“Pass before the people … take the rod with which you struck the Nile…Strike the rock and water will issue from it and the people will drink? And Moses did as he was told. The name of the place was called Meribah because it was a place where the Israelites quarreled.” (Exodus 17:5-7)
This event, at the close of this week’s parashat B’shalach, occurred in the first year of the 40 years of wandering.
At the end of the 40 years the people returned to the waters of Meribah and cried again for sweet water. God spoke to Moses, saying: “Take the staff and assemble the community, you and Aaron your brother, and you shall speak to the rock before their eyes, and it will yield its water, and you shall bring forth water for them from the rock and give drink to the community and to its beasts.” (Numbers 20:7-8)
Moses, however, didn’t do as Gold had told him. Enraged by the people’s complaints, Moses struck the rock twice with his rod. Water indeed came out but God wasn’t pleased: “Inasmuch as you did not trust Me to sanctify Me before the eyes of the Israelites, so you shall not bring this assembly to the land that I have given to them.” (Numbers 10:12)
Two incidents at the same place, Meribah, 40 years apart – the first Moses was told to hit the rock and was praised; the second time, Moses was told to speak to the rock, hit it instead, and was punished.
Rabbi Marc Gellman explains that between these two events was the revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Torah. Sinai was intended to change the people through the covenant and transform raw emotions to reason, physical strength to law, violence to dialogue, and brutality to compassion and justice.
Moses’ defiance the 2nd time was his greatest sin because in hitting the rock Moses showed the people that Sinai had changed nothing at all. God intended that a new age would commence then, but Moses prevented history from moving forward. Sinai wasn’t large enough to matter.
We have to ask – did Moses really not understand God’s command to speak to the rock and its meaning? Rabbi Gellman believes that he did and developed this midrash to explain:
“Moses understood clearly that God wanted him to speak to the rock and usher in the Messianic age of peace and tranquility; however, Moses knew that though the desert land was behind, the land of Canaan was ahead… Moses knew that even though the land was given by God, it would still have to be taken by the people. And [he] knew that the people could not take the land without force….that the strong hand that smote the Egyptians would still be needed to smite the Canaanites. Moses knew that it was too soon for the power of the fist to yield to the power of the word and… by hitting the rock [God would not allow him to] enter the land … [but] at least the people would be able to enter the land.
Moses said to God: ‘It’s too soon for the power of the fist to yield to the power of the word….’
God asked Moses: ‘When do you think it will be time?’
Moses answered: ‘I don’t know. All I do know is that…You were the One Who [first] sanctified the power of the fist… the people learned that the land and the fist go together. If You wanted the fist You should never have given me the signs and wonders. Now it’s too late.”
God was silent… [Moses] said: “Why did You let me do the miracles? Why did You command me to strike the rock the first time? …If the power of the fist is to disappear it must begin with You, El Shaddai. Together we have made Your people free of Pharaoh’s power only to enslave them again to the power of the fist. O God, help us to become free for Your words.”
God said to Moses: “When my people enters the land you shall not enter with them, and neither shall I. I shall only allow a part of My presence to enter. The abundance of My presence I shall keep outside the land. The exiled part … shall be called My Shekhinah and it shall remind the people that I too am in exile… I shall be whole again on that day when the power of the fist vanishes forever. Only on that day will I be One. Only on that day will My Name be One. Only on that day Moses, shall we enter the land together. Only on that day Moses, shall the waters of Meribah become the waters of justice and righteousness shall gush from My holy mountain.”
Then God lifted Moses to Heaven …and the shepherd’s staff slipped from his hand, fell into the waters of Meribah, and was gone forever. And God kissed Moses on the lips and took his breath away.”
We wait still for the power of the word to vanquish the power of the fist, for the world to yield to reason, law, justice, dialogue, compassion, righteousness, and understanding.