This week we read a very well-known piece on our journey through the desert. God instructs Moses to “speak to the rock” so that “it shall give its waters. You shall bring forth for them water from the rock…”.
Moses does not follow God’s instructions precisely. Instead of speaking to the rock, Moses strikes the rock with his staff, twice. Nevertheless, water does come out of the rock, and the people and their animals receive abundant water.
God is angered by this incident, and tells Moses and Aaron that because they did not obey the instructions given to them, their punishment will be that they do not get to lead the people into the Holy Land.
After the Exodus from Egypt, the people crossed the Red Sea and they complained to Moses that there is no water. God says to Moses; “Strike the rock and water will come forth from it and the people will drink”. Moses follows God’s instructions, and water gushes out of the rock.
In this week’s parasha, we see that with the exception of one specific detail, the rest of the instruction is almost identical. In both cases, God tells Moses to go before the assembly and take his staff with him. The crucial difference is that in this week’s parasha, God instructs Moses to speak to the rock, not to hit it.
Why the difference? In both instances, the people desperately needed water, so why could the procedure not be the same for the second time as it was for the first?
One explanation is that on the first occasion, the concept of hitting or striking was accepted, mainly because the people had just left Egypt, and brutal language and actions were something that their generation understood. However, on the second occasion, the much softer approach of speaking was required by their leader. After all, this generation grew up in freedom, not slavery.
Therefore, our commentators explain that the punishment that Moses received was justified.
While it may be acceptable that the punishment was suitable for Moses, why was Aaron also punished in the same way? The Torah reflects that Aaron was Moses’ partner and assistant, in virtually everything he did. Aside from serving as the first Kohen Gadol, Aaron’s role was to ensure that everything that Moses did, was done according to God’s instruction. Therefore, Aaron should have at least attempted to stop Moses from hitting the rock the second time. As he did not, God punishes Aaron in the same way Moses was punished.
An obvious lesson to learn here is that when we see others doing the wrong thing, we have an obligation to say something, and where possible, do something about it. This lesson can be applied to so many situations we encounter week after week.
There is also a further, unspoken message associated with this story. When we look at the 40 years that the people roamed in the desert, we look at the story as a whole, and acknowledge the many experiences that constitute the entire narrative.
We accept that humans make mistakes, and that there are consequences as well as lessons arising out of those mistakes.
We also accept that we need to look at the bigger picture to get a true perspective on someone’s impact.
Judging Moses and Aaron’s contribution to our story based only on this week’s parasha, gives us a very negative outlook. However, when we look at their contribution and leadership in the context of the full narrative, we see that they accomplished so much more, and were indeed extremely valuable and important to our story.
Yes, it’s important to view each situation and learn from our errors, but it’s equally as important to take a step back and view the story as a whole.
Reverend Sam Zwarenstein