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his week's Torah portion
contains a difficult pas-
sage that has puzzled in-
terpreters of the Bible
throughout all the centuries. The
Hebrew people, journeying
through the desert, complain of
thirst. They cry out, "Why did
you make us leave Egypt to bring
us to this wretched place, where
there is not even water to drink!"
God tells Moses to gather the
people around a great rock. He
commands him to speak to it and
bring forth water from it. When
the people assemble, Moses be-
rates them, saying "Listen, you
rebels, shall we then bring forth
water for you from this rock?"
Whereupon Moses raised his
hand and he struck the rock
twice. Out came copious water.
Moses then hears the Divine de-
cree of punishment that is im-
mediate and decisive. "Since you
didn't believe in Me enough to af-
firm My sanctity in the sight of
the children of Israel, you, Moses
and Aaron, will not be privileged
to lead this multitude into the
land that I have given them."
Why so grievous a punishment
of so minor an offense? The great
vision that Moses had dreamed
about, the entrance into the land
of Canaan, was to be denied him.
For what reason? What was the
severity of his transgression?
Commentators, ancient, me-
dieval and modem, struggle with
this question. Rashi, the classi-
cal commentator, declares that
the sin of Moses was that he
struck the rock instead of speak-
ing to it and that, therefore, the
will of the Almighty was not ful-
filled. Somehow the explanation
Another commentator, the
Akedat Yitzchok, concedes his in-
ability to explain. Maimonides
declares that the sin of Moses
was his anger. Moses spoke to
the people and said, "Hearken
unto me, you rebels." "The great
leader," said Maimonides,
"should not have given way to
anger." Yet another great com-
mentator, Nachmanides takes
Maimonides to task and refutes
We see a great diversity of
opinion as to what it was that
brought about the penalty that
Moses, who had led the children
of Israel out of Egyptian bondage,
was not to be the leader who
would bring them into the land
of Canaan. But all of the com-
mentators address a common
Irwin Groner is senior rabbi at
Congregation Shaarey Zedek.
The real offense of Moses was
not that he struck the rock in-
stead of speaking to it. His trans-
gression was in his motivation,
attitude and inner response. He
was impatient and exasperated,
evidencing at that moment defi-
ciency in his faith in God and love
of his people. When he turned to
them and said "Listen to me, you
rebels," he demonstrated his dis-
dain and contempt of those whom
he was to elevate and guide.
When he said, "Shall we draw
water for you from this rock?" his
words intimated skepticism of
Granted this was a display of
impatience, anger and doubt, but
it was a brief episode. Should
Moses be denied the attainment
of his life's goal for this offense?
Should this lapse of Moses from
his usual standards of patience,
faith and inner strength be so
harshly punished? Was the sin
really so grievous? Other men
sinned more and suffered less.
But in asking the question a
second time, we have implicitly
answered it. To other men, anger
and impatience could be forgiv-
en, but not Moses. Others could
utter harsh words under provo-
cations and achieve forgiveness,
but not Moses. Others could
burst forth in a rage of denial and
Numbers 19:1 -22:1
Judges 11 :1 -3.
skepticism, but after supplica-
tion, once more win favor from
God, but not _Moses. Common
faults can be forgiven common
men, but Moses was most un-
common man. Because of his
preeminence, he was expected to
stand head and shoulders above
others in conduct and character.
He was a divine messenger,
speaking in the name of the
Almighty. Therefore, his exalt-
ed respnsibility and high privi-
lege should have been matched
by equally great powers of re-
straint, patience and forgiveness.
This truth speaks not only to
Moses, but to all of us. He who
enjoys a privilege has a com-
mensurate responsibility. The
greater the privilege, the larger
the obligation. It matters not
whether the privilege is leader-
ship, wealth, education or talent.
The Talmud says that with the