Yaan lo he’emantem Bi l’hakdisheini l’einei Bnei Yisrael (Bamidbar 20:12)
After the death of Miriam, the well which, in her merit, had supplied the Jewish people with water during their travels in the wilderness, disappeared. The Jewish people had nothing to drink, and they began to complain to Moshe and Aharon, who went to the Mishkan to seek guidance from Hashem.
Hashem responded by instructing Moshe to speak to a rock, which would produce water for the thirsty people. Although Moshe did indeed bring forth water from the rock, Hashem informed Moshe and Aharon that they had sinned in not believing in Hashem and sanctifying His name, and as a result, they would not be permitted to enter the land of Israel.
Because the Torah is so vague in describing their sin, commentators throughout the generations have offered numerous explanations as to the precise nature of their error. In his Sefer HaIkkarim (4:22), Harav Yosef Albo offers an original explanation about the nature of the sin. He suggests that as soon as Moshe and Aharon realized that the Jewish people were thirsty, instead of approaching Hashem for instructions, they should have sanctified Hashem’s name by proactively approaching the rock and producing water from it, as Hashem fulfills the requests of the righteous. Their decision not to do so reflected a lack of trust in Hashem, and for that they were punished.
However, the Meshech Chochmah points out that in all of the miracles that Moshe performed, such as splitting the Reed Sea, the manna and the quail, he always waited for explicit instructions from Hashem and never initiated them on his own. This stands in stark contrast to other prophets, such as Yehoshua, when he ordered the sun to stand still and Eliyahu at Mount Carmel, who did perform miracles without any prior command from Hashem. Why did Moshe conduct himself differently in this regard, and why was he punished here for acting in accordance with his regular approach?
Harav Meir Simchah explains that Moshe’s level of prophecy was unique in that he was able to speak to Hashem with all of his faculties intact, just as one would speak to another person, whereas other prophets were frightened and overwhelmed by the experience. Because it was clear to all that great as they were, the other prophets were still mere mortals and did not possess any abilities to change nature on their own, there was no risk for them to proactively perform miracles. On the other hand, had Moshe done so, there was a possibility that some observers would erroneously attribute G-d-like powers to him. To prevent this from happening, Moshe only performed miracles when he was explicitly commanded by Hashem to do so.
Interestingly, there was one exception. When Korach challenged the leadership of Moshe and Aharon, Moshe responded by designing a miraculous test to demonstrate that he had Divine support. Without any instructions from Hashem to do so, Moshe announced that his legitimacy would be established by the earth miraculously opening up and swallowing Korach and his followers, which is indeed what happened.
Once Korach had publicly argued that all Jews were equally holy and there was nothing unique about Moshe, Moshe was no longer concerned that people would mistakenly ascribe Divine status to him. However, now that Moshe had demonstrated a willingness to deviate from his customary procedure to call on Hashem to miraculously resolve a difficult situation, his refusal to similarly do so when the people were crying out for water left him susceptible to an argument that he was more concerned about his own reputation than he was about the nation’s well-being. This was a tremendous desecration of Hashem’s name, and for this he was punished harshly.
Although being consistent when performing miracles is not an issue with which most of us struggle, this lesson is still relevant to each of us. It is human nature to prioritize our own needs and to address and fulfill them with alacrity. In doing so, we must be cognizant of an obligation to show the identical diligence when the situation requires us to stand up for Hashem’s honor or assist our fellow man.
Parashah Q & A
Q: The Torah uses the phrase “this is the chok of the Torah” in conjunction with two mitzvos: the purification of the red heifer, and the laws of kashering utensils (31:21–24). What do they have in common, and why is this phrase used in connection with them?
A: Harav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, explains that this was done to teach that every mitzvah in the Torah, whether it is one that we think we understand or one which seems completely beyond human comprehension, should be performed as Heavenly decrees without reasons. This applies even to mitzvos with reasons given explicitly in the Torah itself, and certainly to mitzvos with rationales suggested by later commentators. As proof, the Torah forbids a king to marry too many wives and explicitly states that the reason for this prohibition is so that his heart shouldn’t stray from Hashem.
The Gemara (Sanhedrin 21b) records that Shlomo Hamelech mistakenly assumed that now that he knew the reason, he could marry many women and guard himself from straying, yet ultimately they exerted a negative influence on him. This was not because he misjudged his ability to protect himself from their influence, but because he mistakenly thought that the law is determined by the apparently underlying reasoning when in reality, the law is applicable to every single Jew who serves as king. Therefore, just as it is clear that the reason for the mitzvah of the red heifer is completely beyond us, so too should every mitzvah, even one as seemingly straightforward as kashering non-kosher utensils, be performed as Divine decrees without reasons.
Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email oalport@Hamodia.com.