THE WELL, THE ROCK, SPEAKING AND STRIKING
“Now they came, the Children of Israel, the entire community, to the Wilderness of Tzin, in the first New-Moon. The people stayed in Kadesh. Miriam died there, and she was buried there. Now there was no water for the community, so they assembled against Moshe and against and Aharon; the people quarreled with Moshe, they said, saying: Now would that we had expired when our brothers expired before the presence of God! Now why did you bring the assembly of God into this wilderness, to die there, we and our cattle? . . . Moshe and Aharon came away from the presence of the assembly to the entrance of the Tent of Appointment, and flung themselves upon their faces. The Glory of God was seen by them, and God spoke to Moshe saying: Take the staff and assemble the community, you and Aharon your brother; you are to speak to the boulder before their eyes so that it gives forth its water, so that you may give drink to the assembly and their cattle.
So Moshe took the staff from before the presence of God, as He had commanded him. And Moshe and Aharon assembled the assembly facing the boulder. He said to them: Now hear, you rebels, from this boulder must we bring forth water? And Moshe raised his hand and struck the boulder with his staff, twice, so that abudant water came out; and the community and their cattle drank. Now God said to Moshe and to Aharon: Because you did not have trust in me to treat me as holy before the eyes of the Children of Israel, therefore: you two shall not bring this assembly into the land that I am giving them. Those were the Waters of Meriva/Quarreling, where the Children of Israel quarreled with God, and He was hallowed through them. (Bemidbar 20:1-13)
When Chazal and the traditional commentators read these verses, they found in them an endless source for derashot, drawing from them – through speech - “many waters”. . . and, as is known, “Water is none other than Torah”. They homiletically expounded the juxtaposition of the parasha of the red heifer to that of Miriam’s death. Similarly, with great sensitivity, they noted the connection between the death of Miram and the death of water:
“Rabbi Yossi, son of Rabbi Yehudah, said: Israel had three great leaders: Moshe, Aharon, and Miriam. And they gave Israel three fine gifts: the well, the cloud, and the manna. The well – thanks to Miram; the pillar of cloud – thanks to Aharon; manna – thanks to Moshe. Miriam died – the well disappeared, as is written (Bemidbar 20) “There Miriam died” and this is followed by “there was no water for the assembly”. (Bavli, Taanit 9a, and elsewhere).
Chazal, and in their footsteps Rashi and others, describe a non-conventional reality – a well which accompanies the Children of Israel in the wilderness. This well is mentioned in Tractate Avot (5:6) among the ten phenomena which were created Sabbath Eve at sunset. The author of the Siftei Chachamim points out that the well was attributed to Miriam because “she waited near Moshe on the Nile, to see what what would happen to him when he was thrown in the basket.”
The waters which flowed from the well were the source of life. When Miriam died, the well disappeared, the source of life disappeared. The people react to the lack of water and Miriam’s absence indirectly, with feelings of desperation and death wishes (Rabbi Efrayim of Lunchitz, author of “Kli Yakar” explains that they did not eulogize Miriam properly and did not mourn her death in a direct manner). Moshe and Aharon cannot cope with these feelings, and they flee to the entrance of the Tent of Appointment. Some commentators understand this flight as a failure of leadership, which finds expression further on in the parasha. Many commentators, Rishonim and Achronim, dealt with the question of “the sin and its punishment” of Moshe our teacher (an extensive summation of the different approaches may be found in Prof. Nechama Leibowitz’s STUDIES IN THE BOOK OF BEMIDBAR) and they found different reasons for the prevention of Moshe’s entry into Eretz Yisrael.
A plain-reading of Chapter 20:7-13, must call the reader’s attention to the connection between the striking of the rock and Moshe and Aharon’s not entering Eretz Yisrael. :
God spoke to Moshe saying: Take the staff and assemble the community, you and Aharon your brother; you are to speak to the boulder before their eyes so that it gives forth its water . . . And Moshe raised his hand and struck the boulder with his staff, twice . . . . Now God said to Moshe and to Aharon: Because you did not have trust in me to treat me as holy before the eyes of the Children of Israel, therefore: you two shall not bring this assembly into the land that I am giving them”.
The Holy one, Blessed Be He, commandes Moshe “to speak” to the rock so that it release its waters; Moshe does not speak, but he “strikes” the rock. True, “many waters” flow from the rock after its being struck, but Moshe and Aharon are accused of a lack of faith, and of missing an opportunity to publicly sanctify the Lord, and therefore it was decreed that they may not enter Eretz Yisrael, - or, more in keeping with the text – they will not bring the assembly into the land. In other words, their leadership responsibility will end before the entry into the land.
This reading ignores the wider context which includes the death of Miriam, the disappearance of the well, and Moshe and Aharon’s inability to cope with the despair which infects the nation after Miriam’s passing. Perhaps this is the reason why the commentators do not consider the striking of the rock to be sufficient reason for the punishment given Moshe.
Close study of the verses permits a reading with reveals a connection between the different events described in the parasha – with ramifications for future generations.
The Generation of the Wilderness was an impatient generation. When it left Egypt, it was promised that it would reach its destination, a land flowing with milk and honey. The desert reality slaps the face of the generation, crises often marked by expressions of despair are heard; no food, no water, no hope. In these situations, the nation comes with harsh complaints to the leaders who brought them to “die in the desert”. We find different manifestations of this hopelessness. The sin of the Calf, Korach, the spies, the Waters of Controversy, Baal Pe’or, all these express the difficulties of this generation to manage a situation of uncertainty. Sometimes, in especially difficult moments, Moshe does not have the strength to contain the despair and the anger.
When the life of her younger brother was in danger, Miriam the prophetess, sister of Aharon, waited until Pharaoh’s daughter discovered Moshe’s basket and saved him. Thanks to that waiting, to that patience, that ability to contain unclear situations which usually arouse great apprehension, Miriam – and with her all the Children of Israel – acquired a well which was a source of life, a source of hope in a situation of wilderness uncertainty.
With Miriam’s death, the people’s ability to wait disappeared – “And when Miram died, the well was taken away”. The patience vanished. The people’s capacity (and also, temporarily, that of Moshe and Aharon) for accommodating uncertainty disappeared. Perhaps the Generation of the Wilderness – of which Moshe and Aharon were a part – is so-called because of its inability to cope with wilderness situations.
Different periods in the life of a nation are characterized by uncertainty; in order to deal with the ‘wilderness’ uncertainty, patience and moderation are needed, belief in a better future is required. Leadership which can lead a generation in wilderness situations is a “leadership which speaks”, not one which “strikes”. Only despair, resulting from lack of faith, hope, and tolerance, can create the dangerous illusion that complex situations can be resolved by use of force. The parasha of ‘Mei Meriva” –The Waters of Rebellion – and its adjacency to the death of Miriam teach us the perils attendant upon the blurring of boundaries between power and holiness. Sometimes, an entire generation pays the price of such blurring of boundaries.
Pinchas Leiser, edotor of “Shabbat Shalom” is a psychologist.