You Shall Speak to the Rock

  • Rav Shimon Klein

Three Leaders and Their Place


The Lord said to Moshe and to Aharon, 'Because you did not have faith in me to sanctify Me before the eyes of the Children of Israel therefore you shall not bring this congregation to the land that I have given them. (Bemidbar 20:12)


With these words, Moshe and Aharon's fate is sealed: they will not bring the people into the land that has been given to them. In what way did the two sin? Why was this punishment chosen? In this lesson we will read the verses, ask a series of questions, and then cautiously, with attention to diction set our eyes on the fundamental guidance that the verses contain.


Before we begin our analysis of the details, let us take note of the big picture: the history that takes place in this passage. The verses discuss three individuals: Miriam, Moshe, and Aharon. The time is the beginning of the fortieth year in the wilderness.[1] The last of those who were to die in the wilderness are no longer,[2] and at this juncture the "people," or "assembly," consist of a new generation that is to enter the Land imminently. What will become of those three? Will they join those who died in the wilderness, or will they continue to lead the people as they enter the Land? This unspoken question stands in the background of the passage, where it receives its answer. Miriam passes on. Moshe and Aharon are to reach the end of their tenure in the near future.[3]


The following lines describe the unfolding of events:


The Children of Israel the entire assembly came to the Wilderness of Tzin in the first month, and the people settled at Kadeish. Miriam died there and was buried there. And there was no water for the assembly, and they congregated against Moshe and against Aharon. The people fought with Moshe and did say, "If only we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord! And why have you brought the congregation of the Lord to this wilderness to die there, we and our livestock, and why have you brought us up from Egypt to bring us to this bad place not a place of seeds and figs and pomegranates, with no water to drink?" Moshe and Aharon came, because of the congregation, to the Tent of Meeting and fell on their faces, and the Lord's glory appeared to them." (20:16)


Miriam Died There


The Children of Israel the entire assembly came to the Wilderness of Tzin in the first month, and the people settled at Kadeish. Miriam died there and was buried there. (verse 1)


"The Children of Israel came." The appellation "Children of Israel" connotes identity and destiny: Yisra'el's children." "The entire assembly." The term "assembly" indicates that together they are a revolutionary force with a shared destiny. The addition of the word "entire" serves to repudiate the notion that only part of the assembly was present at the event in question. On the physical level, the term is surprising and extraneous. Fundamentally, the terminology contains within it the message that "the entire assembly" is now here. And what about the many who did not make it those members of the assembly who perished during the long years of wandering through the wilderness?[4] The answer is that this is indeed "the entire assembly" but with a new composition. This sentence, as it were, points to the advantage of the new generation that is to enter the Land.


It would seem that this is the way in which the Sages of the Midrash understood the passage:


"The Children of Israel the entire assembly came." What is "the entire assembly? The complete assembly, the assembly to enter the Land as those who had left Egypt had died, while these are those concerning whom it is written, "And you who cling to the Lord, your God, are all alive today" (Devarim 4:4). (Tanchuma,Chukkat 37)


This sentence will acquire additional significance further on.


"The Wilderness of Tzin." This location is given in several passages as forming the southern border of the Land of Israel.[5] In simple terms, the people reach a place abutting the Land of Israel, and a certain kind of encounter ensues.[6]


"In the first month." What rationale stands behind a statement that includes the month but ignores the year? It would seem that this verse paints a background for the event that is about to take place. To indicate the year would be to give the episode a concrete historical context, with an inherent sequence of cause and effect. On the other hand, by making no mention of the year, the Torah invites the reader to understand the event as occurring more in an abstract, spiritual context, and less in a tangible causal setting. This setting is the first month the month in which the Children of Israel departed Egypt, the month of beginnings. Previously the Tabernacle was first erected in this month; now, as the nation masses at the point of entry to the Land of Israel, it is cause for anticipation of renewal.


"The people settled at Kadeish." Here the Torah introduces a third actor the people and notes its encampment at Kadeish. The "people" are the embodiment of the natural life cycle: the national organism and the spiritual motions that occur within it. The use of a singular verb for it, combined with the action of settlement an act of becoming established in a space indicates that this entity and this organism is becoming assimilated in that space.[7]


"Miriam died there." There, where the people settled at Kadeish, Miriam died. How are we to understand the relationship between the the "entire assembly" of the beginning of the verse, which includes Miriam, and the description of her death "there," when she ceases to be a member of the assembly? Stated differently, to what group does Miriam belong: the generation of the Exodus, or those destined to enter the Land?


This verse gives a complicated answer to the question. Its first component refers to "the entire assembly" the people at their best, including Miriam. However, the verse then takes another step, describing the encampment at Kadeish: a type of assimilation. As a response to this this development, Miriam dies "there" as well as is buried "there," at the seam, as one who is not relevant to the next chapter of the nation's life. "She was buried there." Unlike Yosef, whose remains were transported by the people to its land, Miriam remained "there," in that chapter of national history.


And there was no water for the assembly, and they congregated against Moshe and against Aharon.


"And there was no water for the assembly." Using the progressive past tense, the verse refers back to the point it just left, to the death of Miriam, and notes that concurrently with that event, there was no water for the assembly. The previous time a dearth of water was mentioned was at Refidim, shortly after the Exodus. There Moshe struck the rock and extracted water, and since then no lack thereof has been noted.[8] Now, on the threshold of the Land, there again is no water, and again the manner in which water has heretofore been provided is to be put to the test.


As the Sages said:


"And there was no water for the assembly." We learn [from this] that Israel had the well in the merit of Miriam. Miriam died the well disappeared, then returned in the merit of Moshe (Pesikta Zutrata/Lekach Tov, Bemidbar, Chukkat 122b).


This midrash associates the death of Miriam with the lack of water; responsibility consequently devolves to Moshe, who must contend with the new reality and provide an appropriate solution.


The People Fought with Moshe


The complaint is addressed to the nation's leaders: the people congregate against Moshe and Aharon:


The people fought with Moshe[9] and did say, "If only we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord! And why have you brought the congregation of the Lord to this wilderness to die, we and our livestock?"


The introductory phrase, "the people fought," denotes a crisis that will not pass quietly. The people start off with a heartfelt wish: If only we had perished as our brothers did, before God. The reference is to the generation of the Exodus, which died during the forty years in the wilderness for the sin of protesting about the goodness of the Land. On one side they put their brothers who have died, and on the other themselves, who have been brought "to this wilderness" and now are doomed "to die there" a merciless death by thirst. The fact of the people's referring to themselves as "the congregation of the Lord," in the third person, sets their argument more on the plane of the fundamental and less on the practical level of the personal suffering that they are enduring (and to which they return at the end of their comments: "to die there, we and our livestock").


And why have you brought us up from Egypt to bring us to this bad place not a place of seeds and figs and pomegranates, with no water to drink?"


The people do not stop. They take another step forward and ask, "Why have you brought us up from Egypt?" Did you bring us out from there for this?! "Not a place of seeds and figs and pomegranates, with no water to drink." What you promised us is absent in this place.


What argument are the people really putting forward? What idea is expressed by the words, "And why have you brought the congregation of the Lord to this wilderness"? With these comments, they seemingly draw a contradistinction between themselves and those who died in the wilderness: They died over the course of the forty years of wandering in the wilderness. We survived but what good is that? Instead of the border of the Land, they encounter a parched wilderness, they are denied water perhaps the miracles are now disappearing? while the awaited news is not delivered and they see no light at the end of the tunnel. Against this backdrop, they bewail their bitter fate, even wondering at the value of having left Egypt, while designating the entrance to the Land to which they are just now exposed as a bad place.[10]


At this point the Torah gives the response of the leaders, Moshe and Aharon:


Moshe and Aharon came, because of the congregation, to the Tent of Meeting and fell on their faces, and the Lord's glory appeared to them.


Moshe and Aharon do not respond to what the people have to say. Why? Further, they do not go to the Tent of Meeting of their free will: "Moshe and Aharon came because of the congregation." They are pushed forward not by a programmatic plan, but by the conditions that confront them. All of the above are expressions of the lack of communication between the leaders and the people that lies at the heart of the event. It falls to God to rescue them from the situation in which they find themselves entrapped.


You Shall Speak to the Rock


The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, "Take the staff and congregate the assembly, you and Aharon your brother. You shall speak to the rock before their eyes and it shall give its water, and you shall extract for them water from the rock and give to drink to the assembly and to their livestock."


"Take the staff." The first step, even before a plan of action is described, is to take the staff. The staff, a symbolic extension of its bearer's hand, signifies leadership. Commencing the response to the people's arguments with the taking of the staff means placing the matter of leadership front and center. What staff is this? The use of the definite article indicates a specific, known staff. Given that Moshe takes it "from before the Lord," it stands to reason that this is Aharon's staff, which following the previous disaster that befell the people was placed before God "to be safeguarded, as a sign to rebellious people, so that their complaints against Me cease" (Bemidbar 17:25).[11]Instead of the previous model, in which God repeatedly appears to the people and strikes, a new method is chosen. The staff has within it a story, as well as the capacity to appease the rebellious with memories of things forgotten.


"And congregate the assembly, you and Aharon your brother. You shall speak to the rock before their eyes." The staff will continue to serve its present purpose, but the deed will be done through speech. The immediate parties to the episode are "you" and "the rock"; the outer circle is formed by the watching nation. Yet the words "you shall speak to the rock" are fascinating, phrased as if the rock were a human being! "It shall give its water and you shall give to drink to the assembly and to their livestock." Moshe speaks; the rock acquiesces, accommodates, and gives its water. This description revolves around a certain spiritual perspective on man vis-א-vis nature: there is a rock, there is water within it, and this is defined as "its water." The means of obtaining that water is to speak to the rock. Nature cooperates, and gives the bounty stored up within it.[12] "And you shall extract for them water from the rock." Here we arrive at the circle of onlookers. Once the rock has given the finite quantity of water within it, Moshe extracts from it additional, abundant water. First the approach to the problem is detailed, but it alone cannot suffice to provide water to the entire nation. Only afterward does Moshe intervene to add a blessing to the limited resource, an act that exceeds the limited capacity of the rock itself.


What precedes is the course of action charted by God. The succeeding verses describe the implementation of this plan, as well as the discrepancy between it and the manner in which it is carried out.


Moshe Speaks to the People


"Moshe took the staff from before the Lord." This is the preliminary step, the starting point. Unlike God, who refers to "the staff," Moshe focuses on its location: "before the Lord." This focus attests to a transcendent spirit that grips him, whose mark will be visible in the stages to come.


"As He had commanded him." The focus, again, is on the divine, the transcendent. Contrary to the directions given to speak to the rock on its own level, Moshe comes with baggage, expressed here through reference to divine commandment and authority.


"Moshe and Aharon congregated the congregation before the rock." In the Hebrew, "before" is denoted by lifnei literally, they assemble the people "to the face of the rock." This rock, as it were, has a face, and with that visage it is now prepared to be party to an encounter with the people. Had Moshe implemented the plan as directed, this encounter would have been between him and the rock. Moshe would have spoken to it, and the rock would have acquiesced and given its water as the people looked on. In practice, the rock is indeed prepared for an encounter, but Moshe speaks not to it, but to the people: "He said to them, 'Listen now, rebellious ones' " i.e. rebels against God. Moshe rebukes the people, asking, "Shall we extract water for you from this rock?" Do you believe that we will extract water for you from this rock? The rock, then, will not give its water. This will be no joint enterprise; the water given will not be that of the rock. Rather, we will miraculously extract water from it. Moshe was directed to adopt a novel stance toward the earth and to embark on a new type of dialogue with nature, but does not do so.


"Moshe raised his hand." Speech is followed be action. Why does the Torah note that Moshe raised his hand? Would the account of his striking the rock otherwise be missing something? The raising of Moshe's hand reflects the superior position that he adopts toward nature. "He struck the rock with his staff twice." By this point, it is only fitting that the rock is struck. The staff, which was supposed to herald the arrival of a new spiritual perspective, has returned to its former capacity, in which it symbolizes the exercise of power: the power of God as well as the ability of the nation's leader to subdue nature.


"Much water emerged and the assembly and their livestock drank." In practice, despite the yawning gap between God's commandment and Moshe's implementation, a great quantity of water comes out of the rock, and the people and their animals drink. God facilitates the success of the approach that Moshe has chosen although he will later pay a price for his conduct. Interestingly, though Moshe says, "Shall we extract water for you?" in practice the water is described as emerging of its own accord. The discrepancy bespeaks a natural order that knows how to express itself despite Moshe's attempt to impose overpowering transcendence on it.


Because You Did Not Have Faith in Me


The Lord said to Moshe and to Aharon, 'Because you did not have faith in me to sanctify Me before the eyes of the Children of Israel therefore you shall not bring this congregation to the land that I have given them.


With these words, God summarizes what the two have done, defines their sin, and sets down punishment and consequences.


"You did not have faith in me." Moshe and Aharon were directed to adopt a novel spiritual perspective. Its implementation is dependent on faith in God not belief in God's existence, but faith "in Me" put in the first person, thus establishing the relationship between man and God, with its intimacy and faith, as the crux of the matter. I directed you to have faith in Me, in the fact of My presence, even where you might think I am absent. And what place is this? It is the point of encounter with nature, water, the bounty of the world that I created in particular in the Promised Land, which awaits you. Its acquaintance is properly made through speech. Faith in life, faith in nature, in the world, with these constituting an expression of faith in Me as present within them, manifesting in different forms and behind different veneers. "To sanctify Me." Beyond the point of faith, identification comes through sanctification through dedication of life to that which is holy, that from which life stems.


Despite these directions, the leaders acted in accordance with a different concept, taking the staff "from before the Lord," in obedience to authority, "as He had commanded him," with a raised hand, to the point of a blow symbolizing the gap between high and low, heaven and earth, commander and commanded.


The people of Israel committed a twofold sin in the wake of the Spies' report. They did not believe that the Land could be captured,[13] and they failed to believe in the Land's goodness.[14] Each dimension of the sin carried a distinct punishment.[15] The forty years of traveling through the wilderness resulted from the additional sin of disparaging the Land of Israel.[16]Now, on the eve of entering the Land, those who were to die in the wilderness are no longer, "the entire assembly" of those destined to enter the Land are present, summoned to a crisis that is both to overwhelm and to educate them.


"And there was no water for the assembly." They congregate against their leaders, and are confronted by the reality of the situation in a process that establishes whether Moshe and Aharon are the leaders of the past or the leaders of the future. At a time of crisis, are they capable of moving the people onward toward their destiny, toward the spiritual rejuvenation that they are to undergo upon entering the Land? In this section, the two of them are placed in a situation where they must navigate a crisis using tools with which they are unfamiliar. "Take the staff" but it is to serve as inspiration, rather than in a material capacity. "You shall speak to the rock" before the watching eyes of the nation, and ultimately the rock will give its water, made more plentiful by the blessing that is to rest upon it.  On a deeper level, they are directed to have faith in God in His capacity of residing within the earth, to identify the life latent with it, and to sanctify these in God's name.


Moshe and Aharon did not merit to enter the Land. For them personally, this was a tragic loss. For the people of Israel, they remained "there," in that high place that does not know the depths of reality and of life, that does not descend to the level of physical and material existence, as the earth directs its children to do. For this very reason, the two remain forever in their own eternal place, their doctrine never realized on the personal level, its challenge stationed forever up in the heavens, waiting, from one generation to the next.



(Translated by David B. Greenberg)


[1] A period of thirty-eight years separates this passage from those that precede. That it belongs to the fortieth year is reflected by various elements. Among them is the account of the ensuing death of Aharon (20:2229), an event that later is placed in the fortieth year: "They traveled to Kadeish and encamped at Hor Ha-har at the edge of the Land of Edom, and Aharon the kohein ascended Hor Ha-har by the word of the Lord and died there, in the fortieth year following the exodus of the Children of Israel from the Land of Egypt, in the fifth month, on the first of the month" (33:3738).

[2]  The people's complaint, "If only we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord," refers to those who died in the wilderness over the course of the thirty-eight years as a result of the sin of the Spies. In their thirst, the new generation, on the verge of entering the Land, express nostalgia for the fate of their predecessors.

[3]  The diction here "therefore you shall not bring this congregation to the land that I have given them" concerns their role as leaders, rather than their entering the Land per se. In Devarim, meanwhile, Moshe begs to enter and see the Land not as a leader (Yehoshu'a is described as the leader several verses prior), but as one who seeks merely to be there and see what there is to see.

[4]  All those who were at least twenty years old at the time of the sin of the Spies died in the wilderness. In effect, the eldest members of the people were sixty years old. In the terms of the Torah: "I, the Lord, have spoken. If I do not do this to this entire evil assembly who gather against Me ! In this wilderness shall they expire and there shall they die" (14:35).

[5] Similarly, the spies "ascended and explored the Land from the Wilderness of Tzin to Rechov to the approach of Chamat" (Bemidbar 13:21). The simple sense of the verse is that they ascended and explored the Land,whose borders extend from the Wilderness of Tzin at the south to the approach of Chamat at the north. If we understand the locations given as indicating the route taken, the Wilderness of Tzin serves to indicate the starting point of their travels in the Land. The Wilderness of Tzin similarly appears in the description of the Land's borders given in Parashat Masei (34:34), as well as in the description of the southern border of the land of the tribe of Yehuda given in Yehoshu'a (15:12). Of special note is the description of the borders of the Land found in Yechezkel (47:19), where the southern border is given as the Waters of Strife of Kadeish: "And the southern boundary from Tamar to the Waters of Strife of Kadeish, to the stream, to the Great Sea the southern boundary." Also relevant are the various opinions of modern scholars as to the precise location of the Wilderness of Tzin and Kadeish. If they are in the southern Negev, then it is obvious that they constitute the entrance to the Land of Israel. If they are east of the Jordan, then their relationship to the Land may be less strong.

[6] This is supported by the fact of the verses' emphasis on the place where they arrived and total lack of attention to the place from which they came. This fact puts the focus on the Wilderness of Tzin and the encounter that transpired within it not on the route taken or the journey there. For comparison's sake, in earlier contexts where the Children of Israel reached a given place, the previous encampment and therefore also the journey also bore mention: "Moshe caused Israel to travel from the Sea of Reeds and they went out to the Wilderness of Shur, and they walked three days in the wilderness and did not find water. They came to Marah and could not drink water from Marah, because it was bitter; therefore it was named Marah" (Shemot 15:22-23). Immediately after the stop in Marah, the Torah states that "they came to Eilim and there were twelve springs of water and seventy date palms, and they encamped there on the water" (15:27). Next, "They traveled from Eilim and the entire assembly of the Children of Israel came to the Wilderness of Sin, which is between Eilim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month following their exodus from the Land of Egypt" (16:1). Another such passage is that which details the arrival at Mount Sinai (19:2).

[7] As a background note, the Torah could have made mention of Kadeish in the introductory verse, e.g. "The Children of Israel the entire assembly came to Kadeish, to the Wilderness of Tzin." With regard to the usage of a singular verb, the distinction here is between the usage as it stands "the people va-yeishev at Kadeish" and the alternate possibility, "the people va-yeishevu at Kadeish."

[8]  The first case where water was lacking was that of Marah (Shemot 25:2226), where the available, bitter water was sweetened. The second instance was that of Refidim (16:17), where Moshe struck the rock. No further lack of water is indicated thereafter. It is difficult to imagine that the solution provided was a natural one, and it seems likely enough that the miracles described were not one-time events. This seems to be the idea communicated in Moshe's speech in Devarim, where he describes extraction of water from a rock as parallel to the manna given to the Children of Israel in the wilderness: "And your heart becomes haughty and you forget the Lord, your God, who took you out of the Land of Egypt, out of the place of slaves; who led you through the great and awful wilderness snake, serpent, and scorpion, and thirst in which there was no water; who extracted for you water from the rock of flint; who fed you manna in the wilderness, which your ancestors had not known, in order to cause you discomfort and in order to test you, so as to do good to you at your end" (Devarim 8:1416). In Tehillim, as well, we find a description of what does not seem to be a short-lived phenomenon: "He led them by cloud daily and all night by light of fire. He would breach rocks in the wilderness and gave to drink as from utmost depths. He extracted liquid from a rock and brought down water as rivers" (Tehillim 78:1416). It is interesting that the Torah says nothing of the manner in which water was provided, unlike the oft-repeated description of the provision of manna.

[9] Moshe is the address for the complaint because he is the bearer of responsibility, but nevertheless the people congregate against and express themselves to both parties.

[10] Beyond the arguments advanced, it is clear that this is a new generation. Its younger members did not know Egypt; the older among them knew it only as children and youths. This is a people that defines itself as "the congregation of the Lord," and at the end of the day they speak negatively not of the Land of Israel, but of the wilderness in which they find themselves.


[11] "Moshe placed the staffs before the Lord in the Tent of Testimony. It was that the next day Moshe came to the Tent of Testimony, and behold, the staff of Aharon, of the house of Levi, had blossomed: it put out flowers, budded with buds, and bore almonds. Moshe took out all of the staffs from before the Lord to the Children of Israel; they saw and each took his staff. The Lord said to Moshe, "Return Aharon's staff to before the Testimony to be safeguarded, as a sign to rebellious people, so that their complaints against Me cease and they not die." Moshe did as the Lord had commanded him; so he did. (Bemidbar 17:2226)

[12] It is reasonable to assume that there was a natural spring underneath the rock; otherwise the term "its water" would be without meaning.

[13] This is the subject of the argument between Kalev and the Ten Spies: "Kalev hushed the people toward Moshe and said, 'We shall indeed ascend and inherit it, for we can overcome it,'  but the men who had ascended with him said, 'We cannot ascend toward the people, because it is stronger than we' " (Bemidbar 13:3031).

[14] Here the argument is between Yehoshu'a and Kalev, on one hand, and the other spies, on the other: "And Yehoshu'a son of Nun and Kalev son of Yefuneh, of those who had explored the Land, tore their clothing. They said to the entire assembly of the Children of Israel, saying, 'The land through which we passed to explore it the land is very, very good" (14:67).

[15] The punishment for and discussion of lack of faith in God appear in 14:1125, where Kalev is contrasted with the other spies. The punishment for disparaging the Land appears in verses 2638, which differentiate between Yehoshu'a and Kalev, on one hand, and their ten colleagues, on the other. 

[16]  Disparagement of the Land is noted in the second passage indicated in the previous note (at verse 36), which gives forty years' wandering as the punishment for this sin. Correspondingly, it contains a wealth of expressions denoting a lack of desire for life, as well as various expressions associated with death: the people complain repeatedly and are described as evil, as corpses, as disgusting; the Torah refers to infidelity, plague, and so on: "Until when will this evil assembly complain against Me? I have heard the complaints of the Children of Israel that they complain against Me. Say to them, ' "As I live," says the Lord, "if I shall not do to you as you have spoken in My ears ! In this wilderness shall fall your corpses and all those counted of you according to all your number, from twenty years old upward, because you have complained against Me. If you come to the land where I raised My hand to settle you, other than Kalev son of Yefuneh and Yehoshu'a son of Nun ! And your young ones, who you said would become captives I will bring them and they shall know the land that you have rejected, while your own corpses will fall in this wilderness, and your children will be wandering in the wilderness for forty years and bear your infidelity until your corpses come to an end in the wilderness. According to the number of days that you explored the Land forty days one day for each and every year, shall you bear your sins forty years and you shall know my discontent" ' And the men whom Moshe had sent to explore the Land and returned and caused the assembly to complain against him, disparaging the Land the men who had evilly disparaged the Land died of the plague before the Lord. And Yehoshu'a son of Nun and Kalev son of Yefuneh lived of those men who had gone to explore the Land."