Why Was Moses Punished?

By David Hazony
Wednesday, June 16, 2010

It comes in the Torah portion read this Saturday (Hukat, Numbers 19:1 - 22:1), and it is unquestionably the lowest point in Moses' career. After dragging the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt, giving them the Ten Commandments, overthrowing the Golden Calf, and braving their never-ending backsliding, complaints, and pleas to return to Egypt, Moses is asked by God to perform one more miracle in response to the Israelites' evidently unquenchable thirst. "And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Take the rod, and gather the assembly together . . . and speak to the rock before their eyes; and it shall give forth its water.'"

But instead of speaking to the rock, Moses whacks it with his rod, and not once but twice. Though it yields its water, God immediately doles out an unbelievably severe punishment: "Because you did not believe in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them." Just like the generation of the liberated slaves, Moses must live out his life in the wilderness.

The story raises exceptionally difficult questions. How could Moses' minor modification constitute an infraction so hideous as to be placed on a par with the Sin of the Spies that we read about two weeks ago, characterized by an utter collapse of spirit and faith? Besides, striking the rock with his staff was precisely the miracle he had performed already once before (see Exodus 17). If it was right then, how could it be so wrong now?

The most common answer is that, in failing to fulfill the exact details of the divine command, he too had shown a lack of faith in God. For someone of Moses' high spiritual level, even a tiny show of doubt was a crime heinous enough to justify the punishment it received.

But this doesn't add up. It may be fair to regard Moses in a different light from the other Israelites—after all, he is much closer than they to God, and just as the people closest to us can hurt us deeply with the tiniest of slights, it is understandable that God would take greater offense at an act of disrespect from Moses than from anyone else. Yet why this one, and why now? And why should it mark so decisive a turn in the plot— something so wrong as to change the course of history, depriving Israel of their greatest leader at the moment when arguably they need him most?

The key, it seems, is to be found in the miracle itself. Something about the symbolism of drawing water from the rock through words was incredibly important to God at that  moment, something so great that, had he carried it out to the letter, Moses would have succeeded in imparting to the world a transforming new message.

Throughout the entire exodus story, Moses performs a variety of miracles at divine behest, all designed to prove God's power in the eyes either of the Israelites, of the Egyptians, or of Moses himself. In every case, Moses (or Aaron) is asked to do something physical: to raise a staff or hurl it to the ground, to throw dust in the air, and so forth. These are, if you will, God's party tricks: they act as a constant reminder of His mastery over the physical universe. Back in Egypt, they competed with the magic of Pharaoh's own advisers, the point again being to prove God's superior power.

None of these miracles was effected through words alone. Indeed, the only place in the Torah where we see words causing miracles is in the creation of the universe at the beginning of Genesis. There, we are told, "God said, ‘let there be light,' and there was light." The entire universe is created from the words of God.

Miracles brought about through words are of a separate order altogether, for words issue not so much from the material universe as from the spirit. When we speak, we translate our thoughts or designs or values into living forces. The fact that words can change and have changed the world is itself a miracle, one that we see around us every day and that stands at the heart of our imitation of God's creation of the universe.

Up till now, Moses has used miracles to set the Israelites straight on the issue of just Who holds power over their lives. Yet the strategy has proved but minimally effective, holding the people's attention for a brief time before their spirits again buckle and more miracles are needed. Displays of power, we learn, are good for inducing awe, but do little to sustain one's inner dedication. Something more radical is needed.

Had Moses spoken to the rock rather than striking it, that would have been a miracle unlike any other the Hebrews had ever seen—more fundamental than the Ten Plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea, or the manna from heaven. It would have shown them the power of the affirming spirit. It would have reminded them that they were undergoing their ghoulish odyssey not just to found another nation based on the politics of fear, like the regimes that existed all around them and the one that had dominated their lives in Egypt. Rather,  even if force had to be employed to win their freedom, and would have to be employed again to secure it, they were taking part in a divine mission to create a nation whose success would ultimately turn on the power of its spirit—on the infinite creative capacity of thoughts, words, love, and hope.

Even Moses, it seems, could not keep this clear in his mind when it most counted.

David Hazony's first book, The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life, will be published by Scribner this coming September.


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