Rabbi Yaakov Hillel
Rosh Yeshivat Ahavat Shalom
Responding to Words, Responding to Blows
Understanding Moshe’s Sin
“And Hashem said to Moshe and to Aharon, because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me before the eyes of the Children of Israel, therefore you will not bring this people to the land which I gave to them” (Bamidbar 20:12). Rashi explains why Moshe’s mistake was so severely punished. “If you had spoken to the rock and it had produced [water], I would have been sanctified in the eyes of the people, and they would have said, ‘This rock which does not speak and does not hear and does not need sustenance, fulfilled the word of G-d. How much more so should we.’” Let us try to understand the significance of Moshe’s actions. This incident, which took place at Mei Merivah, was not the first time Moshe had been instructed to obtain water from a rock. When the Jewish nation encamped in Refidim (later renamed by Moshe “Masah U’Meirvah,” literally “test and quarrel”), they had no water. They quarreled with Moshe, who turned to Hashem. Hashem told him, “Pass before the nation and take with you some of the Elders of Israel, and take in your hand your stick with which you hit the river, and go. And I will stand before you there at the rock in Horev, and you will hit the rock and water will come out of it and the nation will drink. And Moshe did so before the eyes of the Elders of Israel” (Shmot 17:5-6). On this occasion, Moshe’s orders were only to hit the rock; there was no mention of speaking to it. In the merit of the righteous prophetess Miriam, this rock, known as “the well of Miriam,” continued to provide them with water throughout their years in the desert.
After Miriam’s death years later, the miraculous rock dried up. Once again, the people complained to Moshe and Aharon, but this time, Moshe’s instructions were somewhat different: “Take the stick and gather together the people, you and your brother Aharon, and speak to the rock before their eyes and it will give forth its waters” (Bamidbar 20:8). Now too, he was to take his stick in hand, but rather than hitting the rock, he was to speak to it; then it would produce the necessary water as before. Instead of speaking to the rock, however, Moshe did as he had at Refidim, and struck it with his stick. While the rock did yield water, Moshe was chastised and punished by Hashem for his digression: “Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me before the eyes of the Children of Israel, therefore you will not bring this people to the land which I gave you” (20:12). After so many years of waiting to reach Eretz Yisrael, Moshe would not be the one to bring the people to the land. Was Moshe’s deed really so terrible? The first time he had been told to hit the rock, and now too, he was told to take along the same stick he had used then. The first time, he had obeyed Hashem’s commandment when he struck the rock. The second time, this exact same act was a grave sin, a terrible desecration of Hashem’s Name warranting grave punishment. What is more, Rashi tells us that Moshe actually did first speak to the rock, without results. It was only then that he did what he had done earlier at Masah U’Merivah – by Hashem’s command – and struck the rock (20:11; see Bamidbar Rabbah 19:9). It is true that Moshe erred, but his error was understandable. Why does the Torah describe his mistake in judgment in such harsh terms, saying “You did not believe in Me to sanctify Me before the eyes of the Children of Israel”? And if Moshe was only to speak to the rock, not strike it, why was he instructed to bring his stick along to begin with?
Let us look again at Rashi’s words. “If you had spoken to the rock and it had produced [water], I would have been sanctified in the eyes of the people, and they would have said, ‘This rock which does not speak and does not hear and does not need sustenance, fulfilled the word of G-d. How much more so should we’” (Bamidbar 20:12). Had Moshe obeyed Hashem, a powerful moral lesson could have been derived from this incident by the type of reasoning known as kal v’homer: if it is so in a lenient case, how much more is it so in a serious case. A rock, an inanimate object, devoid of all sense and feeling, and with no physical needs requiring Hashem’s mercy, had only to hear G-d’s Word and it immediately obeyed. How much more so should thinking, feeling, flesh and blood human beings, who desperately need Divine mercy at every moment, obey G-d’s Word when they hear it!
Even so, this is surprising. Had the opportunity to make the point really been lost? Surely it was still possible to derive a compelling kal v’homer. What would have been wrong with saying, “An inanimate rock with neither feelings nor needs has only to be hit, and it immediately responds by obeying Hashem’s Word. How much more so should we.” What real difference was there in learning the lesson from a few words spoken to the rock rather than from a blow applied to that same rock?
Words or Blows?
To answer this question, we must understand an important principle. The Almighty deals with the Jewish people in one of two ways, as we learn from the words of the Prophet Zechariah. “I took for Myself two staffs. One I called makel noam (the staff of pleasantness), and the other I called makel hovlim (the rod of punishment), and I pastured the flock” (11:7). These two methods are in fact two different approaches towards instruction. The “staff of pleasantness” is verbal rebuke and chastisement. When Hashem uses this “staff,” He sends His prophets to reprove the people and set them on the right path by means of oral instruction and rebuke. The “rod of punishment” is instruction by the much harsher means of punishment and suffering. We find these two approaches elsewhere in the Torah as well. The term “rod” is used to mean a stick which hits and prods, while a “staff” is a stick which is leaned on for support. • “Your rod and Your staff will comfort me” (Tehillim 23:4). Our Sages (Midrash Tehillim 1) explain: “Your rod” is suffering, as it says, ‘And I will punish their transgression with a rod’ (Tehillim 89:33). And ‘your staff’ is Torah, as it says ‘through a lawgiver with their staffs’ (Bamidbar 21:18).” • “Foolishness is bound in the heart of a youth. The staff of rebuke will distance it from him” (Mishle 22:15). This means that at times, rebuke will suffice to distance a youth from wrongdoing; a good talking-to, with penetrating words of reproof that go to the heart, will have the power to distance him from sin. At other times, however, he will only respond to punishment in the form of blows (see Derech Etz Hayyim by the Ramhal). Hashem can teach us with words, and He can teach us with blows. As we saw in Midrash Tehillim, the instrument of oral reproof is Torah. It follows that prior to the Giving of the Torah, the option of the makel noam, “the staff of pleasantness,” did not yet exist. The hard way, the punishment and blows of the makel hovlim, was the only way. As we see, this is how Hashem dealt with the Generation of the Flood, the Generation of the Dispersal, and the cities of Sodom and Amorah in earlier times. After the Torah was given, however, there was another possibility. Rebuke could now be administered with the “staff of pleasantness.” Our people could be taught to
repent through words rather than blows. The teachings of the Torah and the reproof of the prophets would now be the tool to bring the Jews back to Hashem.
Rebuke and Repentance
This was the critical difference between Masah U’Merivah, when Moshe was told to hit the rock, and Mei Merivah, when he was told to speak to it. Masah U’Merivah took place shortly after the Exodus from Egypt, before the Giving of the Torah. They did not yet have the option of repenting solely through Torah and words of rebuke. At that time, blows were indeed the only way. Mei Merivah happened after the Giving of the Torah, and therefore Moshe was told to act differently, because circumstances had changed. Now it was time to teach the nation to respond not only to the pain of a pounding, but to the more subtle message of words. If Moshe had spoken to the rock in order to produce water, this method would have been instilled in our people for all time. Words of rebuke – the “staff of pleasantness” – alone would have been enough to yield results, with no need for physical suffering inflicted by the proverbial rod. Let us study the wording of the account of Mei Merivah (Bamidbar 20:8). Here too, Hashem first told Moshe, “Take your stick.” In other words, the frightening alternative of learning through suffering will always be with us, even following the Giving of the Torah. However, there was now another, better choice as well: “and speak to the rock.” Had Moshe followed Hashem’s instructions to the letter, his act would have had an eternal impact on our nation’s character. It would have instilled in our people the capacity for repentance activated strictly by the Word of G-d. Now, when the rock was struck, the situation reverted to that of a former era, making the rod of punishment a permanent feature of our nation’s existence. With this in mind, we can understand Hashem’s great anger and the severity of Moshe’s punishment: through his error, the profound lesson of the kal v’homer, and with it, the possibility for our people to be ruled exclusively with the “staff of pleasantness,” was lost. From then on, the Jews would not learn to obey Hashem in response to words alone; they would need the option of blows. In the generations to come, they would only improve their ways in response to physical suffering. Hashem gave us a precious gift, His holy Torah. Through Torah, we can rise above the level of sinning until we are hit hard enough to halt, may G-d spare us. We as a nation are capable of more. We need not be led with the painful prodding provided by a “rod of punishment.” We can attune ourselves to the Torah’s words of reproof and rebuke, finding our way back to the right path guided only by the gentle encouragement of the Al-mighty’s “staff of pleasantness.”