Numbers 19:1 – 22:1
What does it mean to bring water from the rock?
Miriam has just died. Moses and Aaron are mourning. The Israelites are clamoring, yet again, against Moses. This time, they are demanding water because Miriam had been the water diviner for the community, and now she was gone. Not knowing what to do, Moses turns to God, who commands him to tap the rock with his staff so that water will come forth.
The imagery captures our imaginations. In the dry and desolate Wilderness, life is precarious and water a precious commodity. Yet the Wilderness, when all seems hopeless, is exactly where our ancestors encounter God over and again. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of death, Thou art with me …” [Psalm 23:4]
It is almost as if, in order to truly find God, we must first come face to face with our own vulnerability.
In our parasha, Moses makes a terrible mistake. When God commands him to tap the rock, Moses turns to the Israelites and says: “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” [Num. 20:10] Then he smacks the rock not once, but twice with his staff.
God’s response was both swift and personally devastating for Moses. God said: “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land I have given them.” [Num. 20:12]
What precisely did Moses do wrong? He used the word, “we.” He said, “… shall we get water for you out of this rock.”
On the one hand, I think that Moses deserves a little slack here. The poor man has just lost his sister, and he has had a difficult and thankless time of it trying to lead our people out of Egypt. It could have merely been his frustration speaking, just this once. On the other hand, the people will follow his example, even as they complain every step of the way. His responsibility as a role model does not allow, not even once, for him to even suggest that he has power like God.
From a cosmic standpoint, to the extent that we could even understand such a position, this may well be an irrecoverable mistake. Yet, there may also be a more human lesson here. When we put ourselves in emotional armor, so much so that we replace the “Thou” of God with “we,” when we think of ourselves as powerful and in command of our domains, that could be when what we need most is time in the Wilderness. The Promised Land, and I am not referring merely to geography, may only reachable after we have learned to take off our armor, after we have been forced to drink water from the rock.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras