Was Hitting The Rock So Horrible?
The Reason Moses Had To Speak To The Rock
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
In this week's parsha, we are introduced to the strange episode of Moses hitting the rock. Because of this small infraction, we are told, Moses will not be entering the land with the people of Israel. Why? What was the small act of Moses talking to the rock meant to teach the people of Israel?
Click to watch the course referenced in this video: Miriam And The Waters of Strife.
This is Rabbi David Fohrman and welcome to Parshat Chukat.
This week's parsha contains one of the most perplexing episodes in the entire Torah, the episode that gives rise to Moshe's inability to enter the land of Israel.
Why Did Moses Strike the Rock Instead of Speaking to It?The people are thirsting for water, and they come crying to Moshe, and God tells Moshe, speak to a rock and then it will give up its water. But Moshe does not speak to it; instead, he hits it. And in a strange aftermath to that story, God tells Moshe that because of this, he cannot enter the land.
It seems like such a trivial misdeed and for this, God's favorite person arguably is denied the only thing that really matters to him, the chance to lead the Israelites in to the land. Where is the justice in this? It just doesn't seem fair.
So this is a very big question, a question that we really don't have the time to tackle in 10 minutes. I took a stab at it in an audio series that you can find in this site, "Miriam And The Waters Of Strife," but I do want to at least tackle with you a little slice of this question.
Why Was Moses Punished so Severely?In a Midrashic teaching of the Rabbis, the Sages say that Moshe was barred from entering the land, because there was a crucial, secret lesson that Moshe needed to teach the Jewish people at this particular time in their history. It was a lesson that could only be conveyed by him speaking to the rock instead of hitting it – but by hitting the rock, he lost forever the ability to teach the Jews this lesson.
And now, I am going to reveal to you this great lesson, a lesson of such great moment that because of Moshe's failure to transmit it, he could not enter the land, so it must be filled with spiritual importance, so prepare yourselves, you are about to become privy to this great lesson, you would become transformed by it. Are you ready for the lesson? Let's see, how much it transforms you.
The Lesson Behind Moses Speaking to the RockIt takes the form of a kal vachomer. A kal vachomer is a specialized kind of argument, used in the Talmud and other kinds of Midrashic literature. It is essentially an argument from the light to the heavy. Sort of like, if I can't lift 50 pounds, I for sure can't lift a 100.
Here is the argument: if a rock responds when God asks it to give up its water, then the rock, einu medaber v'einu shomea, it does not speak, does not listen, v'einu tzorech leparnoseh, it does not need to make a living, mekyim diburo shel makom, and yet nevertheless, when God speaks to it, it still gives up its water.
So if a rock does that, then for sure, when God asks something of you, you should respond, too. And now, look at yourself, have you been spiritually enlightened? You look just the same as you did before. Well, what happened? You know the great secret. Why are you not transformed? Because there's something wrong with this kal vachomer, it doesn't seem to make any sense. Are you a rock? Ah, what lesson I would take from a rock? I have free choice, I am not a rock.
A colleague of mine once analogized this to a guy who works with computers all day, comes home, just wants a few minutes of peace and quiet, reading the newspaper, but his kids are jumping all over. And he says, 'You kids, I don't understand you, all day long I work with computers. And the computer, when it does something wrong, I don't punish it, and when it does something right, I don't give it lollipops. And you kids, when you do something wrong, I do punish you, and when you do something right, I do give you lollipops. And you still don't listen to me! Why don't you take a lesson from my computer?' Then what would the kids say? Dad has been spending too long in the office, you know, I'm not a computer, what was this kal vachomer?
I want to argue that Rashi is truly telling us something very deep here, we just need to listen very carefully to this kal vachomer in order to discern its message.
Why God Told Moses to Speak to the RockThere is a great clue in this story. You might look at the story superficially and say, you know, the moral of the story is: God doesn't like it when people hit rocks. God thinks that rocks should be spoken to, but the rock is part of nature.
We take our cues from nature, human beings always do. Even now, they take cues from the nature. Did it ever strike you that people in the West Coast is kind of different from the people of the Easy Coast? I think it has something to do with the weather. When it's between 65 and 75 and sunny, 353 days a year, it's different than living through harsh, bitter cold of 10 degrees and windy and hot, humid, sweltering summers. Those experiences affect us, they change our outlook on life. We take our cues from nature and the Israelites in the wilderness, they took their cues from nature too.
What kind of cues, what kind of messages was nature giving the Israelites in the desert? For 40 years, the children of Israel lived a miraculous existence but suddenly, things were about to get much more ordinary. What is it like to live a miraculous existence? What is it like for people? What is it like for nature?
Let's start with nature. You know what it is like for nature? It's like getting your back broken, it is like being a rock that get struck, it is like getting hijacked by the will of your creator. I want to do one thing, if I am the sea, I want to be the sea. But no, now I have to split, why? Because the Creator made me. I don't like splitting, but the boss is here, I have to do it. Rock, a rock doesn't like giving water, a rock likes to lay around in the desert. The Creator comes, and says, now I have to give up the million gallons of water. All right, I will do it, but my back is broken when I do it. It's not what rocks do.
That's one way that God can relate to nature, by breaking nature's back, but when God relates to nature that way, our back is broken too. We get affected by that dynamic between God and nature. The Sages even allude to this when they talk about the revelations at Mount Sinai, being as if God held a mountain over our head and said, accept the Torah, or else, here will be your graves. I will drop the mountain on you.
It doesn't mean that God literally said, I will drop the mountain on you. It means that in a fact, when God shows up at Mount Sinai with the great fire and light show, what are you going to do? Say, no! I don't want to accept the Torah, I'd rather eat a cheeseburger. You're not going to say that! Your back is broken, you're going to accept the Torah, you are going to do it because there are miracles all around you and you are going to say no! You virtually have no choice.
If you live in a world of miracles where nature's back is broken, human beings are just as intimidated except that that world is slowly slipping away. The Jews are about to enter the land, when they do, they will be leaving the world of miracles behind and going to a non-miraculous world. Now it is no longer the time for hitting rocks. The rock has one last lesson to teach that rocks don't just respond when they are struck, the creator can speak and a rock can listen.
Nature can respond to God not because it is forced but just because it wants to. The language of the verse here is very instructive. Forty years ago when Moshe was commanded to strike the rock, the language was, v'hikita vatzurv'yatzu mimenu mayim, you'll strike the rock and water will come out of it. The rock is passive, and Moshe is active. Moshe is drawing water out of the rock.
But now, forty years later when Moshe is told to speak to the rock, the language is venatan meimav, and the rock will give up its water. It is as if the rock is deciding to give, why? Because its creator has asked that of it and the rock just wants to respond. Why would the rock want to respond? Because it is natural for the nature to do so.
You know when we look at inanimate objects like rocks, we think of these things as things that just lie around and are acted upon but don't really do anything by themselves but in a deep kind of way, they sort of do things, don't they?
One of the most perplexing questions in science is why there are laws of nature? Why should rocks and objects feel compelled to follow the very detailed laws of gravity? Why should atoms behave like the laws of chemistry mandate? It would be lot simpler for everything to be just chaotic all the time. In a very deep way one can view nature as not just being passive but being active almost like having a soul as it were, a deep desire, a hunger that it wants to fulfill.
The hunger is very simple, to rise to the expectation of its Creator, to do what its Creator wants. When a rock is a rock, when it follows the laws of physics, it is doing its Creators will joyously. When a grizzly bear plucks a salmon out of the river, it is following its instinct and doing God's will. Nature always does God's will, it is natural and here too human beings can take a cue from nature and that was the great kal vachomer.
Understanding the Depth of Moses' DisobedienceYou are like a rock, you are a creature and the rock is a creature. It's just that you are an animate being with a mind and the rock is an inanimate being but essentially at the core, you are both creatures. If a rock that cannot speak and doesn't need to make a living and if a rock listens when God asks something of it then certainly shouldn't human beings?
We are like rocks, we are a creature, they are a creature. Yeah, so we also have to make a living, yes we also get rewarded and we get punished, that's just the gravy but fundamentally we are like a rock. Shouldn't you listen when God asks something of you?
I think there is a fundamental question that all of us need to ask ourselves. Why bother doing the will of God? Why do we do it? If you are a Jew why follow the Mitzvah, if you are of another religion, why do you observe what you observe? Is it just because what would your neighbors say if you abandon it? What would your kid say, what would your mother say? What if you strip all that away? Or do you think God would throw me in hell? What if you strip that away too?
Would you still do it if you take all the externals, all the ulterior motives away? Is there any positive reason within you, what of the internal reason of why you serve God? That's what the kal vachomer is about. You have to be able to find that reason if you are going to enter the land and continue to serve God.
You are needed to find the internal motivation. The rock was going to help you find it. The rock listens, shouldn't you listen too? You know in a way we look enviously at the world of miracles. If only we had been there to see the miracles, but in a way that's the immature world, that's where all those external stimuli propelling you to do the will of God, but the non-miraculous world, that's the real thing. In that world it is all about whether you have it in yourself to rise to the desires of your creator.
We often talk about the yetzer hara, the evil inclination but what if the yetzer hatov, the good inclination? What's that? Is it an angel that sits perched on your right shoulder, whispering sweet nothings into your ear, is it Frued's super ego? What is it? But maybe it is this. It is something inside you, it is the deepest part of who you are, it is a recognition that I am a creature and I want to be part of nature, I want to be part of this glorious symphony of creatures, doing the will of their Creator.
You know, I once had this experience, years ago. I was on the West Coast, I think it was a Karnal, I was davening mincha, saying the afternoon prayers, looking out towards the ocean and I saw this drift wood out there but then I realized it wasn't drift wood, it was actually harbor seals that were just playing and frolicking in the waves and you just have this desire to jump in. It was the craziest thing in the world but you wanted to be part of it, it was like nature was rejoicing in its Creator and you say, how can I not be part of this?
I think in a deep way that's what so spiritual about getting involved in nature, about going hiking in Yosemite, it just feels like you are part of this symphony of praise. The book of Psalms is all about this when it talks about the heavens and the earth, praising God and when you sense that, how could you not be a part of it? That's what the yetzer hatov really is, I am a creature, how can I not respond?
Why Moses' Disobedience Was Punished by GodIn the end Moshe did not teach this lesson and he could not be the person to bring the people in to the land. They needed someone to help them make that transition to a non-miraculous existence.
Moshe was the man of miracles, he did not do that for them. He did not allow the rock to teach its simple but very profound message but that doesn't mean the rocks lesson is lost for all time.
Thousands of years later, we too live in the non-miraculous world and if we listen carefully maybe we can still hear the rock whispering its answer, sweetly into our ears.