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by Jacob Solomon

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G-d said to Moses and Aaron, "Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you will not bring this congregation into the Land that I have given them" (20:12).


The commentators differ when defining the actual sin of Moses and Aaron. Rashi holds that the sin was in striking the rock rather than speaking to it, as they were commanded. The Ramban focuses on the anger implied in Moses' rebuke to the Israelites - Listen you rebels! (20:10). He points out the text does not state that G-d was angry about the Israelites' vociferous demand for water. Abarbanel agrees with Rashi that the immediate cause of the punishment was because of striking, rather than speaking to the rock - but he holds there were underlying causes, namely previous events. Aaron had been involved in the Golden Calf and Moses (see Rashi on 13:2) had chosen to send the Spies despite G-d's strong hints that no good would come out of it. Both events had caused national suffering. It was wrong, explains Abarbanel that the very leaders, who could have prevented those events, should have been allowed to enter when the Israelites were excluded. Therefore when they committed a sin which was worthy of some punishment, G-d chose to keep them out of the Promised Land, like the rest of their generation. An additional explanation on fairly similar lines to Abarbanel, would highlight the special relationship between Moses and Aaron, and the Israelites.

Chazal refer to Moses as Moshe Rabbeinu - Moses our Teacher. The Midrash (Tanchuma, Chukat 14, quoted by Rashi on 20:1) states that the incident of the Waters of Meriva took place when the decree of the forty years in the desert had come to an end. All those who reached maturity at the time of the Exodus were no longer alive. The people of the new generation were not the disciples of the Egyptians, but virtually exclusively those of Moses himself.

It was one thing to have received the Torah, but it was quite something else to live by the Torah. The former was an unparalleled spiritual uplift. However, much of its impact did not remain, as implied in the story of the Golden calf soon afterwards. Learning to live by the Torah is a much longer and less spectacular process. It seems reasonable to suggest that the forty years in the desert was a period of spiritual growth and consolidation - a time when the Israelites had regular contact with Moses, and regular reminders of G-d's Providence though the water and the Manna. By the time those forty years had finished, this educational process should have made a deep impact - to such an extent that should the source of water have ceased, the Israelites would have (in contrast to 20:3-5) respectfully asked Moses to pray to G-d for fresh supplies.

This did not happen. The Israelites blamed Moses, rather then their own sins, for their being in the desert. Their forty years living of G-d's largesse did not cause any increase in faith, or on a more mundane level, respect for G-d's representative, Moses our Teacher. The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 5b) states that it takes forty years for a person to fully complete his spiritual development under a Teacher. The conduct of the Israelites in the way they reacted to the sudden lack of water showed that their spiritual development was not complete - indeed their response was virtually the same as in similar circumstances at Massa U-Meriva some forty years earlier.

This showed that Moses had not been completely successful as a Teacher. It was for that reason that the Torah says lo he-emantem bi lehakdisheini - 'you did not cause them to trust in Me, to sanctify Me' - instead of saying just lehakdisheini - 'to sanctify Me'. This implies that the previous forty-year period in the desert was to bring the Israelites to indeed 'trust in Me' in all situations.

In summary the incident of the Waters of Meriva was the acid test of the success of Moses' spiritual and educational leadership over the previous forty years. The test showed, in this respect, that Moses had not achieved the ideal as the Teacher of the Israelites. For this reason the text does not state that G-d was angry with the Israelites: the blame for the incident is put on Moses. Therefore the striking of the rock was the overt reason for Moses' not being able to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land, but the underlying reason was his problems in successfully being able to spiritually lead the Israelites in the previous forty years.

Additional note: regarding the death of Aaron. Aaron had to communicate the words of Moses to the Israelites (Ex. 4:16), and also he was Moses' older brother by at least three years (33:39). These points taken together suggest that he could have decided not to communicate Moses' display of anger to the people (after the Ramban), or he could have attempted to persuade Moses not to have stuck the rock (after Rashi).



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