Chapter 20 of the book of Numbers describes how, when the people reach the wilderness of Zin, they find nothing to drink. Completely helpless, they rebel against their leaders, arguing that it would have been better to be slaves in Egypt than dead of thirst in the wilderness. If this situation sounds familiar, it is.
A very similar story is told in parshat B’shalach. There, Moses is told by God as follows, “Pass before the people; take with you some of the elders of Israel, and take along the rod with which you struck the Nile, and set out. I will be standing there before you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock and water will issue from it, and the people will drink.” (Exodus 17: 5-6). Moses does so, the people drink, and all is well.
Here in the book of Numbers, the story is strikingly similar. Again, Moses and Aaron ask God what to do, again God commands them, “You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts.” (Numbers 20:8).
However, the result this time is disastrous. Moses hits the rock. The people drink. But God is furious. He tells them, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” (Numbers 20: 12) Why? What did Moses do wrong? Why is it that Moses behaved the same way and yet is now punished for it?
There are a number of classic answers. Rashi points out that God, this time, commanded him to speak to the rock, whereas Moses hit it. Rabbeinu Hananel points out that Moses said, “Shall we get water for you out of this rock?” (Verse 10) denying God’s agency. Nahmanides insists that the problem is that Moses insults the people.
These aspects of Moses’ behavior are all problematic, but to me there is a bigger problem. Moses continues to behave the same way after all these years. He’s still helpless. When the people rise up, he goes directly to God. Moses had been receiving the Torah scroll by scroll (Talmud Gittin 60a) this whole time. He ought to have acquired the wisdom and understanding, and the leadership skills to solve the problem on his own. God realizes that Moses is no longer the right leader for the job. Because, the fact is, now that we’re out of the wilderness, God doesn’t always respond when we ask.
Rabbi Noah Benjamin Bickart is a visiting assistant professor in Jewish and interreligious studies at John Carroll University in University Heights.