sticks and stones
Shortly before they complete their wandering in the wilderness and enter the land of Israel, the Israelites complain they are thirsty for water. Moses prays to God, who tells him to take his staff, assemble the people by a rock, and then to ‘speak to the rock’. When he does so, God assures him, the rock will give forth water.
What follows is one of the most puzzling – and tragic – episodes in the entire Bible. Moses takes the staff, but instead of speaking to the rock, he strikes it. Water gushes out, but Moses is punished. On account of this incident, God tells him, he will not be permitted to lead the Israelites into their land.
Why should Moses have disobeyed this simple command? And why should his punishment have been so severe, depriving him of his dream of leading the Jewish people into the land of Israel?
Over the centuries Jewish commentators have struggled with these questions and proposed literally dozens of answers. But one suggestion in particular seems to have a resonance for our time, a suggestion put forward by the 18th century German commentator, Rabbi Isaac Bernays.
For Bernays, the clue to the answer lies in an episode which took place nearly forty years earlier. As described in parshat Beshalach, shortly after the exodus from Egypt, the people of Israel complained that they had nothing to drink. In that particular instance, God commanded Moses to take his staff and hit the rock with it. Moses did this and water came out for the people.
With this in mind, Moses behaviour in this week’s portion seems even stranger. He did exactly what he had been commanded to do in the same situation forty years earlier. So to the original question another question must be added: Why did God change the rules of the game, telling Moses to speak to the rock this time rather than hitting it?
Bernays points out that the two episodes took place at two very different moments in Jewish history. The first occurred just after the Children of Israel left Egypt and were about to begin a prolonged period in the wilderness, in which their survival would be dependent on miraculous and divine protection: a pillar of cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night, and for food manna falling from heaven. In such a world, when water is scarce, the way to resolve the crisis is with a miracle. For this reason God commands Moses to use his staff – the same supernatural staff that wrought all the miracles in Egypt – to bring about yet another miracle.
But the episode in this week’s portion takes place forty years later. At this moment the Children of Israel are standing on the threshold of a very different type of existence. They are about to enter their own land, and to start building their own society with their own hands. No longer will they be able to rely on divine intervention; now they must use their own potential. For this reason, God tells Moses that, while he can still hold the staff as a sign of God’s presence, he must talk to the rock himself, and use his voice to bring forth water. What will lead the people from now on, he is being told, is not the miraculous staff in his hand but the words that come out of his mouth.
This focus on Moses now being required to rely on his own words is reflected in the wording of God’s command to Moses. God tells him: “Daber el haselah” – “Speak to the rock”, but he does not tell him what to actually say. In fact, of the hundreds of times in the Bible that God commands Moses to speak, this is the only one in which he does not tell him exactly what he should say. This is the crucial test for Moses. Can he make the transition from being a desert leader, who is a channel for God’s word and relies on miracles, to being a leader in the new reality of the land of Israel, in which he will rely on his own potential? For Moses, it turns out, the transition is too great. He cannot find his own words and relies, as in the past, on the staff of God.
It seems that Moses, the greatest of all prophets, even prophesied his own failure. At his very first encounter with God, at the burning bush, he insisted that he was not cut out for the task of leading the Jewish people. “I am not a man of words”, he insisted. God’s reassuring answer to him was not to worry: “I will be with your mouth, and will instruct you what to say”. And indeed for 40 years God did just that, telling Moses exactly what to say in every situation. Until the moment that the Jewish people were on the verge of entering their land and a new model of leadership was required. At that time, just as Moses had predicted, he was not the man for the task. His own words failed him, and it fell to another leader to take over the challenge of leading the people into a land where human potential, rather than miracles, would play the greatest role in determining their fate.
In others’ words
In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.
David Ben Gurion, interview on CBS-TV, October 5, 1956
On a lighter note
“If only God would give me a sign – like making a large deposit in my name to a Swiss bank account!”