Why Was Moses Denied The Promised Land?
I Am a Rock
Dedicated by David and Eda Schottenstein
in the loving memory of a young Jerusalem soul Alta Shula Swerdlov
And in merit of Yetta Alta Shula, "Aliya," Schottenstein
From Abstract to Concrete
There was a rabbi known for his constant preaching about the need to nurture children with warmth and love.
One time he noticed some children who were playing in the freshly laid concrete outside his newly renovated home, their little feet leaving lasting impressions. He became irritated and started chastising the children.
A congregant asked, "How can you, a person who devoted his entire life to teaching warmth to children, speak this way?"
To which the rabbi replied: "You must understand. I love children in the abstract, not the concrete."
Speak to the Rock
At last, the moment had arrived. For 40 years they had wandered together in a wilderness. Most of the older generation had already passed on. Even the beloved Miriam was no more. By now, the young nation of Israel was finally ready to enter the Promised Land, under the leadership of Moses. But an incident occurred that would transform the nation's destiny.
"The congregation had no water," the weekly Torah portion relates (1), "so they assembled against Moses and Aaron. The people quarreled with Moses, saying, 'If only we had died with the death of our brothers before the Lord. Why have you brought the congregation of the Lord to this desert so that we and our livestock should die there? Why have you taken us out of Egypt to bring us to this bad place; it is not a place for seeds, or for fig trees, grapevines or pomegranate trees, and there is no water to drink'…
"G-d spoke to Moses, saying, 'Take the staff and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and speak to the rock in their presence so that it will give forth its water. You shall bring forth water for them from the rock, and give the congregation and their livestock to drink.'
"Moses took the staff from before the Lord as He had commanded him. Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock, and he said to them, 'Now listen, you rebels, can we draw water for you from this rock?'
"Moses raised his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, when an abundance of water gushed forth, and the congregation and their livestock drank.
"G-d said to Moses and Aaron, 'Since you did not have faith in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the Land which I have given them.'"
Here is the disturbing question: What exactly was Moses' and Aaron's sin? What did they do wrong? G-d instructed them to produce water from a rock and quench the thirst of the people. This they did. What were they being penalized for?
A subtle examination of the text reveals the nature of Moses' and Aaron's transgression. G-d told Moses to speak to the rock. Instead, Moses struck the rock (his brother Aaron complied). It was this error of Moses that prevented him from entering the Holy Land.
Yet, this explanation leaves us with many more questions. Here are a few of them.
1) What compelled Moses to sin? If G-d instructed him to speak to the rock, why did he choose to strike it? I, for one, know of no particular lust to strike rocks.
2) Why was Moses punished so severely for this sin? Does it really make a difference whether you communicate to a rock verbally or by force?
3) G-d claimed that by striking the rock, Moses and Aaron failed to sanctify His name. How so?
4) Why did Moses need to strike the rock twice before it would emit abundant water? If G-d did not allow the water to come out after the first blow because it was contrary to His will, why did He allow the water flow after the second blow?
Forty Years Earlier
Forty years earlier, shortly after the Egyptian exodus, a similar incident occurred. But in that instance, G-d expressed His desire that Moses actually strike the rock (2).
"There was no water for the people to drink. So the people quarreled with Moses, saying, 'Give us water that we may drink!' Moses said to them, 'Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test G-d?'
"The people thirsted there for water, and complained against Moses, saying, 'Why have you brought us up from Egypt to make me and my children and my livestock die of thirst?'
"Moses cried out to G-d, saying, 'What shall I do for this people? Just a little longer and they will stone me!'
"G-d said to Moses... 'take into your hand your staff, with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold, I shall stand there before you on the rock in Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it, and the people will drink.'
"Moses did so before the eyes of the elders of Israel. He named the place Massah [testing] and Meribah [quarreling] because of the quarrel of the children of Israel and because of their testing G-d, saying, 'Is the Lord in our midst or not?'"
This episode might explain why 40 years later Moses was under the impression that striking the rock was not that bad. After all, G-d Himself commanded him once before to smite the rock in order to produce its waters.
But why did G-d indeed change His position? What is the reason that in the first incident G-d instructed Moses to strike the rock, while in the second incident He insisted exclusively on verbal communication?
A Process of Education
It wouldn't be an exaggeration to state that over the centuries, more than one hundred different interpretations have been offered to explain this puzzling episode. Today, I wish to present one interpretation, based on a Midrashic tradition.
This particular Midrash, known as Yalkut Shimoni, makes the following comment (3):
"Speak to the rock, do not strike it. G-d told Moses, 'when a child is young, the educator may [at times] hit the lad in order teach it. When the child grows into adulthood, however, the educator must rebuke him only verbally. Similarly, when the rock was but a 'small child,' I instructed you to strike it; but now [after 40 years when it has grown larger] you must only speak to it. Teach it a chapter of Torah and it will produce water."
This a strange Midrash. What in the world is the comparison between a rock and a child? And how are you supposed to teach a rock a chapter of Torah?
Obviously, according to the Midrash, the story with the rock was more than a physical event concerning an attempt to draw water from a hard inanimate object. It was also a psychological and moral tale about how to educate and refine human "rocks" so that they can produce water.
"A Rock Feels No Pain"
"I am a rock," goes the famous ballad. "A rock feels no pain, and an island never cries." So here is the question: How do you impact a rock? How do you transform a crude, coarse and stone-like mind and heart to become sources of water, wisdom and inspiration that could quench the thirst of parched souls? How do you open a sealed heart? Do you smite it or do you speak to it? Do you impact the rock by force and coercion? Or do you negotiate with it verbally, attempting to explain, persuade and enlighten?
Some parents, educators and psychiatrists are inclined exclusively toward one of the two paths. On one side are those committed to the path of discipline, severity and punishment. They do not let their children or students get away with any shtick, and if the kids don't respond, they show them the stick and coerce them to behave until the "troublemakers" learn their lesson for the next time.
On the other side are those who embrace the opposite approach of empathy, love and compassion. They believe only in enlightenment and slow persuasion. They loathe the aggressive path that employs strength and coercion as a medium.
In the Kabbalah, these two paths are known respectively as Gevurah (strength) vs. Chesed (loving kindness). Both approaches in and of themselves are flawed.
Judaism always advocated an ethos of education based on the path of love and enlightenment, but it also understood the need, at times, for force and coercion as a means to an end. At times, destructive behavior needs to be stopped immediately, and if the child will not respond to peaceful pleas and explanations, you must employ the minimum amount of required force to set the person and the situation straight.
Yet even while employing force, you must never lose focus of your ultimate objective, which is to enlighten the child and educate him or her to internally appreciate the proper way to live.
A Developing Nation
When the Jewish people departed from Egypt after decades of physical and psychological oppression, they were raw and crude. Steeped for two centuries in the immoral culture of Egyptian pagan society and stripped of much of their human dignity, they had developed a profound obstinacy and roughness. Let us recall Moses' cry to G-d shortly after the Exodus (2), "What shall I do for this people? Just a little longer and they will stone me!'"
That is why the generation that emerged from Egyptian bondage and abuse was, according to the biblical narrative, constantly rebelling, hollering, fighting and arguing. They had simply been through too much to develop a sense of loyalty, confidence, optimism, hope, and an attitude of trust. They had been beaten slaves for too long. Ultimately, they were emotionally
unequipped to conquer and settle the Holy Land. They died in the desert.
The potential for spiritual and psychological refinement was no doubt present. According to the Kabbalah, the generation that departed Egypt possessed extraordinarily lofty souls, never to be repeated in our history. But before any refinement could be achieved, the outer "rock" needed to be cracked. The "hard skin" they developed over 210 years in exile, needed to be penetrated before its inner vibrant and fresh waters could be discovered.
That is why, immediately after the Exodus, G-d instructed Moses to strike the rock. At this primitive point in Jewish history, smiting the "rock" was appropriate, indeed critical. Their hearts were too dense to be pierced in any other way.
A New Generation
Forty years later, their children and grandchildren, born and raised in liberty and in a highly spiritual environment, developed a sense of selfhood quite different from their parents and grandparents. Forty years in wilderness, in the presence of Moses, Aaron and divine miracles, leaves a dent. The nation had spiritually matured.
But suddenly, they, too, began to lament and kvetch about a lack of water. Yet a subtle reading of the text exposes us to a tune quite different from the tune present in their parents' cry 40 years earlier. This new generation of Jews asks only for water, not for meat or other delicacies. They do not express their craving to return to Egypt. Nor do they wish to stone Moses. They are simply terrified of the prospects of death by thirst.
G-d was sensitive to the nuanced distinctions. He commanded Moses to speak to the rock, rather than strike it. "Now you must speak to it, teach it a chapter of Torah and it will produce water," in the above recorded words of the Midrash. The Jews have come a long way. The model of smiting must be replaced with the model of teaching and inspiring.
At that critical juncture, Moses was unable to metamorphose himself. Moses, who came to identify so deeply with the generation he painstakingly liberated from Egyptian genocide and slavery and worked incessantly for their development as a free and holy people, could not easily "change his skin" and assume a new model of leadership. Moses, calling the people "rebels," struck the rock. He continued to employ the method of rebuke and strength. And he
struck it twice, because when you attempt to change things through pressure, rather than by persuasion, you must always do it more than once.
This demonstrated that Moses was not the person qualified to take the new generation into its land. Moses belonged to the older generation. Because of his profound love and attachment to that generation — about whom he told G-d that should He not forgive them, He could erase Moses' name from the Torah (4) — Moses did not possess the ability to properly assess the transformation that had taken place in the young generation of Jews who had come of age. That is why G-d told Moses, "You did not have faith in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel." Instead of trusting G-d's assessment of the new generation, and exposing their elevated spiritual status, Moses diminished their moral level, creating a crock in their profound and mature relationship with G-d.
Moses' place, it turned out, was in desert with his beloved people, these heroic souls who began the march from slavery to freedom, but could not complete it because of the horrific pain they have endured.
Two Types of Stones
The above explanation will explain another curious anomaly in the biblical description of the two incidents with the water. The description for the "rock" in the first incident is the Hebrew term "tzur." The description for the rock in the second incident is the Hebrew term "selah." Why?
In English we translate both Hebrew words — tzur and selah — to mean a rock. But in the Hebrew there is a significant difference between the two terms. A tzur is a rock that is hard and solid both in its exterior and interior parts. It is all rock. A selah, on the other hand, is a rock that is hard and rocky on its outside, but its interior contains water or moisture (5).
When you are dealing with a "rock" that has no moisture stored in it, you have no choice but to smite it. However, when you are confronted with a rock that is merely rocky on the outside but soft on the inside, you have no right to smite it. Now, you must speak to it and inspire it to reveal its internal waters of wisdom, love and inspiration.
Clash of Civilizations
Just as this is true in the word of child rearing and education, it is also true regarding our attempt to eliminate clashes between cultures and civilizations, and create a world of peace.
Here, too, people can be divided into two categories: the strikers and the talkers.
Some people are hawks by nature. They are convinced that every clash must be dealt with through force and coercion. You must "strike the rock" until it surrenders. Others are lovey-dovey pacifists who believe exclusively in "speaking to the rock," never employing aggressive measures.
Either perspective used exclusive of the other is wrong. Force and violence ought never be embraced as an ultimate goal. Violence is ugly, painful and sad. But when other attempts fail, righteous might is the only response to immoral violence. Adolf Hitler was not defeated through negotiation, but through war. There are many innocent men and women alive today solely because others used force to save their lives.
Moral Violence vs. Immoral Violence
A close friend of mine, a Jewish man recently taking a stroll one night in Colombia, was attacked by two men, who tried to stab him.
My friend, by nature a very peaceful and emotionally sensitive individual, employed violence. He kicked them hard, stunned the thugs and escaped.
He did not tell them, "Hey, guys, I promise you that when I return to the U.S. I will go to therapy to find out why you hate me." Or, "You must be so deeply frustrated because your father was so poor and your mother an alcoholic; let me give you a big hug." Had he done that, it is most likely that his three children would be orphans today.
The key is to distinguish between moral violence and immoral violence.
Violence used by police is what stops violent criminals from murdering and hurting innocent people. In the last few days, IDF soldiers shot dead terrorists trying to fire rockets on civilians. Had these gangsters not been shot, scores of innocent people could have died.
If somebody had killed the Muslim savages before they beheaded Daniel Pearl, Nicholas Berg, Paul Johnson and Kim Sun-il, that person would have performed the greatest mitzvah in the world: saving an innocent human being from death.
Winston Churchill once said: "Appeasement is feeding the sharks in the hope that you will be eaten last." When you are dealing with a shark, you must smite the "rock." If not, innocents will die. At other times, you must speak to the rock.
In the wise words of King Solomon (6): "There is a time for everything under the heaven… A time to kill and a time to heal; a time to wreck and a time to build… A time to embrace and a time to shun embrace… A time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace." May we add: A time for smiting a rock and a time for speaking to a rock.
We must always be ready to change our vision and mentality based on the reality confronting us. When the opportunity is ripe for love and respect, when you see that you can change the reality through education, enlightenment and words, you must employ this path with the same vigor and passion that you employed previously the method of coercion.
(This essay is based on a discourse of the year 1872 by Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch, the fourth Lubavitcher Rebbe (1834-1882); and on a discourse of 1909 by his son, the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Dovber of Lubavitch (1860-1920) (7)).
1) Numbers 20 2:12.
2) Exodus 17:2-7.
3) Yalkut Shimoni Chukas Remez 763 toward the end. This book is one of the most popular early Midrashic collections on the Bible, compiled by Rabbi Shimon Ashkenazi HaDarshan of Frankfurt (circa 1260). Many Midrashim are known only because they are cited in this work.
4) Exodus 32:32.
5) An interesting observation only demonstrates the extraordinary meticulousness of the Hebrew tongue.
The word selah is comprised of three Hebrew letters, samach, lamed and ayin. Now, when you spell out the letter samach fully, the middle letter will be mem. When you spell out the letter lamed, the middle letter is mem. Finally, when you spell out ayin, the middle letter is yud. Together they make up the word mayim, which means water. This represents the fact that the selah is only rock on its outside. But if you probe its strata, and you reach its
most inner point, you will encounter water.
6) Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.
7) These discourses are published in Sefer Hamaamarim 5632 vol. 2 Parshas Chukas; Sefer Hamaamarim 5669 Parshas Chukas. Some of their ideas are apparently based on the Klei Yakar's final explanation to this episode (Klei Yakar to Numbers Ibid.).