Chukat: The Sin of Mei Merivah


Our Parashah begins with the Mitzvah of the Parah Adumah, one of the Torah's "Chukim" - enigmatic Mitzvot.  It continues with an account of Moshe Rabbenu striking the rock at Mei Merivah to bring forth water for the thirsty congregation. This "sin", like the Mitzvah of the Parah Adumah, is also shrouded in mystery.

"Because you did not believe in Me, to sanctify Me before the Nation of Israel - therefore you [Moshe and Aharon] shall not lead this congregation into the Land which I have given to them" (Bemidbar 20:12). Hashem's command is crystal clear: it first describes what Moshe Rabbenu and Aharon did and said, and then maps out their punishment. But there is one thing that's far from explicit: the sin! What exactly is the sin for which they were punished so severely? To this question there are almost as many answers as there are commentaries on the Torah.

Rashi's commentary follows the opinion found in the Zohar (Bereshit 20) and the Midrash (Yalkut Reuveni 70).  He explained that "Hashem did not command them to strike the rock, but rather to speak to it.  Had they spoken to the rock and produced water it would have been a tremendous sanctification of the Divine Name.  If a deaf and dumb rock, which is not dependent upon G-d's mercy,  does G-d's bidding when spoken to, how much more so must human beings fulfill the Divine commands" (Bemidbar 20:8-12 with Rashi).  The Ramban disagreed with this explanation, noting that Moshe Rabbenu was commanded to take his staff (ibid. v. 8), which implies that he was supposed to use it.  Furthermore, he asks why it is any less miraculous to draw water from a rock by knocking it with a staff than by speaking to it?  Our Rabbi, Ha-Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook sharpened the question by noting that hitting an inanimate object seems more "natural" and appropriate than talking to it.  As the Nation of Israel came closer and closer to Eretz Israel, they gradually assumed a more natural, less overtly miraculous way of life.  The clouds disappeared upon Aharon's death, the well no longer followed them when Miriam died.  Later, when they actually entered Eretz Israel, the Manna no longer fell.  It would therefore seem more appropriate for Moshe Rabbenu to strike the rock at this point (see Sichot Ha-Rav Tzvi Yehudah, Chukat 1).  But why, in any case, do the commentators put such an emphasis on the difference between speaking to a rock and striking it?

Man is defined as a "speaking animal."  His ability to perceive abstract ideas and moral imperatives and to express them in words is what sets him above the rest of the animal world.  On the verse, "And man became a living soul" (Bereshit 2:7), the Targum Onkelos translates "a speaking soul," and Rashi explained that it means the ability to think and to speak.  Through Man's verbal ability, he communicates with and influences society and is able to translate thought into action.  This requires proper use of the power of speech.  There are times to be silent and times to speak. Our Sages ask, "What is man's special skill in this world?"  They answer, "To act as if he were mute" (Chulin 89a).

Does this mean he shouldn't discuss Torah and Mitzvot either?  No, the Torah teaches: “You shall speak righteously" (ibid.).  It takes great skill to differentiate between speech that is beneficial and a Mitzvah, and that which is damaging and prohibited.  Since speech expresses man's very being, it is essential that the Nation be led by persuasion and not by coercion.  The Aramaic word for "leader" is "Dabar" - speaker.

When Hashem wished to appoint Moshe Rabbenu to lead the Nation of Israel out of Egypt, Moshe Rabbenu protested: "I am heavy of mouth and of tongue" (Shemot 4:6).  He felt himself unable to communicate with the people.  Hashem then pronounced "Aharon, your brother, shall speak" in your place (ibid. v. 14-16).  Eventually, though, Moshe Rabbenu acquired the power of leadership through speech.  The phrase "And Moshe spoke" appears innumerable times in the Torah, and the whole book of Devarim is one long speech given by Moshe Rabbenu before his death (see beginning of Midrash Devarim Rabbah).  Important as speech may be in leading the Nation, however, there is obviously a need for coercion as well.  We don't depend on the power to persuasion to convince a thief to compensate for his theft: we grab him by the neck and bring him to judgment.  There is a need for courts and police.  But these coercive tools are secondary forces. The primary force must be verbal.  

Our Rabbi, Ha-Rav Tzvi Yehudah, explained that Moshe Rabbenu had such a great personality that even when he tried to act silently – striking the rock without speaking – the intensity of his presence was overpowering. But the Nation of Israel at this point, preparing to settle Eretz Israel, was in need of a leader who would not overpower them.  Thus, his punishment was appropriate: "Moshe would die and Yehoshua would bring them into Eretz Israel" (Sanhedrin 17a).  Moshe is compared to the sun (Baba Batra 75a).  Sunshine may sometimes be overpowering.  Its light is so strong that the stars cannot be discerned during the day, even though they are always present.  The light of the sun, of Moshe Rabbenu, overpowered and concealed other lights.  Yehoshua however "is like the light of the moon" (Baba Batra ibid.).  The light of the moon allows other lights to be seen too.  When we entered Eretz Israel, there was no room for coercion.  The Nation must be led by words and not by force.  Moshe Rabbenu was therefore punished by not being allowed to continue to lead the people by force into the Promised Land.  He would die, and a different type of leadership would take over. The Rambam's commentary is in a similar vein.  He explained Moshe Rabbenu's sin as one of anger (Shemoneh Perakim, chapters 4 and 7) because he called the Nation "rebellious," even though their demand for water was not considered a sin.  Although the Torah does not state that they were punished for speaking angrily, the Maharal explained that angry speech is a sign of a lack of faith.  Anger is an expression of attempting to force things to be what you want, while soft speech implies the belief that others can be influenced by reason.  The power of speech is man's greatest strength, and we must believe in its power to change not only people's hearts, but even inanimate objects (see Sefer Ha-Ikarim 4:22).  As Yeshayahu said, [Hashem] fulfills His servant's word" (44:26). Yehoshua prayed, "Sun - stand still in Giveon and moon in the valley of Ayalon" (Yehoshua 10:12), Moshe Rabbenu commanded the earth to swallow up Korach (Bemidbar 16:30) and Eliyahu Ha-Navi imposed a drought upon all of Eretz Israel (Melachim 1 17:1).  The sin of Mei Merivah and Moshe Rabbenu's punishment teach us, once and for all, that force is not the way to educate.