Bamidbar 20:1-13 (Robert Alter, trans.)
And the Israelites, the whole community, came to the Wilderness of Zin, in the first month, and the people stayed in Kadesh. And Miriam died there and she was buried there.
And the community had no water, and they assembled against Moses and against Aaron. And the people disputed with Moses, and they said, saying, “Would that we had perished when our brothers perished before the LORD. And why did you bring the LORD’s assembly to this wilderness to die here, and we and our beasts? And why did you take us out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place, not a place of seed or fig tree or vine or pomegranate, and no water to drink?” And Moses, and Aaron with him, came away from the assembly to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and fell on their faces, and the LORD’s glory appeared to them. And the LORD 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 water, and I shall bring forth water for them from the rock and give drink to the community and to its beasts.” And Moses took the staff from before the LORD as He had charged. And Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly in front of the rock, and he said to them.”Listen, pray, rebels! Shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?” And Moses raised his hand and he struck the rock with his staff twice and abundant water came out, and the community, with its beasts, drank. And the LORD said to Moses and to Aaron, “Inasmuch as you did not trust Me to sanctify Me before the eyes of the Israelites, even so you shall not bring this assembly to the land that I have given to them.” These are the waters of Meribah, where the Israelites disputed with the LORD and He was sanctified through them.
the whole community: Both Rashi and Abraham ibn Ezra understand this phrase as intended to underlie the fact that the Wilderness generation has died out and that a whole new community of Israelites is now poised to enter the land. The widely shared inference is that the story has now reached the fortieth year of Wilderness wanderings.
And the people disputed with Moses: This story is a close counterpart to the episode of complaint at the beginning of the Wilderness wanderings …
Would that we had perished when our brothers perished before the LORD: To mention the most recent episode, Dathan and Abiram and their followers were swallowed up by the earth, Korah and his people incinerated — instantaneous deaths that now seem preferable to slow death by thirst.
Shall we bring forth water for you from the rock? The verb for taking out or bringing out is the same one the people used (verse 5) to refer to their trajectory from Egypt into the wilderness. Both they and Moses attach the verb to the wrong subject because in both cases it is God who does the bringing out, not Moses and Aaron. Jacob Milgrom, building on an insight of the medieval French Hebrew commentator Bekhor Hashor, persuasively argues that Moses’s sin, for which he is condemned to die outside the borders of the promised land, is his presumptuous claim, at the very moment he is supposed to “sanctify” God in the eyes of the people, that it is he and Aaron who will bring forth the water from the rock. …
…the engimatic episode that takes place in Kadesh, toward the end of the journey. … a double surprise — God’s unusual tenderness toward the children of Israel and His shocking harshness toward Moses and Aaron; the sin that goes unpunished and the punishment without — apparently — a sin create a palpable disjunction between the narrative at the rock and God’s judgment that follows it.
[the difficulty commentators have with] this narrative demonstrates at least one thing: that the Torah has not provided a clear answer to the question of Moses’ culpability.
[According to] Rambam … Moses’ sin lay in his address to the people and not to his striking the rock, “Listen now, you rebels.” An inappropriate anger informs his words. He is punished, however, not for the anger itself but because God at this moment is not Himself angry with the people: Moses is misrepresenting God, Who has just spoken solicitously of them. It is the public context of Moses’ angry outburst that leads to God’s judgment: he has failed to create in them the trust that a conviction of God’s love would have generated …
Avivah Zornberg recounts how the rod recurs in the text, finally going back to its original introduction at the Burning Bush. At that scene, God transforms the rod to a snake and back again, trying to get Moses to take on his role. Zornberg writes:
Moses names [the rod], only to have it transformed into a snake. In other words, Moses is being made aware that his own understanding of things is limited; his names turn out to be inadequate or provisional. Forms will change; new names will have to be found …
God then turns Moses had “leprous,” and then revives it.
After each of the signs, God speaks of emunah — the effect of the sign on the people’s belief.
But God goes back-and-forth on how the different signs may affect the people.
Perhaps this indicates that the underlying issue is Moses’ faith in his people’s faith. The first two signs offer an opportunity of moving Moses to that faith. In both cases, his bodily integrity and his confidence in his own names for things are shaken. … [the signs] are not magical effects, but human meanings transmitted by a messenger who is himself the instrument of emunah.
In other words, the purpose of the rod is not to do magic but to alter Moses’ perception of reality, so that he can be a vehicle for the people to have emunah. Since he sees that things and words can be altered, so too can the solidity of human institutions be molded.
Moses’ remolding of the lives of his people involves violence. That violence — the memory of it — is saturated into Moses’ use of the rod. What happens at Meribah is that Moses can no longer act as a vehicle for emunah. His anger and violence — which was necessary for redemption — now becomes an (impediment to the growth of a new generation.
As stated in one midrash:
When a child is small, his teacher hits him and educates him. But when he grows up, he corrects him with words. So God said to Moses: When this rock was young, you struck it, as it is said, “And you shall strike the rock …” (Exodus 17:6). But now, “You shall speak to the rock” — Recite over it a chapter of Torah and that will produce water from the rock! (Yalkut Shemoni).
What, then, is the emunah, the faith that has sadly not happened here? Maharal offers us a key: the experience of emunah is the experience of being drawn after God, willingly, by His word alone. This experience generates joy. And joy in turn demonstrates the existence of emunah. Moses is to speak to the rock, so that it will transcend its stony nature and be moved in attraction after God. To be attracted to an object is, paradoxically, to be at one’s most free, at one’s most autonomous.
Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner puts it like this: the miracle of the rock that produces water includes the miracle of its effect on the human soul.