What did Moses do wrong?

After the death of Miriam, the Jewish people find that they are without water after the well provided in her merit dried up. The people complain again to Moses exclaiming that they will die without water. G-d commanded Moses to take his staff, gather the people together and (unlike a similar episode almost forty years earlier) speak to the rock.

Moses takes his staff and gathers the people together as instructed. He rebukes them saying (Bamidbar 20:10) ‘Hear now, you rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock?’ He hits the rock twice and water comes gushing forth. G-d tells Moses and Aharon that since they did not sanctify Him before the people, they would not be able to enter the Land of Israel.

One aspect of this troubling story which is hotly debated is what exactly Moses did wrong. Rashi (Bamidbar 20:12) states that his mistake was to strike the rock rather than speak to it as G-d had commanded. Nevertheless, Nahmanides (Bamidbar 20:10) implies that the error was that Moses rebuked the people by calling them מורים – rebels, thereby emphasising that their faith in G-d was deficient.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1809) explains in his Chassidic masterpiece, Kedushat Levi that in reality the two explanations of Rashi and Nahmanides are part of the same sin. He says that were two ways which Moses could have rebuked the Jewish people for their lack of trust in G-d. Moses could have spoken of the greatness of the Jewish people; their uniqueness, their righteousness and extraordinary relationship with G-d. By doing so, he would have shown them that their behaviour was not befitting for such an elevated nation. This would have persuaded the people to turn their hearts towards G-d and encouraged growth in their faith. Moses however, chose the alternative mode of rebuke which was to speak harshly, highlighting the nation’s rebellious nature to embarrass the people and compel them to do G-d’s will.

Kedushat Levi explains that once Moses had chosen more acerbic words, it was no longer possible for the rock to release its water by him speaking to it. His caustic attack changed the nature of the rock itself. Now there was no alternative, Moses was compelled to strike the rock because of the language he used.

It is sometimes necessary for us to rebuke others, whether in a parental role or in positions of professional leadership and responsibility. If rebuke is given in a way that emphasises the qualities of others, rather than their failures, it not only elevates them, but it elevates their environment too, whether at home or at work, and promotes confidence and a drive for real growth. Criticism devoid of praise leads to resentment and bitterness which only serve to inhibit the ability of others to learn from their mistakes.


A version of this article first appeared in Daf Hashavah