Miriam and the Waters of Strife | Aleph Beta

Miriam And The Waters Of Strife I

Miriam And The Waters Of Strife


Rabbi David Fohrman

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

Miriam and the Waters of Strife Part I


[Narrator] The lecture series you're about to hear is entitled; Miriam, Moses and the Mysterious Waters of Mei Merivah. The original recordings were edited and enhanced to create the audio series you have before you. I hope you enjoy listening.Today we're going to be talking about an issue which I've always found troubling and it concerns the death of Moses. I think that we all in our mind's eye sometimes have memories of poignant parts of the Bible; to me one of the most poignant stories in the Bible is the death of Moses.

Somehow on Simchat Torah - right before Simchat Torah when we read the story of Moses dying and G-d tells him to go up to Mount Nevo and to look on the land of Israel, that he'll see with his eyes; V'shamah loh ta'avor - but he will not pass over into there. Moses has pled with G-d to allow him to go into the land previously in Devarim, in Deuteronomy; Va'etchanan el Hashem ba'eit hahi - I had pleaded with G-d to go into the land. I asked Him to be gracious towards me and I said, that You have just begun to show me Your greatness and Your signs and Your wonders and now won't You please let me go into the land? And; Vayitaber Hashem bi lema'anchem - and G-d became angry with me on your account and said no, you cannot go into the land. So it just strikes me as- it's very poignant and it's very sad.

The question is why did this have to happen? Why could Moses, arguably G-d's favorite person, not go into the land of Israel along with everyone else? The Torah itself tells us and it traces it back to a very strange story which we're going to examine in some depth in Bamidbar, in Parshat Chukat. It's the story of Moses and the rock. According to the simple meaning of the text - and at least the way that Rashi understands it - the reason ultimately why Moses was not allowed to go into the land of Israel was because there was a time in the desert in the fortieth year of the Jews in the desert that the people were thirsty and were asking for water, and G-d told Moses that he was to get water out of a rock for them. The directions were that he was supposed to speak to a rock and the rock was supposed to give its water, and instead, Moses for some reason decides to hit the rock and the rock gives its water.

Just when you thought that everything was fine that Moses just did a trivial misdeed, G-d at the very end of the story says; Ya'an loh he'emantem bi l'hakdisheini l'einei Bnei Yisrael - because you have not had enough faith in Me to sanctify My name before all the people of Israel; Loh tavi'u et ha'kahal hazeh el ha'aretz asher natati lahem - you will not bring this congregation to the land that I have given them.

I think the really obvious and basic question here that I think begs to be answered is, is this really fair? Here you've got somebody who is - again, as I said before - arguably G-d's favorite person and now what does he do, at the very end of his life he hits this rock instead of speaking to it. So we now we say okay, he hasn't done what G-d said, so let's come up with a good punishment for him.

So imagine now we are G-d's heavenly tribunal, we're a group of angels here convened to find a suitable punishment for Moshe who has now hit a rock instead of speaking to it. So what we do is we take his past record into account and we say okay, what are the good things that Moses has done in his life? So what are some good things Moses has done? He's helped free the people, he's been the agent of bringing the Jews out of Egypt. What else has he done? He brought down the Commandments from Sinai, not just brought them down he's taught the Torah to the entire Jewish people. What else has he done? Fought back rebellions, he's put up with a lot of nonsense over 40 years from people complaining that they want to go back to Egypt, he's generally been very patient.

In the story of the Golden Calf, what's G-d ready to do? Wipe them out, right? G-d has a good plan; I'll start over with you, He tells Moses, this is pretty tempting - right? He says, I'll kill everybody else, start over with you. What's Moses' response? Moses' response is, if You do that - You have a choice G-d, all well and good, but if You don't, You can forget about starting with me because; Mecheini nah mi'sifrecha asher katavta - if You destroy them You can just wipe my name out from every place in the Book that it appears, just erase it, because I'm not going to be any part of that. So Moses heroically really sacrifices his own legacy for the Jewish people, throws in his lot with them at the darkest moment of their history when they've worshiped a Golden Calf while he's bringing down the Tablets of the Ten Commandments.

So this is a quite heroic fellow and now these are the good things that he's done in his life, now what are the bad things that Moses has done?

[Response from audience members: He hit the rock.]

He hit the rock. Okay. He killed an Egyptian but he doesn't seem to be blamed for that because he seems to have done because the Egyptian was beating a Jew possibly to death and the Torah doesn't seem to view that as an evil act. The evil act that he has done is that at the end of his life he hit a rock.

All right, fine, so now let's discuss punishment. So the good things that he's done is he's led the Jews out of Egypt, he's given them the Torah, he's sacrificed his life for the entire Jewish people, he's put up with nonsense for the last 40 years. The bad thing that he's done is that he hit a rock. Okay so now what are we going to do punishment-wise, taking into account the record? So we're all deliberating. Now imagine one angel in the back of the room raises his hand and says, excuse me, I have an idea. Yes? I think we should find out what is it this guy really wants, like what is the only thing in life he really wants, he wants to lead the Jews into the land of Israel, let's take that away from him. Let's take the only thing that this man is living for now at the end of his life, let's take that away from him. Everyone says yeah, let's take away from him. I mean this is - it's just not fair! I mean, it just seems to be basic not fair. So how is it that we understand this? It's a very difficult problem.

These are the kinds of questions I think that kids have when they're young and that adults have and we shun to the back of our minds and that's the way it is, but how do we deal with that? How could Moses not have been allowed to enter the land? This is one of the primary questions I'd like to talk about with you as we look in depth at the story of Moses hitting the rock. Our journey will take us not just to this story but to a number of stories through Exodus, into Numbers and into Deuteronomy as we try and piece that together.

Without any further ado, let's begin to look at that story.

By the way, there's something also strange which is that there's no possibility for repentance here either. I mean, usually when someone does something wrong they can apologize and G-d takes that into consideration, and Moses does his best, he pleads with G-d for clemency, but G-d will have none of it. So it's very strange. I mean, here's Moses, G-d's favorite person and clemency is just out of the question. Everyone else G-d gives a second chance to but not Moses. So it's quite strange.

So looking at Bamidbar here, open up your Chumashim to Numbers, Chapter 20, verse 1 and let's read this through and let's discuss what is problematic with this story. What don't we understand about this story? Because besides the general question which is how do we understand the fairness of G-d's response, there's a lot of other problems I think in this story. Here's the story.

Vayavo'u Bnei Yisrael kol ha'eidah Midbar Tzin ba'chodesh ha'rishon - the entire Jewish people came - and this is, again, in the fortieth year, just before they're about to enter the land of Israel - came through the wilderness of Tzin in the first month. Vayeishev ha'am b'Kadesh - and the people settled in Kadesh. Interestingly, the place was called Kadesh because of what happened there. It wasn't yet called Kadesh but it was about to be called Kadesh. Because at the very end of the story we'll find the word Kadesh being used, that G-d was sanctified in this place, and because He was sanctified in this place it was called Kadesh which means sanctified.

Anyways, what happens here? Vatomos sham Miriam - Miriam dies; Vatikaver sham - and she is buried here. Verse 2; V'loh hayah mayim la'eidah - now there was no water and there was no water for the congregation; Vayikahalu al Moshe v'al Aharon - and they congregated against Moses and Aaron. Vayarev ha'am im Moshe - and they argued with Moses; Vayomru - and they said; V'lu gavanu b'givah acheinu lifnei Hashem - if only we had died when our brothers, the people who had died in the sin of the spies, had died before G-d. V'lamah haveitem et kehal Hashem el ha'midbar hazeh - and how come you brought us anyway out from the desert; Lamut sham anachnu u'be'ireinu - just to die here, us and our children and our cattle? V'lamah he'elitanu mi'Mitzrayim - how come you brought us out of Egypt anyway; L'havi otanu el ha'makom hara'ah hazeh - to bring us to this lousy place? Loh mekom zerah - you can't plant any fields here; U'te'einah v'gefen v'rimon - you promised us fruitful places, there is no figs here, there's no vines here, there's no pomegranates here. U'mayim ayin lishtot - there's not even any water.

This is - they've been in the desert for 40 years, they've gone through thick and thin, they're about to enter into the land of Israel, and this is what we've got.

Okay, Vayavoh Moshe v'Aharon mipnei ha'kahal - and Moses and Aaron come out and they extract themselves from in front of the congregation; El petach Ohel Mo'ed - to the front of the Tent of Meeting. Vayiplu al pneihem - they fall upon their faces; Vayeira kevod Hashem aleihem - and the glory of G-d's presence reveals itself to them. Vayedaber Hashem el Moshe leimor - verse 7 - and G-d then said to Moses the following; Kach et ha'mateh - take the staff; V'hakhel et ha'eidah atah v'Aharon achicha - and gather the entire congregation you and Aaron and your brother. V'dibartem el ha'selah l'eineihem - I want you to speak to the rock before their eyes; V'natan meimav - and it will give of its waters; V'hotzeita lahem mayim min ha'selah - and you will draw water out for them from the rock; V'hishkita et ha'eidah v'et be'iram - and you will give to drink the congregation and their cattle and their children.

Vayikach Moshe et ha'mateh milifnei Hashem ka'asher tzivahu - and then Moses took the staff from before G-d just as he was commanded. Vayakhilu Moshe v'Aharon et ha'kahal el pnei ha'salah - and Moses gathered the entire congregation in front of the rock; Vayomer lahem - and said to them; Shimu nah ha'morim - listen you rebellious ones; Ha'min ha'selah hazeh notzi lachem mayim - do you really think we're going to get water out of this rock for you? Vayarem Moshe et yado - and Moses picks up his hand, raises his hand; Vayach et ha'selah b'mateihu pa'amayim - and he struck the rock with his staff twice; Vayeitzu mayim rabim - a lot of water came out; Va'teisht ha'eidah ube'iram - and the people and their cattle drank.

Vayomer Hashem el Moshe v'el Aharon - and G-d then said to Moses and Aaron; Ya'an loh he'emantem bi l'hakdisheini l'einei Bnei Yisrael - because you did not have enough faith in Me to sanctify My name before the Jewish people; Lachein loh tavi'u et ha'kahal hazeh el ha'aretz asher natati lahem - therefore you shall not bring this congregation to the land that I have given them. Heima Mei Merivah asher ravu Bnei Yisrael et Hashem - these are the waters of strife that the Jewish people strove with G-d; Vayikadesh bam - and G-d was sanctified through them. That is the story.

What is difficult about the story? Was G-d sanctified or not? If you look at the very end of the story it says G-d was sanctified. The very end of this says, these are the waters of strife; Vayikadesh bam - and He was sanctified through them. Indeed, the place is named Kadesh because G-d was sanctified in that place, and yet G-d complains that He was not sanctified. So was He sanctified or was He not sanctified? Now let's just actually deal with that question alone for a second. Usually I like to gather a lot of questions and deal with all of them at once, but let's just try and deal with that question alone for a second. How might we resolve that question, that obvious contradiction?

Structurally the answer is - without understanding deeply what it means - but structurally the answer seems to be that Moses failed to sanctify G-d's name but G-d was sanctified through the fact - strangely enough - that G-d deprived him from the opportunity to enter the land perhaps. In other words, but how would He in the end become sanctified? He was going to be sanctified one way or the other; either Moses did the right thing and He was sanctified "through what happened", or Moses does the wrong thing and he doesn't go to the land and He somehow gets sanctified through that - maybe. But it's a good question; what does it mean that He was sanctified when apparently there was a lack of sanctification?

Maybe what's going on is that it looks like Moses is taking the credit for this, because Moses is hitting the rock and Moses improperly took credit for this. Do we - are we going to buy this theory? Is this what's going on in this story? What do you say?

[Response from audience member: No.]

No? Why not? If you look at the command, the command wasn't; all right, bring everyone together and say to them watch how G-d will provide for you, look at this. The command was; all I want you to do is to go and talk to the rock and start talking to the rock and water will come out. Moses didn't do that, he hit the rock and water came out, but he was never commanded to tell everyone about G-d. In other words, he didn't really claim more credit for this than what he was supposed to do, he just didn't follow directions exactly. The problem is, is that the problem that he didn't follow directions exactly?

How do we understand Moshe's very strange question? He's asking them a question, is this a real question, is this a rhetorical question? How come he's asking a question? His grand speech to the people before he gets the water from the rock is; listen you rebels are we really going to get water out of this rock for you? Now what kind of question is that? It's very ambiguous. There's a couple of ways you can read it.

Maybe you could read it that Moses is unsure whether he's going to get water out from the rock. But that seems very difficult to believe that Moses is unsure whether it's going to work, because first of all he does hit the rock apparently expecting water to come out, and it does come out, so they do end up getting water out from the rock. Also remember Moses is not like a guy who has never experienced miracles before, I mean this is the guy that raised his staff and the Red Sea parts, all the 10 plagues. I mean, one after another, there's a whole life of miracles, it's difficult to believe that oh he just couldn't believe that G-d had one more miracle in His pouch. And indeed, he does something and a miracle happens, so it's difficult to believe that he just couldn't believe that it could happen.

Also he says it to the people, he doesn't say it to G-d. When Moses is - Moses in fact does wonder once before whether a miracle would happen but he doesn't express it to the people, he expresses it to G-d. When G-d tells him, for example, back in Exodus that the people are complaining they want meat, so G-d says tell them I'll give them meat, I'll give them all the meat they can eat. Moses protests not to the people, to G-d, and says, how can You say You're going to give them meat? That if You brought all the cattle around and You Shechted it before them, You still wouldn't have enough meat to feed them. Im et kol degei ha'yam ye'esof lahem - if You brought all the fish in the sea, how are you going to feed 2.1 million people? To which G-d says; Ha'yad Hashem tiktzor - what, you're doubting Me? I'm G-d, capital G, O, D, I can do what I want, I'm the Master of the Universe, watch this. All the quail come and dump as much meat as they possibly can.

So we see a couple of things from there. One is that we see that Moshe can doubt G-d but when Moshe doubts G-d he in the past has doubted Him to His face, here you would expect the same thing, if he doesn't think it's going to work why doesn't he just turn to G-d and say G-d, I don't think this is going to work? Instead he seems to accept the command but say to the people - which wouldn't be the right way to do it - can we really get water from this rock? So it seems difficult to say that he was doubting it, so what else did the question mean? Was he unsure, he was taunting them? What was he saying? Was it a rhetorical question?

So clearly one thing that comes across is the tone of Moses' words is what - either contemptuous or exasperated. It's 40 years, it's the end of the line and he has to put up with this and finally he's like - he's upset and he says, are we really going to get water from this rock? He does seem impatient. So maybe you could argue that Moshe's problem is that maybe G-d doesn't think he should be so impatient, maybe that's the problem? But again, that's not actually what G-d accuses him of; what G-d accuses him of is for something else. What does G-d accuse Moses of here? Of not sanctifying His name.

Do you have any problems with that? What does it mean to sanctify His name? What does it mean to sanctify G-d? Now presumably to sanctify G-d means you have to make everybody very impressed with G-d. So now if you think about - something like that, right? So if you think about it for a moment, remember that G-d finds the problem with what Moses has done is two things actually. Listen carefully. Ya'an loh he'emantem bi l'hakdisheini - translate - because you did not have - what - He'emantem bi - because you did not have enough faith in Me to sanctify Me. So Moses is guilty of a lack of faith apparently, which leads him to not sanctify G-d's name. Now what did he do? G-d told him to speak to a rock and instead, he hit a rock. This is very inexplicable to understand how Moses was guilty of either a lack of faith or a failure to sanctify G-d.

Let me just make that clear for a moment through the following demonstration. Let us pretend for a moment that I am not David Fohrman but in fact I am the prophet. [Laughter] You didn't know that prophecy was one of my pet hobbies, but I do do that on the side. Just imagine for the moment that I come to you and I tell you that as a great demonstration of my prophetic powers in the name of G-d, here's what I'm going to do, I am going to speak to this table you see and by speaking to this table I am going to cause this table to begin to overflow with Sprite. Enough Sprite that the entire population of Paolo Alto - and indeed the entire South Peninsula - would be able to drink of the Sprite which comes forth from this table. All I'm going to do is I'm going to say a few words to the table and the Sprite is just going to start pouring. What probability are you assigning to the chance that the Sprite is going to flow here?

[Response from audience member: Zero.]

Zero. Or maybe not quite zero [laughter], but vanishingly close to zero, right? An infinitesimal probability.

But what if I say, oh, I understand I'm dealing with an audience of skeptics, I'm going to make it a bit easier for you to believe right now, here's what we're going to do. I'm not going to merely speak to this table you see, but what I'm going to do is I'm going to gently rap the table with my PalmPilot twice, and as a result of rapping the table with my PalmPilot then the Sprite will flow. Now will you please assign some probability now? Now what's the probability - again, what are the chances that the Sprite will flow? Again, vanishingly close to zero. Are you going to assign greater probability to the Sprite flowing rapping the table? No. Okay.

So now what would happen if indeed I would rap the table and the Sprite would flow? Would you be impressed? Yes you'd be very impressed - right? Okay. We're not going to do that right now, [laughter], but you would be very impressed if that happens, right? You would be just as impressed as if I spoke to it. Really there's no difference, either way you'd be impressed.

Now what did Moses do here? Here's a man that rapped his PalmPilot on a rock and water came to feed 2.1 million people. It's a miracle folks, no matter how you slice it, it's a miracle. How can you accuse this man of lack of faith? Why? Because oh he only had faith that if he hits the rock he'd get the water, not if he would speak to the rock, so he has a lack of faith. I mean, if he really had faith he would have spoken - well it's ridiculous, you speak to the rock, hit the rock, either way the man had faith, he did something, the miracle happened, he apparently thought the miracle would happen, so how can you have a lack of faith?

And why is it a failure to sanctify G-d's name? You'd all be impressed if I said in the name of G-d this is going to happen [unclear 19:34], right? [No?] You think your whole religious - here Fohrman the prophet, it happened, all of this, you're going to be impressed, right? So the Jewish people saw something that was very impressive so how come G-d says you didn't sanctify My name? There's lot of sanctification. Lots of faith, lots of sanctification, all the good things. So how come G-d is upset?

So this is another problem with this story. If G-d had said you didn't follow directions Moses, that's your problem, you should learn to follow directions better, we would understand that. We might not like it but we would understand it; Moses didn't follow directions. All right, he had faith, he sanctified His name but the moral of the story is when G-d says jump it means jump, exactly that way and you don't go doing your own thing. Maybe that's the moral of the story, but that's not what it says here, it's not that he didn't follow directions exactly. Such a very strange thing. Somehow this sin is associated with a lack of faith, but it's very difficult to see how.

Okay, what else is problematic in this story besides this? Why does G-d say in the beginning of this story take the staff and then go to the rock, if he's not supposed to use the staff? He said take the staff! Now this question is [buttressed 20:38] - is made even stronger, by the fact that after Moses takes the staff what does the text tell us? It emphasizes he took the staff; Ka'asher tzivahu - exactly as G-d commanded. So in other words, there's this emphasis on this staff, it's very important for Moses to be having the staff in his hands. Well how come he was told to take a staff that he's not supposed to use? So this is very strange and Moses indeed uses the staff but that's a catastrophe. Okay, that's another difficulty in this story.

To get some historical perspective on the story, the story seems even stranger. Because those of you who know your Biblical history will recall back in Exodus, 40 years ago, about three days after the Jews crossed the Red Sea, there was another water crisis. There were three water crises that are mentioned in the Torah, and what we're dealing with now in Bamidbar - in the Book of Numbers, is the third of those water crises. If we rewind back to water crisis number 2 which happens in Parshat Beshalach in Exodus, we will find that lo and behold you know what G-d says is the way out of that water crisis, the way out is Moses is supposed to take his staff and…?

[Response from audience member: Hit the rock.]

Hit the rock! Well one second, you can't argue that G-d has got something against hitting rocks. I mean, it's not like G-d just doesn't like that. Because G-d explicitly commanded a rock to be hit before. So then what's going on here? I mean, what's wrong with hitting rocks? Nothing apparently. Because he hit it twice - I mean, that's the problem, he was only supposed to hit it once? Very strange.

So especially when you deal with this in historical context, how come it was okay there and not here? So that's another problem in this story.

Good, what else is strange about this story? The story begins with Miriam's death. But Miriam's death textually is very isolated in this story. In other words, the story is not really about Miriam, it's a water crisis story, but for some reason Miriam's death is appended to the beginning of the story. So you might just say well it's the by the way, Miriam died. But problem number 1 with this is that by the way, Miriam died, is part of the same paragraph as this story. In other words, how do you find paragraphs in the Torah? Every once in a while the Torah will end - instead of going full justification to the end of the line, it will end right over here and there's a space between the next part. That indicates a new idea.

Well lo and behold there's a paragraph that begins with the Jewish people came to Kadesh and Miriam died and then this stuff happened. So this is the topic sentence of the paragraph. Now that's very strange because the rest of the paragraph seems to have nothing to do with it - or does it? If this is a topic sentence of the paragraph it must be that the rest of the paragraph has something to do with it, otherwise, this would have been part of the last of paragraph. So what does Miriam's death have to do with it?

Plus, how come Miriam's death is just stuck in here and nobody mourns her? Which is strange because Miriam is a leader of the Jewish people, she was a famous lady. Now when Aaron dies everybody mourns him for 30 days, when Moses dies everybody mourns him for longer, so there's this tripod here of Moses, Aaron and Miriam, they're all brothers, they're all sisters, and Miriam dies and all of a sudden nobody does anything, what's the reason do you think that nobody mourns Miriam? The reason why nobody mourns Miriam is because they're preoccupied by the fact that they're thirsting to death and they have no water, so mourning is very nice but it's a luxury, right? When you're going to die yourself you don't mourn. So in other words, of all the people who die, Miriam died and there's crisis all around. But again we have question what is the connection between Miriam's death and the rest of the story? This is something which we will address also.

Good. Is there anything else strange about the story? There's another couple of things strange about the story. Is there anything strange about these words? Gather the congregation, G-d says in verse 8, you and Aaron your brother; V'dibartem el ha'selah l'eineihem - and speak to the rock before their eyes. What rock? What rock? How can you say gather the congregation and speak to the rock? If you were Moses what's the next thing you'd ask to G-d?

[Response from audience member: Which rock?]

Which rock? What do You mean 'the rock'? If it's any rock I choose You should have said - it should have said, speak to a rock. If you say speak to the rock and Moses doesn't say which rock, it must be Moses knows which rock.

Plus, there's another problem in all of this, when it says speak to the rock before their eyes; V'natan meimav - and it will give of its waters; V'hotzeita lahem mayim min ha'selah - and you will draw water out from the rock. Now if you think about that, that language is a little repetitious, it really didn't need to say both of those. It could either say, speak to the rock and it will give of its waters, or, speak to the rock and you will draw water out from the rock…

[Narrator] The lecture continues at this point…

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