Chapter 20 in this week’s Torah weekly reading begins with the event of Miriam’s death. One verse later, the Torah tells us “Velah haya lahem mayim” there was no water for the Jewish people. The miraculous fount of gushing water emanating from a rock suddenly stopped, mid-gush, mid-stream, just like that. The Power that made it come forth turned off the tap and gone was the water. This was the first realization the nation had that the water was all in the merit of Miriam. Forty years all drank gustily, never knowing, never thanking she whose good deeds made it possible. Suddenly, Miriam is gone and the water is turned off.
Now I don’t know about you, but if I were trekking many miles in desert land with all my loved ones and my water would be taken from me, I’d be more than a wee bit scared. The Jews were normal in worrying about the now-defunct water fountain. Yet what they did with the situation was problematic. They began bashing past kindness. Supposing you come to my home and I feed you breakfast, lunch and dinner, set up a bed for you, give you supplies for your shower. You might safely assume I will serve you food tomorrow too, no? I’ve exhibited that I’m concerned about you and want to take care of you. G-d had brought down Manna for the Jews to eat, carried them on clouds, given them a miraculous water spout. Shouldn’t the Jews have assumed that G-d would provide for them now, too? But they didn’t. They assumed the worst, thought their end was near, and lashed out, “loo givanoo…” we wish we’d died way back when. You know those lines people say, “I wish I were dead” or such stuff? Grumbling ingrates. If only the Jews had been smart and just prayed, gratefully, saying (as did their forefather Jacob) “Kootantee mikal hachasadim” I am smaller than all the kindness G-d has done. G-d has done so many miracles to get me here, please G-d continue to carry me forward. That is a fine way to daven, and should have been the approach of the Jews.
At this point in the narrative, G-d tells Moshe to “take the staff”, assemble the entire nation and go with Ahron to the rock and speak to it and have it bring forth water again. Moshe and Aharon head to the rock, staff in hand. Then there is a snafu. The rock doesn’t respond right away at the first “hello” said to it. The nation is gathered and antsy. And Moshe lashes out at them, saying, “listen you rebellious ones!” He then hits the rock twice and, miracle of miracles, water gushes forth, the pipeline is open again, water is in abundance.
Ah, but G-d is not pleased. G-d tells Moshe and Aharon, “because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of all the people,” therefore, as consequence, these two great leaders will NOT lead the Jews into the promised land. What was the sin of Moshe and Aharon and why such a harsh decree?
The commentators analyze it from every angle. There is the angle of anger that Moshe has, lashing out at the people. Anger is deadly, it causes many tragedies. But that is not reason enough to understand Moshe being blocked from entry into Israel. There is the angle that Moshe talked about personally bringing the water out, instead of coaching it in terms of G-d doing the act. Yet, that still doesn’t make us understand why leadership was taken away from these two spiritual giants.
My mother shared with me one version of the commentators’ explanation as it pertains to leadership skills. You think Teddy Roosevelt made up the line, “speak softly and carry a big stick”, didn’t you? Well, my friend, Teddy borrowed the idea from here. There are two ways to discipline and lead a nation, or a child, or a student. There is the harsh approach – the slap, the punishment, the consequence, the do-this-or-else approach. It does get folks into line, but there is a lack there. G-d wanted Moshe to carry the staff, to have the ability to censure and punish if need be, but to withhold using that stick and try instead the persuasion approach, the dialogue and talking. And because he didn’t approach the rock that way, he failed in demonstrating to the Jews that speech and dialogue could connect them and compel them to serve G-d.
You see, my friends, Torah does have punishments listed in it. Even death! Yet, G-d would love it if we can finally come to Torah observance with the clear idea that G-d wants to nurture us, just as the host wants to provide for the guest, and that G-d wants our very best. He didn’t give us Torah to find ways to find us in error and to punish us. He gave us Torah because he wants us to have life-giving, thirst-quenching, nurturing lives.
May we all learn to “speak to the rock” that is our stubborn place and get our own stubbborn wills to yield without a whack.