The Dispute at the Rock

Author: Eli Ehrman, Av 5764/Aug 2004

We are told in Numbers ch.19 ff, the weekly portion of the Bible known as Chukkat that Moshe was punished by HKBH (Hakadosh Baruch Hu – The Holy One, Blessed be He) in that he was not allowed to enter Eretz Yisrael. We are told that this punishment is given for his actions during the incident at Mei Merivah. HKBH told Moshe to speak in order to make it produce water before the whole congregation of Bnei Yisrael. Instead of speaking to the rock, Moshe struck it and water came forth. Moshe is described as being in a significantly angry state at the time and his anger is also expressed in the words he uses to address the assembled people. It would be natural to assume that it is not the anger or the words Moshe uses that occasion the punishment but simply the act of striking the rock instead of speaking to it.

A number of questions arise. One of the most commonly asked questions is why striking the rock should be a deed so terrible that Moshe should deserve never to see the land. Moshe had spent his life energy on bringing the people to this land. Is this truly a rebellion? Did he question the ways of HKBH as Korach had (Numbers ch.16)? Did he despise the land as the spies had (Numbers ch 13)? That is the type of deed that had caused others to forfeit the Divine promise. The behaviour of Moses falls far short of those sins.

Another question arises from the fact that Aharon is also punished for this incident. What did he do? If Moshe in a fit of anger disobeyed HKBH, did Aharon have time to stop him? Yet a few words later, HKBH informs Moshe that it is time for Aharon to die precisely because of this incident.

In a later passage (Deuteronomy ch 1), Moshe gives an entirely different explanation for his not being allowed into the land. He retells the story of the spies in ספר דברים, recalling how all the people were punished for their lack of faith by being forced to wander in the desert for forty years until the adult generation had all died. However, there he says that HKBH was angry at him too on their account and that he too would not enter the land. So what was the cause of the punishment, the behavior of Moshe in the incident of the spies or the incident of the rock?

Finally, in yet another passage in Devarim, (Deuteronomy ch.3) we are told how Moshe begged HKBH to allow him to enter the land. We are told that HKBH refused this request "for the sake of the people". How could it possibly have been in the interest of the people that Moshe was not allowed in? Moreover, even if it is in the interest of the people, how does this relate to the other explanation of punishment? Do we have a third explanation here?

Let us take a careful look at the story and try to answer these question.

The Silence of HKBH

From the beginning of the book of Shemot (Exodus) until the end of the Torah we are told the story of the exodus of Bnei Yisrael from Egypt and their travels in the desert. This story represents just over forty years of history. However the text does not divide equally across this period. All the text, from Exodus ch.12 up to this point, Numbers ch.19, Parashat Hukat, describes a period of less than two years after the Exodus. It ends with the story of the spies and the decree that the desert period will last forty years instead of the people entering the land immediately. We then have one passage with no specific chronological position regarding the inexplicable law of Parah Adumah (Purification through the ashes of the Red Heifer). Then suddenly we have the story of the death of Miryam, the sudden loss of the provision of water that presumably was related to Miryam, and the incident of the rock. That story occurs at the very end of the period in the desert. All the passages from this point on occur after this incident. We have, then, a period of some thirty-eight years in the desert which we know nothing about. What happened during this period? We know that it is during this period that the generation that witnessed the miracles in Egypt as adults died and the next generation grew up or were born. What was this "silent period" like? Did the new generation indeed grow up without the problems that were so inherent in their parents?

Our Sages tell us that throughout this period Moshe did not receive any Prophecy. In fact Maimonides proposes that Moses was not able to receive the Divine Word because a minimum level of Joy is required for this to be possible and the effect of the Divine Decree delaying entry into the land prevented him from feeling such an emotion throughout this period.

This paints a grim picture indeed of this period. For decades the people wander around and around in a desert guided only by the Annanei Hakavod (The Clouds of Glory). The voice of HKBH that had brought them out and guided their every step at first had simply gone silent. It is as if you set off on a journey with a working radio or GPS and suddenly it ceases to work. Imagine then that your journey continues – seemingly fruitlessly – for thirty-eight more years! Perhaps some people started to wonder if, in fact, the clouds that they were following were an unexplained but natural phenomenon moving around and around randomly. Perhaps HKBH had deserted them to their fate here in the desert, ח"ו.

As one by one all the older generation dies, the three leaders are getting old. Then, one day, Miryam dies of old age. It seems clear that it is only a matter of time before the man connected with all the wonders, the instrument of communication with HKBH in the original period will die too. There will be nothing left. The process will have run to ground and the people will end a cruel fate there in the desert. Miracles have been protecting them from the impossible conditions in the desert but, who knows, perhaps they too will cease.

The New Generation

Then, immediately following the death of Miryam, exactly that seems to happen. They are left without water and face mass dehydration. Now, for the first time we hear the voice of the new generation that we had hoped would represent an entirely new voice of faith and trust. The words are astoundingly familiar. "Why did you bring us here to die in the desert?" The generation that had never known Egypt as adults proclaim that it would have been better had they never left Egypt . What a huge disappointment this must have been for Moshe and Aharon! These are exactly the complaints of their parents. Nothing seems to have changed.

If anything, the situation is worse. If you look carefully at the words you will see that the two leaders run into the Ohel Moed (The Tabernacle), from the people. In other words, they are fleeing from the people, presumably in real physical danger to their lives. We are not far from a tragic situation where the people murder their last hope of extricating themselves from the desert. We are at the bottom of the bottom, moments away from a point of no return where there will be nothing left to save.

"And HKBH spoke to Moshe, saying"

It is at that terrible moment that we finally have the words "And HKBH spoke to Moshe saying". This phrase is possibly the most frequently repeated phrase in the Torah. We often treat is as just background "noise", paying it very little attention. However, to do so this time would be even less correct than at the other times. Nothing could be more momentous. The silence of thirty-eight years has finally been broken. The mechanism for guidance and communication between HKBH and His people is operational after all.

Our tradition has it that HKBH will save his people in one of three situations. Either the time has come for the Geulah (Divine Redemption) or the people are so worthy that they bring it upon themselves immediately or, unfortunately, the situation is so desperate that if the Geulah does not come immediately there will be nothing to save. According to our Sages, that is what happened in Egypt.. The exile was supposed to last for four hundred years. However, it did not. It lasted only two hundred and ten years. One important explanation given for this is that the people had sunk so deep in the hopelessness of Egypt that one second later would have been one second too late; and so the exile was shortened.

I propose that the same happened here after the death of Miryam. It had been hoped that the new generation that would be born and grow up in the desert would leave behind the problems of their parents, but it was not so. Moreover, remember the explanation of Maimonides that what prevented Moshe from receiving Prophecy was the incompatibility of Joy to the current situation. It would be starkly impossible to accept that in the moments following his sister's death, chased by the people who had so bitterly disappointed the whole intent of the long sojourn in the desert, that Joy would finally come to Moshe. We must conclude that the reason for Geulah here was the last of the three options. There was no choice but that HKBH appear and speak to Moshe.


In order to understand the response of Moshe to this new situation we must digress for a moment on the topic of miracles. There are two kinds of miracles. One kind surrounds us every day although we often do not recognize them as such. These are miracles "through nature". Even extreme examples of such miracles can still be denied as miracles by the obstinate naturalist. For example, the establishments of the State of Israel or the Six Day War are clearly miracles to us but they occurred "through" nature and there will always be those who will claim they can be explained entirely through natural causes.

There is another kind of miracle. When the waters stand upright and form walls to let Bnei Yisrael pass through the sea or when every one of the people hears the words of HKBH directly at Mount Sinai and all can concur afterwards that the same words were revealed to each of them, these are miracles of a different type. They are not through nature. The skeptic can only choose to deny the existence of the event itself – not its interpretation. It can be argued that the distinction need not be black and white but that there are events in the grey area. Nevertheless the miracles attending the exodus from Egypt and the initial period in the desert clearly belong to the second category.

I suggest that the two alternatives for making water come from the rock represent these two categories. Seeing Moshe strike the rock with sufficient force, a determined skeptic might argue that Moshe knew that the rock was blocking an underground flow of water. Assuming that the rock was not too large Moshe might just have dislodged it and thus allowed the flow to start. Thus this miracle can be said to have been a natural one. However, had Moshe merely spoken to the rock and water had flowed on that demand, we would have had a miracle before millions of people similar to the waters of the Red Sea standing upright

Now when HKBH tells Moshe at the incident of the spies that they must now wander in the desert until the present generation dies off, he explicitly states that the people who must die are the people who saw the wonders and miracles that HKBH created in Egypt before their eyes. These are the people who "knew" the power of HKBH and yet rebelled. There is a law of "super nature" here. The closer you are to the power of HKBH the greater the requirement there is upon you to act according to His Will. "It is among those that are close to Me that I will be sanctified" (Leviticus, ch.10). The first generation of the Exodus failed to live up to this lofty requirement. They were saved from Egypt because they had sunk so low that there was no longer a choice and the direct contact with the Power of HKBH was not enough for them to live up to its requirements.

Now HKBH was willing to start the process anew with the second generation and to bring them into the land with the same level of miracles, here 'speaking to the rock'. However, Moshe and Aharon seem to have come to the opinion that it needed to be otherwise. Perhaps they were not confident that they would live long enough to be present in order to intercede whenever the people failed the challenge. Perhaps they simply saw that the human "raw material" here was again insufficient and would not rise to the task.

Moshe does not strike the rock because he had lost control in a fit of anger. He has decided, together with Aharon, to transform the miracle from the category of "beyond nature" to one "through nature". How could they do this? Because they understood that the course of human history takes the form of a dialogue between man and HKBH. HKBH has chosen to create His Universe in such a way that humanity is a partner in deciding its course. People can participate either through their תפילה – talking directly to HKBH or through their actions. They have the power to request that the nature of Divine guidance or intervention in the world be otherwise than it is. In this case, HKBH accepts, perhaps in "anger", the course Moshe wants ultimately for the sake of the people.

The two leaders have contradicted His instructions and therefore require punishment. However, there is an aspect beyond mere punishment here. Before the decree of the spies, Moshe was only eighty-two years old; we view a full natural life as being one hundred and twenty years old. It would have been natural at eighty-two for Moshe to live on and participate in the entry into the land of Israel . Now Moshe is one hundred and twenty. Perhaps despite this HKBH would have had him live on a few more decades to lead a miracle-filled entrance into the land. However, if the entrance is to be one of only natural miracles there is no need to extend the life span of Moshe. Moreover, the last verses of the Torah informs us that it is the distinction of the unique level of Prophecy that Moshe achieved that is the reason that miracles of the type that occurred in Egypt could happen before the eyes of all Yisrael. Moshe has argued his way out of the job of leading the people into the land.


We see here in this story some of the principles that the Torah wishes to teach us. We see that the wonders that HKBH bestows upon our society create an obligation to make that society live according to His Will. We see the power of a man, Moshe, through prayer or action to direct the course of Jewish and World history and the חסד of HKBH, His grace, in that He is willing to make the will of this man become the Divine Will.

Finally even if one believes that the current events are leading inevitably to the Geulah, it makes a critical difference exactly what state Bnei Yisrael are at the time of the Geulah. In the case we have looked at, Moshe was terribly concerned about another Geulah that comes about as a result of the depth and desperate nature of a terrible situation. To avoid that, we are required to improve, of our own accord, the state of our people in advance of the Geulah which we believe is imminent.

This Shiur was prepared for delivery to Kehillat Hagivah on Parashat Hukat, 5764 by Eli Ehrman.