ויאמר ה’ אל משה ואל אהרן: יען לא האמנתם בי להקדישני לעיני בני ישראל, לכן לא תביאו את הקהל הזה אל הארץ אשר נתתי להם.
(במדבר כ’, י”ב)
Chukat can be labelled as “the parasha of water”. It opens with the red heifer purification, where ashes are mixed in water (מי חטאת); Miriam dies and her magical well (באר מרים) disappears with her; the request to pass through Edom and pay for the water consumed there (מים קנויים); and the “song of the well” (שירת הבאר).
The most famous water mentioned in our parasha is water from the rock that revives the thirst of the children of Israel. The story in short: the people are thirsty and they quarrel with Moshe and Aharon to provide them with water (hence מי מריבה: the water of the quarrel). God commands Moshe to speak to the rock so that it would give water. Instead of speaking to the rock, Moshe hits it twice with his staff. Water indeed comes out but God says:
And the Lord said to Moshe and Aharon: ‘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 into the land which I have given them.’ (BaMidbar 20, 12)
That’s it. No explanation given, only the punishment: Moshe and Aharon will die in the desert and will not enter the Promised Land.
Commentators across the centuries have striven to provide an explanation for this harsh punishment, a punishment that seems entirely disproportional to the crime. Come to think of it: what crime? The Torah does not even tell us what terrible sin Moshe and Aharon committed, a sin that brought about the wrath of God.
Here is what the leading commentators offered in explanation:
- Rashi: God commanded to speak to the rock; Moshe hit the rock. Moshe disobeyed God. Had he spoken with the rock, the people would have understood the importance of hearing the word of God.
- Rambam: The sin was the anger of Moshe and Aharaon, who should not have addressed the people with the words “hear now, you rebels”. (Rambam here is faithful to his teaching, that anger is not a “middle path” trait and one should err to the side of caution and patience.)
- Ramban (quoting Rabenu Hananel): Moshe and Aharon attributed the miracle to their actions (“are we to bring you forth water out of this rock?”), instead of saying it is all God’s doing.
These three commentators offer possible explanations to the sin of Moshe and Aharon. Many other commentators followed suit, making up a long list of sins to try and make sense of the disproportionate divine verdict. In fact, the list of sins got so long that Shadal (Shmuel David Luzatto, the 19th century Italian scholar) exclaimed: “Moshe committed one sin and the commentators burdened him with thirteen or more sins, each one of them making up a new one… therefore I will not dwell further into this matter lest I come up with a new explanation and add one more sin to Moshe!”.
(On a side note, it is interesting to note that Shadal was honest enough to admit that although he preferred a particular commentary – that Moshe and Aharon “fled” to the Tabernacle to seek God’s advice instead of standing firm and believing that God will act – and although he taught this to his students for 15 years, he has come around to believing that Rashi’s explanation was the correct one after all).
Regardless of the commentator one prefers to follow, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein offers another way to look at this story. He points our attention to the words God uses to explain the punishment: “’Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel”. Moshe and Aharon failed to sanctify God (קידוש שם שמיים) in the eyes of the people. Had they spoken to the rock instead of beating it, the name of God would have been sanctified in its true spirit, as in the words of the prophet Zechariah: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, said the Lord”. God does not wish to manifest Himself to man through might or power, but rather through His spirit and the belief in His word.
So it is not something Moshe and Aharon did that was the problem. It is something they did not do. They had the opportunity to sanctify God but missed seizing on that opportunity.
God does not judge us simply by what we do, but also by what we could have done but failed to do. The Talmud (Sanhedrin) says that a person that could have learnt Torah but did not is degrading the word of God. Elsewhere, the Talmud (Berachot) calls a person that did not pray for God to have mercy on his friend is a sinner, even though there is no positive Mitzvah to pray for someone else. One should always strive to do his best, to fulfill his potential to the maximum. Missing out on the opportunity to do more may, as in the case of Moshe and Aharon, lead to a bitter punishment. Let this be a lesson to us all.