the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts.” Moses took the rod from before the LORD, as He had commanded him. Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank. But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” Those are the Waters of Meribah—meaning that the Israelites quarrelled with the LORD—through which He affirmed His sanctity.
Maimonides said that this parshah had the most intractable problem in the Torah: Moses’ punishment at the Waters of Meribah. Maimonides believed he solved the problem — that Moses was punished for his anger, a claim that Nachmanides said was “nothing but hot air.” Suffice to say that commentators have been deeply troubled by this incident and God’s punishment of Moses.
The Book of Numbers challenges us to think about the basis of religious and political authority. Taken in context, the Waters of Meribah is another failure of humanly based authority. Up to this point every other basis of authority, except for the personal authority of Moses, has been found wanting: individual, hereditary, familial, tribal, by the Elders, by reputation, or democratic. Here now, even Moses is found wanting.
I think this is a very radical message. All forms of authority are potentially flawed, and flawed because of weaknesses in human character. The claim by anybody, including the greatest prophet Moses, to speak or act for God cannot be unconditionally accepted. Of course this does create a troubling problem, because how do we then understand and follow the commandments and obligations which are communicated to us indirectly by other people rather than directly by God.
Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler
We may wonder what this is supposed to teach us. The Vilna Gaon explains that Mosheh was in some doubt about whether he was only meant to speak to the rock. The rock symbolized the stony heart of Israel, and Mosheh believed that when dealing with the yetzer hara, words are insufficient. “A slave cannot be disciplined by words.” (Proverbs 29:19). Or perhaps Israel was on the level of “children,” for whom words are sufficient.
Rabbi Dessler goes on to say that Moses’ confusion ruptured his authority. Should a teacher or authority figure express confusion and doubt to his students or followers? What kind of authority requires the appearance of absolute certainty? How can sharing confusion and doubt strengthen rather weaken a relationship? Does faith require certainty, or the ability to keep seeking while experiencing confusion and doubt?
Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz
… anger affects a person not only when it is unjustified. This is due to the fact that anger’s effect is not to be viewed only in the framework of punishment for a sin, but rather as a ‘natural’ consequence of anger.
Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe
Hashem commanded Moshe to speak to the rock in order that it should give forth water. Moshe erroneously understood that he was supposed to hit the rock to achieve such an outcome. After he hit the rock, Hashem chastised him … Had Moshe spoken to the rock instead of hitting it, Hashem would have indeed been sanctified. People would have reasoned that if a simple rock that cannot speak or hear and does not require sustenance heeds Hashem’s commandments, how much more so must we heed His commandments. This incident could and should have brought others to recognize their obligation toward Hashem. Since it did not effect such results, Moshe and Aaron were punished.
Because of Moses’ anger he misunderstood God’s intent and he lost an opportunity to teach an important lesson. The general teaching, for Rabbi Wolbe, is that weaknesses in our middot, like pride and anger, can lead us to misinterpret God. Understanding Torah requires us to work on our inner flaws.
Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz
… Torah differs from other forms of wisdom. Other forms of wisdom do not relate to the personality or character of its possessor. … When one’s character becomes sullied — for whatever reason — one loses the ability to be a vessel for Torah. Thus, it is not knowledge itself that is affected, but rather the individual who ceases to possess it.