The Failure of Moses
Harry Epstein

I give this over in the name of Menacham Leibtag
The Failure of Moses & Aaron

Rashi: he hits the rock instead of talking to it.

Ibn Ezra Moses hits the rock twice, instead of once.

Rambam Moses 'loses his temper' and speaks harshly.

Ramban Instead of saying: "can God get water from this rock?" he suggests that he and Aaron, not God, draw the water by saying: "can we get water from this rock?".

In all, Abrabanel lists ten opinions, each of which he disproves before giving his own.

This plethora of opinions is due to the seeming generality of God’s condemnation: “Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel, therefore you will not lead this congregation into the Land that I have given them.” Moses and Aaron could have done something great " sanctify Me in the eyes of Bnei Yisrael", but failed to do so. But what was this great something? The Torah seems never to tell us.

God's instructions are clear and straightforward: "1) take the staff, 2) gather the congregation, 3) speak to the rock before their eyes that it should give water, and 4) take out for them water from the rock, and 5) give drink to the people and their animals."

Lets examine each command and Moses’ performance.

Command #1 - "Take the staff"

"And Moses took the staff from before the Lord, as God had commanded him..." Nothing wrong here.

Command #2 - "Gather the (congregation)..."

"And Moses and Aaron gathered the 'kahal' in front of the rock…” Nothing wrong here.

Command #3 - "Speak to the rock that it should give water..."

"...And he [Moses] said to them: Listen here you rebellious people, is it possible that we can take water from this rock?" This could be it: God commands Moses to speak to the rock, and he never does. And most commentators take their cue from this.

However, rocks don't have ears, people do! Moses then may have understood God's command not as "speak to the rock" but "speak about the rock to the people," which Moses did.

Command #4 - "Take out for them water from the rock..." (20:8)

"... and Moses lifted his hand and hit the rock with his staff two times, then much water came out..." Based on the above, God may, in fact, have expected Moses to hit the rock. After all, this is exactly how God had instructed him to produce water from the rock many years earlier in Shmose

Command #5 - "Give drink to the people and their animals."

"...and the people and their animals drank." 
Nothing wrong here.

To this rebuttal of the standard explanations, we can offer a positive defense of Moses behavior based on the staff that Moses is supposed to take. God commands: “take the staff and gather the people..." But this staff isn’t the staff that Moses used to summon the plagues or part the sea, because the text says: "And Moses took the staff milifnei Hashem - from before God, as God had commanded him." "Lifnei Hashem" usually refers to in front of the Ark of the Covenant. Moses would not use the kodesh kedoshim" as his personal closet by keeping his staff "lifnei Hashem.”

Rather, it is Aaron's staff, which in last week’s sedra God had commanded Moses to "... return the 'lifnei ha'eydut' - in front of the 'tablets of testimony' for safe keeping, so that it would be a sign for any rebellious group ['ot l'bnei meri'] so that they will stop complaining and not die..."

God is saying that the next time Bnei Yisrael complain or rebel, Moses should take Aaron's staff from the Ohel Moed to remind them of what happened to Korach's rebellion.

And the next time Bnei Yisrael complain is in this episode! Once we see it is Aaron’s staff, and that Aaron’s staff is a rebuke to the people, the entire sequence of Moses acts fits perfectly with God’s commands, he gathers the people; rebukes them and speaks about the rock to glorify God before following the prescribed method for coaxing water from a rock and giving the people to drink.

So Moses and Aaron did not fail to follow the commands God gave them in the Ohel Moed; we must turn to the only other place in this episode where they might have failed.--its first scene:

"And Bnei Yisrael arrived at Midbar Tzin... but there was not enough water for the people, and they gathered against Moses and Aaron. They argued with Moses saying: It would have been better had we died with our brethren 'lifnei Hashem' [before God]... So - why did you bring us to this desert to die?... and why did you take us out of Egypt to bring us to this terrible place... there are no fruits here and there is no water to drink.”

Now how do Moses and Aaron respond? Do they argue? Do they defend God? Do they offer the people encouragement? No. "And Moses and Aaron came to the Ohel Moed [in fear] from the congregation, and they fell on their faces..."

Is it not precisely in situations such as these when leadership must take a stand? Years before when Bnei Yisrael complained for water at Refidim, Moses's immediate response was: “Why are you arguing with me, why are you testing God?"

At Refidim, Moses immediately challenges their complaints and condemns their criticism as a reflection of their lack of faith. Only afterward, when the people continue to complain, does Moses cry out to God and beg for a solution.

At Mei Meriva Moses's reaction is the opposite. Instead of confronting these complaints, Moses and Aaron immediately 'run away' in fear to the Ohel Moed and 'fall on their faces'. Does a leader run away? Wouldn’t strong leaders assure the people that God would indeed take care of their needs? Wouldn’t they challenge the people's assertion that "it would have been better had they remained in Egypt?"

Once we see their fault as a failure of leadership, God’s complaint is no longer too general but quite specific: you have failed as leaders because you failed to, "… trust Me enough to sanctify Me in the eyes of Bnei Yisrael..." And Hashem’s punishment is the exact meda kaneged meda for this failure “… therefore you shall not lead this nation into the land that I promised them."

They will not lead Israel into the Promised Land because they are failing leaders. God has informed them that their behavior shows them no longer able to bear the burden of leadership. They are punished not as individuals and not for a 'technical' flaw in their execution of God's command but as national leaders who are no longer capable of bearing the burden of leadership.

And in fact, there is nothing very strange about this. They are getting very far along in years, and there have been earlier signs that they are no longer up to their duties. Thus, for instance, it is Caleb and Joshua, not Moses and Aaron who oppose the other spies and the rabble when they return with their report.

Read so, the incident ceases to be an inscrutable enigma and becomes a richly poignant depiction of the inevitable moment when the demands of office become too much for even the greatest of leaders. Moses’ leadership was the leadership of the lawgiver, Aaron’s of the man of peace. Such were the leaders needed for the Exodus and the wanderings in the desert. But the people, poised on the boarders of the Promised Land and about to make their entry, now need another kind of leadership. They need the youth and military prowess of a Joshua. So the Torah has shown us how the Old Guard passes.