“What was so terrible about Moses striking the rock?”
by Rabbi Dr Jeffrey M Cohen
Shabbat 23rd July 2005

Well, today there is no Barmitzvah, and therefore no particular urgency to give a message directly linked to the sidrah of the week. I wish instead to go back to the two sidrot, Chukkat and Balak which I would have spoken about, and indeed linked together, had I the voice to do so on those two weeks. With your permission, therefore, let us retrace our steps, first to that episode of Moses being instructed by God to speak to the Rock in order to bring forth water miraculously to slake the thirst of the Israelites.

Moses, distracted by the vehemence of the nation’s verbal assault, forgot his precise instruction and struck the rock instead, an act that was construed by God as such a terrible sin and dereliction of mission that He sentenced Moses to a forfeiture of his life’s ambition of leading his people into the Promised Land.

But did Moses really deserve such a punishment? What happened to God’s insistence on ‘an eye for an eye,’ a punishment precisely fitting the crime, and not exceeding it? Yes, Moses departed from his instructions from God; but, at the end of the day, the water still flowed, and the people’s outcry that they were going to die of thirst was stifled and stilled. Peace and calm were restored. God did provide the water, albeit in a less dramatic manner. So maybe Moses deserved a reprimand, but not such an excessive divine response!

At first glance, the answer that God gives to Moses and Aaron – dare we say it? - does not seem totally to clarify the situation and justify the punishment: Ya’an lo he’emantem biy lehakdisheini le’einey b’nei Yisrael – ‘It was on account of the fact that you were not faithful to Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel’ (Nu.20:12). The implication here is that, had they witnessed God providing water from a rock by speech alone, that miraculous achievement would have been a potent demonstration of just how great God was, and would have enhanced that greatness immeasurably in the eyes of the nation.

But this is problematic. For surely the Israelites, who had witnessed the Ten Plagues, the utter route of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea, and the Revelation of God at Mount Sinai, where they heard His voice amid thunder and lightning and a shofar that grew louder and louder – surely they didn’t need a further, and much less dramatic, sign to convince them of God’s greatness! So in what heinous way did Moses so let God down by striking the rock instead of speaking to it?

Now that episode is immediately followed by the Sidrah Balak which describes the attempt of the heathen prophet Bilaam to curse the Israelites. Now, the rabbis believed that the chronological sequence of the episodes in the Torah is not strictly adhered to, and that there were very likely other compelling reasons why God juxtaposed certain episodes.

I detect just such a close association between the two episodes: Moses’ instruction to speak to the rock – in the sidrah Chukkat - and Bilaam’s employment of speech as a means of cursing, and destroying, the people of Israel, in the following sidrah.

What links the two is the notion that both speaking and striking may both be employed as agents of violence and destruction. They are both equally potent weapons. Words are generally the precursors of violence. They may be used to devastating effect in order to condemn people, to compromise and malign them, to sow prejudice against them, to de-personalise and de-humanise them, to distort the truth about them, to whip up envy, jealousy and hatred of them, to incite an entire nation against them, leading to their enslavement and ultimately to their destruction. The speeches of Hitler mesmerised the entire German nation and induced a slavish antipathy toward Jews. His words were even more potent than the sword. The sword can only be wielded by trained men. The word is a drug that can enter the entire blood stream of a nation.

The rabbis have a saying, based on the close similarity of sound between the Hebrew-Aramaic words for ‘sword’ and ‘word.’ They say, sefer v’saif yardu kerukhim min ha-shamayim, “God’s word came down from heaven wrapped together with a sword” (Sifrei Eikev, ch.40), an indication of the dangers attendant upon the misuse and misrepresentation of Holy Writ.

This is well documented in Jewish tradition. In Temple times, the original names of God, one of seventy-two letters, one of twelve letters, the other of 42, were invoked by the High Priest at different times in the Temple when he blessed the people, but the Talmud relates that the use of the names was suppressed when some unscrupulous people employed the formulae for unlawful purposes (see Tal. Kidd. 71a). There are many references to people causing the death of others by employing such potent names, of the word coalescing with the sword.

There were many ancient, occult societies, some surviving into the present day, which employed the recitation of potent mystical formulae in order to cast spells upon people and Target them for death. Conversely, the recitation of Kabbalistic formulae for the names of God, derived from the Sefer Yetzirah, and its ideas of the creative power of speech, were also supposed to have enabled the famous Maharal of Prague to breathe life into his golem, the powerful being that he created in order to protect the Jews against their enemies at that time. The legend has it that Maharal had to return him to dust when it ran amok and endangered people’s lives.

Friends, we need no convincing, in our globally violent age, of how easy it is for religious texts and concepts to be misconstrued, misinterpreted and misapplied to yield venomous teachings and to become weapons of jihad in the hearts and hands of impressionable and simple-minded youngsters.

To return then to the sin of Moses:

The people in the wilderness were without water. They panicked, thinking that God had withdrawn that life-sustaining gift from them. Moses was meant to speak to the rock. Presumably, words that God had disclosed to him privately. The message that the Israelites were meant to take away from that experience was that the words of God were agencies exclusively of peace, of grace, of blessing , of creativity, of nourishment, of life. And that God must never be associated with the cause of hate, violence and war. For that terrible concoction, the essence of jihad, is the greatest sacrilege.

What did Moses do? He struck the rock in order to secure water. He raised his fist and administered a blow. He employed an act of violence in order to elicit a divine response to the suffering of his people. And that was unpardonable. Moses elevated the sword to the level of the word. And he destroyed thereby the double message: that peace is God’s way, and the word has to be humankind’s norm, and that any act of violence, even against a rock, is not acceptable. To do violence to nature, even in the cause of humanity’s perceived needs, is an act of violence against the natural order, against God’s creative design.

According to my interpretation of Moses’ act of striking the rock instead of speaking to it, God’s censure of Moses becomes – I would submit - patently justifiable.