In the Torah section of Chukat, we read (Bamidbar 20:7-13): “And G-d spoke to Moses saying: ‘Take the staff and gather together the assembly, you and Aaron your brother, and speak to the rock before their eyes that it shall give its waters. You shall bring forth for them water from the rock and give drink to the assembly and to their animals.’ Moses took the staff from before G-d, as He had commanded him. Moses and Aaron gathered the congregation before the rock and he said to them, ‘Listen now, O rebels, shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?’ Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock with his staff twice; abundant water came forth and the assembly and their animals drank. And 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.’ They are the waters of strife, where the children of Israel contended with G-d, and He was sanctified through them.”
Upon reading the aforementioned episode, we find various interpretations by Biblical commentators of exactly what the sin of Moses and Aaron entailed.
As regards the different interpretations of the sin of Moses and Aaron, R. Mordechai Gifter, the famed rosh yeshiva of the Telz yeshiva in Cleveland, upon commenting on this episode, has been cited to have made a significant point. At first glance, it is difficult to understand what Moses did wrong. However, what emerges from the different interpretations is that upon careful analysis, it is not hard at all to find numerous “imperfections” in such an act, even if done by the likes of Moses.
If it is so easy to come up with such a wide variety of infractions committed by Moses in this apparently innocuous occurrence, R. Gifter continues, what should we think about our own actions? Often, when things do not work out exactly the way we want it, we tend to wonder philosophically, “I’m such a good person; so why are these things happening to me? What did I do wrong?”
From Moses’ act, we can learn a lesson that if his one act could be so laden with “possibly wrong nuances,” there is certainly room to scrutinize our own actions. Acts that we may even think to be admirable may sometimes fall far short.
This is the basis of our Sages’ statement “If one sees punishment befalling him, he should scrutinize his actions” (Babylonian Talmud, Brakhot 5a). Unfortunately, we sometimes look at our behavior superficially and conclude, “I still do not understand what I am doing wrong”. In truth, however, we need to scrutinize our actions in the same fashion that the Torah commentaries scrutinize Moses’ act at “the waters of strife” in determining the basis of Moses’ punishment. Then we will perhaps find that our own actions are not as perfect as we would like to think.