by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – June 17, 2010
In the Torah section of Chukat, the Torah goes into length about a specific incident wherein Moses erred. The people of Israel were thirsting for water. G-d told Moses to speak to a given stone that would pour out water for everyone to drink. Instead of speaking to the stone, after being overcome by anger at the people’s demand, Moses struck the stone. Moses is then reprimanded and told that his reign as the people’s leader will come to an end. Moses cannot lead the people of Israel into the promised land. “G-d said to Moses and to Aaron, ‘Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you will not bring this congregation to the land that I have given them” (Bamidbar 20:12). As to the nature of Moses’ sin, there are various interpretations, paramount among them that of Rashi and Maimonides.
Rashi in his commentary on the above verse expresses the opinion that the sin was Moses’ going against G-d’s express instruction of speaking to the stone and striking the stone instead. Speaking to the stone was to give over to the people a message depicting the relationship that the people are to have with G-d – simple acceptance of His authority without need to resort to harsh measures. Had G-d’s instruction been heeded, whereby a dumb inanimate object obeyed the request of G-d as transmitted by His servant Moses, a great sanctification of G-d and His authority would have occurred. In not heeding His instruction, Moses effectively wiped out this sanctification, obliterating the message and desecrating, as it were, the authority of G-d that Moses was meant to bring to the fore.
Maimonides, in his “Shmone Perakim” (chap. 4), understands the sin to revolve around Moses’ allowing himself to be overcome with anger in exclaiming to the people, “Hear now you rebels” (Bamidbar 20:10). Maimonides explains: “Moses was not speaking to ignorant and vicious people, but to an assembly, the most insignificant of whose women, as the Sages put it, were on the plane with [the prophet] Yechezkel the son of Buzi. So, when Moses said or did anything, they subjected his words or actions to the most searching examination. Therefore, when they saw that he waxed wrathful, they said ‘He has no moral imperfection, and if he did not know that G-d is angry with us for demanding water and that we have stirred up the wrath of G-d, he would not have been angry with us.’ However, we do not find that, when G-d spoke to Moses about this matter, He was angry.” By getting angry, Moses, who was seen as the direct reflection of G-d’s word, gave over a different message than what G-d intended. Moses, thereby, effectively negated G-d’s message, akin to profaning His authority.
Whether the core of Moses’ sin was his anger driving him to improperly address the people or his mood propelling him to act against G-d’s instruction, the essence of the matter was Moses’ acting of his own private accord and not in accordance with G-d’s will, thereby skewing the message that G-d wished to present. As leader of the nation of Israel and representative of G-d in this world, it was incumbent upon Moses to transmit G-d’s message as is – no deviations. The people are to learn what G-d desires of them and what G-d thinks of them, and if one is in the position of representing G-d, so to speak, then no personal modifications can be tolerated for that distorts the Divine message. And if one is supposed to be representing G-d and he distorts what G-d has to say, he can not be allowed to continue to represent G-d. This is what happened to Moses. Moses, who was the paradigm of what it means to present G-d’s word, whose every action was seen as a reflection of G-d Himself, could not be allowed to sway from G-d’s word one iota.
An example had to be made of Moses to bring to the fore, with no room for doubt, that no matter how great one is – and one is hard pressed to find one greater than Moses – one must very carefully weigh his actions when it comes to representing the word of G-d. The word of G-d is too important. It cannot be taken lightly, and one is not at the liberty to modify it. Doing so only serves to distort G-d’s message and, thereby, acting contrary to His will. One must always keep in mind who’s boss. Acting contrary to G-d’s will negates the will of the ultimate “boss” and is a desecration of His authority. Until his last day, Moses was considered by G-d as His most devoted servant, but, when Moses erred and misrepresented G-d’s message, G-d had to make clear that there was a deviation, so that His message would not be understood incorrectly.
May we learn from this episode. May any one of us who is seen as expressing the will of G-d, whether he be a rabbi speaking to his congregation, teacher lecturing his students or simply a religious Jew approached by someone not so knowledgeable as he, keep in mind who’s boss and whose message we are representing. We must remember to represent G-d’s message accurately without distortion or deviation. Being true to His message instills that G-d is boss, while deviating says otherwise. Saying otherwise pits one against G-d, a confrontation that one should not want to be in.