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Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Moses and the Sin at Merivah Parshat Chukat 5777/2017

This week’s Torah portion tells the famous story of Moses’ sin at the “waters of Merivah,” for which he was denied entrance into the land. There was no drinking water for the people when they arrived at Midbar Zin, the story tells us, and so the Israelites complained and attacked Moses and Aaron for taking them out of Egypt. Moses and Aaron then left the people and went to the “tent of meeting” and fell on their faces, apparently seeking out divine guidance and instruction. God then responded. According to the most commonly accepted interpretation, God commanded Moses to take the staff and to speak to the rock so that it might bring forth its water. Moses, however, after taking the staff and gathering the people about the rock, hit the rock instead of speaking to it. Though water immediately came rushing out to satisfy the thirst of the people, God responded to this infraction with severe harshness. God said to Moses and Aaron: “Because you did not trust me to sanctify me in front of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this community into the land that I have given them” (verse 12).

While this understanding of the sin is often taken as self-evident, many interpreters have found it difficult. First of all, what is wrong with hitting the rock? This is what was done in the very similar story found in Exodus 17 – and Moses was not censured there! Isn’t producing water from a rock via hitting it with a staff just as miraculous and impressive as via speaking to it? And why would God tell Moses to take the staff if God did not want Moses to use it? Finally, this interpretation fails to account for the punishment of Aaron. Aaron did not use the staff at all, so why is he punished together with Moses?

In light of these and other difficulties, commentators have suggested various alternative explanations as to what was the sin. One of the most meaningful, in my view, was suggested, among others, by the sixteenth century Italian Rabbi Abraham Rappaport, in his commentary מנחה בלולה (Mincha B’Lulah). According to him, the sin had nothing to do with the manner in which the water was produced. Rather, it is found in the immediate reaction of Moses and Aaron to the attack on their authority. They fled from the people and went to the Sanctuary (see verse 8). This was a sign of weakness and cowardice. Those who would serve as leaders of the people must know how to stand up to them and put them in their place. Seeking guidance from God is all fine and good, but it cannot take the place of taking a firm stand against the people when they cross the line from legitimate criticism to illegitimate and wholesale rejection of fundamental values. This cowardly retreat showed that Moses and Aaron were no longer fit to serve as leaders. And since this act was done by Moses and Aaron together, they both were punished with the same punishment – loss of leadership.

This interpretation of the sin of Moses and Aaron is relevant today. Many of our leaders surely know that popular sentiment can often veer from what is just and what is right, from the fundamental values of our founding fathers. Yet they often refrain from confronting these sentiments. They fear that such confrontation may cost them votes or compromise their popularity. And so, rather than taking a principled stand, they quietly retreat to their “tent of meeting” and seek to remain as popular as possible.

The Torah portion teaches us that this is not what Jewish leadership is about. Those lacking the backbone to fight for what is right, to state it clearly and to confront demagogic rhetoric are not worthy to lead our people. Especially not in the Promised Land.

Art Credit: Fresco, Catacombs of Commodilla, Rome Date : 380 –  400

David Frankel is Associate Professor of Bible at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. He has been on the faculty since 1992. He earned his PhD from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Prof. Moshe Weinfeld. His publications include “The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School,” and “The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel.”  From 1991 to 1996, Frankel was rabbi of Congregation Shevet Achim in Gilo, Jerusalem.

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