The great tragedy in this week’s Torah reading is the incredulous punishment that Gd inflicts upon Moses (Num. 20:12): “therefore you will not bring this congregation into the land.” This astonishingly productive and prophetic figure—the holiest man who ever lived—is prevented from accomplishing his life’s goal and heart’s desire…is literally denied a visa into the Promised Land. He must spend his last days gazing and imagining rather than grasping and settling.
But if so great was the punishment, then what exactly was Moses’ sin? And how does this sin relate to his being prevented from entering the land of Israel?
After 38 years of always having sufficient water the Jews suddenly complain that they have no water to drink…they fear they’ll die of thirst…so they say, “Perhaps we should have remained in Egypt.” You read this and say to yourself, “Oh no, not again!”
Gd tells Moses and Aaron to gather the people, speak to a rock, and that water would come forth from the rock to quench their thirst. Moses calls the people morim “rebels,” smites the rock twice as he had done 38 earlier in a similar incident, and water emerges in abundance.
But Gd is not happy. He informs Moses and Aaron that their lack of faith—in hitting the rock instead of speaking to it as instructed—did not allow His Name to be properly sanctified before the Jews. Moses and Aaron are condemned to die in the wilderness, but neither utters a word of protest or apology to Gd. You read this and it seems so surreal. The punishment is enormous. Does it really fit the crime?
The text suggests that the sin was that Moses smote the rock rather than speaking to it as Gd had commanded. One commentator suggests that the sin was Moses losing his temper and calling the people morim (rebels). Another suggests that Moses and Aaron seem to give themselves credit for bringing forth the water, rather than Gd.
The Midrash looks at this story in a different light—in the light of the verses that immediately precede it (Num. 20:1-2): “The Children of Israel, the whole congregation, arrived at the wilderness of Tzin in the 1st month and the people settled in Kadesh; Miriam died there and was buried there. There was no water for the congregation, and they gathered against Moses and against Aaron.”
The Midrash connects the death of Moses’ sister Miriam with the lack of water. As long as she was alive—the Midrash tells us—her merit was so great that a well miraculously accompanied the people wherever they went. Once she died, the well was no more and the people became thirsty. Perhaps she just had the prophetic ability to be able to find water and this is how the Midrash describes it. Either way, the Midrash highlights the significance of Miriam. She was a prophet and a key leader of Israel.
Yet in today’s parsha the Torah just briefly states that she died and was buried. There’s not a mention of the Jews mourning her death as they did with Aaron and Moses who were accorded a national 30-day mourning period. Not only did the people not seem to appreciate the lifelong service of Miriam, there’s no indication of any words of consolation to her brothers—Moses and Aaron. The people didn’t seem to care much about her passing nor the grief of Moses and Aaron—only that they didn’t have water.
When the Jews complained, Moses and Aaron must have been so disappointed. Not only should the people have had more faith in Gd—Who had provided for them throughout their years in the wilderness—the people should have shown some appreciation to Miriam! How could they be so callous and not mourn her passing or express condolences to her brothers?
When you look at the passage this way, you can understand why Moses and Aaron were so hurt and angry. When they assembled the people to bring forth water from the rock, they were not in a calm state of mind. Gd told Moses to speak to the rock, as though to say: “Moses, I know you’re frustrated and angry, but don’t let your personal feelings get in the way of your service to the people. Speak to them. Teach them to respect Miriam’s memory.”
But Moses was too distraught to heed Gd’s guidance. Instead he lashed out—calling the people rebels—and smote the rock rather than speaking to it. Moses let his anger get the best of him and Aaron concurred.
From the Midrash’s point of view, this was the great “sin” of Moses and Aaron—letting their personal grief and frustration overtake their reason and sense of responsibility. They could have sanctified Gd’s name by speaking with the people, by reminding them of how Gd miraculously provided water through the merit of Miriam. Instead, they let their anger dominate them and lost an opportunity to teach an important lesson.
If you examine the text of the Torah carefully you’ll see that nowhere did Gd ever promised Moses and Aaron they would lead the people into the Promised Land. Their deaths in the wilderness, like Miriam’s, need not be interpreted as a punishment. Indeed, Pirkei Avot (5:8) lists Moses’ burial site outside of the Promised Land as among 10 things Gd had created on the eve of the 1st Shabbat of creation—well before Moses and Aaron. And so one can say that Moses’ not entering the land…had nothing to do with sin and punishment. It was decreed at the end of the creation of the world.
This episode demonstrates their terms of leadership had come to an end. Once they allowed their personal feelings to take control, it was time to pass leadership to others who could remain more dispassionate and above the fray. Moses and Aaron were simply too disappointed with the people to continue as effective leaders and teachers. At that moment, they may well have felt a sense of gratitude and relief.
This does not diminish at all our respect and love for Moses and Aaron. They may not have gotten to the Promised Land, but their lives, their teachings, their personal example ever inspires us. I guess that’s all we can hope for in our lives. Does anyone ever get to see the fulfillment of all of one’s dreams? It may be cliché to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, but like most clichés, it’s true: “Life is a journey, not a destination.” And so what counts the most is not the destination but the journey. What counts the most is not achieving our dreams but who and what we become as we strive to fulfill them. May the journey of our lives be as meaningful as theirs. Amen!