Why Did Moses Strike the Rock? The Deeper Story | Aleph Beta

Why Did Moses Hit The Rock?

The Deeper Story Behind Moses Striking The Rock

Rabbi David Fohrman

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

In this week’s Torah portion is the famous story of Moses hitting the rock to get water and God subsequently barring him from leading the nation to the land of Israel. Why would Moses do that? What was his thinking? This week, we will explore this question in the context of water, Miriam, and the question of what it means to have faith.

Click to watch the previous Chukat video referenced in this video: The Reason Moses Had To Speak To The Rock – Was Hitting The Rock So Horrible?

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Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman, and you are watching Aleph Beta, welcome to Parshat Chukat.

This week's Parsha contains one of the most perplexing stories in the entire Torah.

Why Did Moses Strike the Rock for Water?

The people are thirsty and there is no water. Moses turns to God for help and God tells Moses to speak to the rock and water will come out. Instead, Moses hits the rock and as a result he is told he can no longer lead the people into the land of Israel.

Why such a drastic consequence was inflicted upon Moses for such an apparently trivial misdeed is one of the great and abiding mysteries of the Torah. But I think just as puzzling as why he can't go into the land is why Moshe hit the rock in the first place? I mean, God said, speak to the rock, what's the big deal, so just speak to the rock? Why did he insist on hitting the rock?

I think the answer to that is tied up in some mysterious way with a little introductory verse to this story that we often ignore.

Vayavo'u Bnei Yisrael kol ha'eidah Midbar Tzin – the entire people of Israel came to the wilderness of Tzin;

Vatomos sham Miriam – and Miriam died there;

Vatikaver sham – and she was buried there.

Now this verse seems to just come completely out of the blue. Because listen to the next words; V'loh haya mayim la'eidah – but there was no water for the people to drink. Then we go off and we tell the whole story.

Now I say it's an introduction because the Torah itself seems to characterize it this way. First of all, note the letter Vav; V'loh haya mayim la'eidah – AND there was no water for the people. That Vav seems to connect the events that go forward – the lack of water for the people, with the events that just took place, but what does Miriam's death have to do with the fact that there's no water here? Could Miriam's death in some way be the precipitating factor in the fact that there is no water here?

As it turns out, that's precisely how the Midrash understands things. To see how this is so, keep in mind that if you survey the entire travels of the people of Israel through the wilderness for 40 years, you will find three water crises.

God Provides Water from a Rock... in Exodus

The very first water crisis in the desert takes place just after Israel successfully comes out of Egypt and crosses the Sea of Reeds. Right then we have the words; Vayelchu sheloshet yamim bamidbar v'loh matzu mayim – they go for three days in the desert and they can't find water. Now ultimately this water crisis gets solved when God pointed out to Moses a stick, a piece of wood that Moses threw in a bitter oasis and miraculously it made it sweet.

Now the next water crisis we find, things appear to be even more desperate, Moses complains to God; Od me'at u'skaluni – just a little bit more and the people are going to stone me, they're so desperate for water. And if you pay attention, the way this water crisis gets solved is actually by hitting a rock. God tells Moses to hit a rock and the rock would give its water, and that's exactly what happens.

Now the interesting thing about water crisis number 1 and water crisis number 2 is that they both occur exactly when you would expect them to occur. Water crisis number 1 happens three days after the splitting of the sea. Well how long can you go without water? About three days. So that's about when the canteens would run out and the people would have been really, really thirsty and in fact there's a water crisis, right where you would expect there to be one. A few days later whatever water they saved in their canteens from water crisis number 1's resolution now is gone and there's water crisis number 2, right where you would expect it to happen.

But now fast-forward to water crisis number 3 in this week's Parsha, it's now 40 years later. The people are on the cusp of coming into the land. Where did they have water for the last 40 years? The Midrash, quoted by Rashi in this week's Parsha, says that until now they didn't have a problem with water, they had Miriam's well. Evidently the rock that was hit in water crisis number 2 it never stopped giving water, it was their portable source of water. When did it stop giving water? When Miriam dies, right before water crisis number 3.

Moses Strikes the Rock... a Second Time

By the way you see hints of this when God tells Moses to take his staff; V'dibartem el ha'selah – and speak to THE rock. Now, if you think about it, this sounds faintly ridiculous. If I'm Moses and God tells me speak to THE rock, I'm looking around, I say, God, it's a desert here, there's lots of rocks, exactly which rock would you like me to speak to? A rock fine, THE rock? But of course maybe there is THE rock, the one that's been providing water until now. Speak to the rock and it will provide water. In the past you hit it, now I'm asking you to speak to it.

What exactly the difference is between speaking to the rock and hitting the rock, is something I talked about last year, you can look at last year's Chukat video. But for now I want to focus on Miriam's role in all of this, why was there a Well of Miriam? What does Miriam have to do with wells? What does Miriam have to do with water?

The Significance of Miriam and Her Well

The mystery deepens when we take a minute to pause and look at just how deeply Miriam is connected to these three water crises. As we've just seen, she dies in the verse before water crisis number 3. But look at water crisis number 1, in the verse just before that, that's when Miriam sings her song at the sea. Just before water crisis number 1 Miriam sings her song, just before water crisis number 3 Miriam dies, and in water crisis number 2 the rock that Moses hits becomes Miriam's well.

But actually Miriam's connection here runs even deeper. Take Miriam's name; Mem, Reish, Yud, Mem. Remove all vowelization, so you just have Mem, Reish, Yud, Mem. Ask yourselves, how many different Hebrew words can you spell now? It turns out that there are three:

  • If you vowelize Mem, Reish, Yud, Mem one way it can mean Marim – bitter.
  • If you vowelize it another way it can mean; Meirim – to lift up.
  • If you vowelize it yet another way it can mean Morim – rebels.

Now think about these words, where did they show up? Water crisis number 1, how come they couldn't drink the water? Ki marim heim – the waters were bitter. There's Marim – Mem, Reish, Yud, Mem. Water crisis number 3, right before Moses hits the rock he lifts up his hand; Vayarem – that comes from Meirim – to lift up. Finally, when he speaks to the people in concert with hitting the rock: Shimu nah hamorim, he says listen you rebels – Mem, Reish, Yud, Mem once again.

Every, single possible permutation of Miriam's name shows up in the water crises, in which the first one Miriam sings, the last one she dies, in the middle one her rock becomes this well. Miriam is everywhere in these water crises stories, why?

Miriam's Connection to Water

I would suggest to you that to really understand Miriam's connection to these three water crises you have to look at Miriam's broader connection to water itself and that takes us all the way back to the beginning. We meet Miriam at water. Egyptians were casting Jewish infants into the Nile. In desperation the mother of baby Moses places him in this pitiful little box and puts him by some reeds near the shore, and when that happened it was Miriam who stood and watched and ultimately intervened with the daughter of Pharaoh. At the Nile his sister saved him.

But what I want to suggest to you is, it wasn't just at the Nile that she saved him, Miriam is always saving Moses from water. The next time it happens is at the Sea of Reeds. If you look carefully you'll find something remarkable about the salvation of Israel at the Sea of Reeds, and it all happened before. What happened at the sea was just a playing out on a larger canvass of what had once happened at the Nile.

At the Nile one child, Moshe, was threatened by one Egyptian, the daughter of Pharaoh, by a small body of water, a river, and there were a few reeds there. Later on that body of water would not be a small water, would be an entire sea, and there wouldn't just be a couple of reeds, there would be a whole sea full of reeds. And it wouldn't just be one Egyptian threatening just one person from Israel, but it would be an entire army of Egyptians threatening an entire people of Israel. That would happen at the splitting of the sea, and just as Miriam had been there the first time, so would she be there the second.

Va'teitatzav achoto mei'rachok – just as Miriam stood and watched with faith that somehow it was going to work out, so too the people at the sea they stand and watch. Indeed, it's the same words; Hityatzvu ure'u, Moshe tells them, just stand and watch. Have faith, it's going to work out. Indeed, Miriam taught them how to do this – her example at the Nile taught it.

I talked about this in last year's Beshalach video. If you would have asked Miriam at the Nile as the daughter of Pharaoh approaches, what's your plan? Why are you still watching? What Miriam would say is, I don't know what's going to happen, but just because I can't figure it out doesn't mean there's not a way out over here. There's a Master of the Universe here and He has plans that are greater than I can imagine. That's the soul of faith. At the sea Moses said, stand and watch, have faith. It's what Miriam did.

That's why when the people do have faith and the sea splits Miriam sings her song. She taught them how to do this, of course she's going to sing. And one more time she saves Moses – this time, the entire people of Israel along with him.

But it's not just these two times, later Moshe will be threatened by water yet again. Od me'at u'skaluni, he says, in the second water crisis, they're so desperate for water they're going to kill me, they're going to stone me alive. God says, relax, it's going to be okay. He tells him to hit the rock and that rock becomes, of all things, Miriam's well. Miriam somehow saves him one more time.

For 40 years Miriam's well sustains everyone but then she dies and the water that had been there so faithfully in her merit, that's gone too. Suddenly, the people are plunged into a great crisis, a crisis they haven't seen for 40 years. Facing her withered stone, the one that had provided them for so long, he speaks to the people; Shimu nah ha'morim, ha'min ha'selah hazeh notzi lachem mayim – listen you rebels, do you really think we can get water out of this rock? Mem, Reish, Yud, Mem, it's as if he's talking to his dead sister. Shimu nah Miriam – listen Miriam; Ha'min ha'selah hazeh notzi lachem mayim – do you really think we can get water out of this rock without you?

When Aaron dies later on the people mourn, when Moshe dies later on the people mourn, but when the third sibling, Miriam, dies they don't mourn because they're plunged into crisis, they don't have the luxury of mourning, there's no water. But maybe there's one person who mourns? Her brother.

Why Moses Struck the Rock in Anger

It leads him to strike the rock, to try to go back to a time in history when Miriam was alive, back at that second water crisis when he was commanded to strike the rock when Miriam was there and the rock became her well. But Miriam is not there anymore, and God had been asking Moses to have faith.

Yes, that's what God says to Moses when He says: you can't go into the land, you didn't have faith in Me. Why was it a matter of faith? Hitting the rock, speaking to the rock, what's the difference? But somehow it was an issue of faith. God was asking Moses to just stand and watch. You don't have to do anything here, you can't even hit a rock. That only works in Miriam's world, Miriam is gone now.

Moses Smote the Rock Without Faith

God was saying you can't artificially replicate a world in which Miriam was there when Miriam has gone, but you can learn what it is that she taught. She taught that when you can't figure out what to do, when all of the options that you know of don't work, God can introduce an option that you never dreamed about.

Moshe looks at the situation, none of the options work, how are you going to get water for 2.1 million people in the desert? Either the people have this extreme faith and put themselves in God's hands and say, please God give us the water, but they're not doing that. Or somehow Miriam can carry you on her back, and if Miriam was around and her well is here then Miriam can get you the water in her merit, but Miriam is gone. So that's it, there's no other possibilities.

God says, ah but there is another possibility, even without Miriam, even without the people's faith; I have something new up My sleeve, it will work out, I'll give you water. Just speak to the rock. It doesn't make any sense. Yeah, but it doesn't have to make sense, God says. Not to you, not just quite yet. It's the surprising option that you couldn't even have imagined. Have faith in Me. And this in the end is where Moshe failed. Ya'an asher loh he'amantem bi – in the end Moshe didn't have that faith.

The Meaning Behind the Story of Moses and the Rock

In mourning we have a tendency to want desperately to re-create the old times when our loved one was still with us, but they can't be re-created. The harsh reality is they're gone. But you can take what that loved one taught you and move forward into the future. Miriam's well had one last lesson to teach, how to get water without her, and Moses in mourning over his sister did not allow himself to see it.

One of the themes we've been talking about in these last weeks' Parshiyot has been mourning. The aftermath of the sin of the spies seems to be bound up in some kind of excessive mourning. The same for the sin of Korach, and ironically, perhaps, the same even here from Moses himself.

Mourning inspires deeply felt feelings of loss, denial, anger, and those feelings are one thing, but somehow when we take irrevocable actions in the midst of heartbreak, danger indeed lurks there. It was true for the people after the sin of the spies, it was true for Korach, and in some subtle way it may have even been true for Moses himself in what became the great tragedy of a rock that was struck and a leader who could not enter the land.

Thanks for watching. For last year's Chukat video click the link in the top right corner. Enjoy and Shabbat Shalom.

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