The story of Mei Meriva, which we read in Parashat Chukat (20:2-13), and which tells of how Moshe was punished after striking a rock to produce water for the people, bears close resemblance to a story told of Moshe producing water earlier, in Sefer Shemot (17:1-7). There, too, the people speak angrily to Moshe in response to the absence of water, and God instructs him to produce water from a rock, only in that instance, he was commanded to strike the rock, rather than speak to it. This similarity led some commentators, such as Rabbenu Yosef Bekhor Shor (one of the Tosafists), to conclude that the two accounts actually refer to the same incident. Rabbenu Yosef Bekhor Shor interpreted the verses here in Parashat Chukat in such a way that even here, Moshe was commanded to strike the rock, and thus the two accounts can describe the same event as the one described in Sefer Shemot.
The conventional understanding, however, is that despite the strong resemblances, these were, in truth, two separate events, the first of which occurred within the first several months after the Exodus, and the second of which took place in Benei Yisrael’s final year in the wilderness.
The question, then, becomes, if these are two separate events, then given that the circumstances in both instances were nearly identical, why did God instruct Moshe to strike the rock the first time, and to speak to the rock the second time?
Yalkut Shimoni (Chukat, 763) offers what appears to be a symbolic explanation:
“You shall speak to the rock” – it does not say, “You shall strike.” He [God] said to him [Moshe]: When a youngster is small, his teacher strikes him and teaches him. Once he grows older, he chastises him through speech. Similarly, the Almighty said to Moshe: When this rock was young, you struck it… But now, “You shall speak to the rock.”
According to Yalkut Shimoni, a different course of action was required at Mei Meriva because many years had passed, and the new stage in Benei Yisrael’s development necessitated a new approach. A harsh response – symbolized by striking the rock – may have been appropriate in the nation’s “younger” years, in the first months after the Exodus, but now that the nation had matured over the course of the years of desert travel, the time had come to “speak” and communicate verbally.
Yalkut Shimoni’s comments give rise to several questions, such as what kind of “harshness” was used in dealing with Benei Yisrael in Sefer Shemot, and why exactly the new reality warranted a softer approach. Regardless, it emerges from the Midrash that Moshe was punished because he reacted harshly when the situation called for a gentler response. The difference between striking the rock and speaking to it, symbolically, is the difference between angrily shouting and scolding, and speaking calmly and softly. Moshe’s resorting to the former approach at a time when the latter was warranted rendered him unfit to continue leading the people as they proceeded to the next leg in their historic journey, into Eretz Yisrael.
One of the difficult challenges of education is knowing which approach to use when, determining when one needs to “strike the rock,” to react sternly, and when a situation requires “speaking” with patience and sensitivity. While the answer to this question in some situations is far from clear, Yalkut Shimoni’s comments serve as a warning of the potential dangers of resorting to anger at times when it is inappropriate. Recognizing the severity of unwarranted anger and sternness, we must try to the best of our ability to determine the most effective and appropriate course of action under all circumstances, and remember that, like Moshe at Mei Meriva, the fact that we hold the “staff” which can be used to “strike” does not necessarily mean that this is the appropriate course of action.