regarding the rock. Before Bnei Yisrael will begin their conquest of Eretz Canaan, a new leader must be appointed.

[Note that later in Sefer Devarim, when Moshe begs that he be allowed see the land (3:23-26), he does not ask to lead, only to enter and see for himself.]

In hindsight, the reason for Moshe's 'punishment' becomes even more logical. With the onset of the many challenges involved in the conquest of the Land, more rebellious situations such as these will inevitably arise. Leadership capable of dealing with such complaints becomes essential.

The Final Straw
Had this been the only incident where Moshe and Aharon's leadership faltered, the consequence would likely not have been so harsh. However, this leadership flaw had already surfaced numerous times in Sefer Bamidbar. In fact, this gradual deterioration of their leadership might be considered the sefer's secondary theme. Note that from the time Bnei Yisrael leave Har Sinai, virtually every event recorded reflects this pattern of faltering leadership:

[This approach also explains why in Sefer Devarim, Moshe attributes his having been denied entry into the Land to Chet HaMeraglim; see Devarim 1:37 and Abrabanel.]

As individuals, Moshe and Aharon are unquestionably tzadikim of the highest caliber; they do nothing 'wrong.' However, as happens over and over again in Sefer Bamidbar, their leadership fails. At Mei Meriva, a personal example of patience, stamina, confidence and calm rebuke could have brought about the necessary "kiddush Hashem"; tragically, this did not happen.

Can we criticize Moshe and Aharon's behavior? Should we consider their actions sinful? No! This leadership crisis does not necessarily involve a question of 'good or bad' behavior. Rather, it must be viewed as a problem of compatibility. As we explained in our shiur on Parshat Bshalach, signs of incompatibility between Moshe Rabbeinu and Bnei Yisrael can be detected already when Benei Yisrael first left Egypt. After all, Moshe had spent months on Har Sinai with the Sh'china, and was no longer capable of dealing with petty complaints concerning mundane manners. [Note also Shmot 34:35.]

New leadership was required to meet the challenges of taking Am Yisrael into the Promised Land. Moshe and Aharon may not have done anything wrong, but Am Yisrael was not worthy of their leadership.

Virtual ClassRoom enhancements by Reuven Weiser.

For Further Iyun
A. One could even go one step further and suggest that even before God's command, Moshe should have taken mateh Aharon and shown it to the people as rebuke. If so, then God's first command to Moshe - "kach et ha'mateh" - may simply be a reminder to Moshe of what he should have done on his own (as he was instructed in Parshat Korach)! This could explain "ka'asher tzivahu" in 20:9 - as God commanded him not just now, but earlier - in Parshat Korach!

B. Later in the Parsha, a similar situation arises where the people need water - at "B'ei'rah" (21:16-18). There, too, Moshe gathers the people and God provides water. Only this time, the people respond with a song of praise! This clearly demonstrates that given the proper circumstances, such a situation can result in a "kiddush Hashem." Moshe may have learned the lesson of Mei Meriva. Unfortunately, however, it is already too late for God to change His decision.

C. Reasons or Indicators?
Our approach in part two of the shiur does not necessarily conflict with the various opinions raised by the "rishonim" (discussed in Part One). One could suggest that each of those reasons can be understood as indicators of Moshe's faltering leadership, rather than reasons for his punishment. Moshe and Aharon's use of a harsh tone; their quick anger; their lack of patience hitting the rock twice instead of once; their running away to the Ohel Moed, etc. All these opinions point to the same general problem of ineffective leadership.

D. According to our explanation above, the most difficult pasuk to explain is 20:24, in relation to Aharon's death at Hor haHar:

"... al asher m'ritem et pi, l'mei m'riva."
"Meri" implies more than not doing something right; it connotes outright rebellion.

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