Quantity vs. Quality

V’dibartem el ha’sela l’eineihem v’nasan meimav v’hotzeisa lahem mayim min ha’sela v’hishkisa es ha’eidah v’es be’iram (Bamidbar 20:8)

After the death of Miriam, the well that supplied the Jewish people with water in the wilderness in her merit disappeared, and the Jews had nothing to drink. They began to complain to Moshe and Aharon, questioning why they had brought them to die in the wilderness together with their animals. Moshe and Aharon went to the Mishkan to seek guidance from Hashem, and Hashem responded by instructing Moshe to speak to a rock, which would produce water for the thirsty Jewish people and their animals.

The Meshech Chochmah points out two subtle inconsistencies in the narrative of this episode. First, when Hashem commanded Moshe to bring forth the water, He told him that the water would be drunk by “ha’eidah v’es be’iram — the people and their animals,” with the grammatical construct “es” separating between the two groups. However, when Moshe actually produced the water, the Torah records (20:11) that it was consumed by ha’eidah u’be’iram, without the word “es” distinguishing between them. What is the reason for this change?

Second, when Hashem instructed Moshe regarding the water, He made no mention of the quantity of water that would emerge, yet when Moshe actually brought out the water, the Torah records that mayim rabbim — an abundant amount of water — emerged from the rock. What is the significance of this information?

The Meshech Chochmah explains both of these anomalies with one profound insight: While many people value and are impressed by quantity, those who are blessed with a refined sensitivity recognize that quality is far more important, and it is far superior to be satisfied with a small amount of something one truly needs than with a copious quantity of superficial distractions, just as every person in the wilderness was satiated by a small amount of mann from Heaven each day.

Hashem intended for Moshe to impart this lesson to the people by initially bringing forth only a small amount of water from the rock and miraculously enabling it to satisfy their thirst, and then bringing forth a much larger quantity of water for their animals, which would serve to highlight the uniquely human perspective. This explains both why the Torah uses the word “es” to divide between the water to be drunk by the people and that which would be consumed by their animals, and why no mention is made regarding the amount of water that Moshe would initially bring forth.

Unfortunately, when Moshe failed to follow Hashem’s instructions to speak to the rock, a byproduct was that this important message was not conveyed. Because Moshe failed to sanctify Hashem’s name, the people were not on a spiritual level on which they could be satisfied with a small amount of water, and the Torah therefore records that Hashem was compelled to provide them with a large supply of water. Because the people were just as interested in the quantity of water as the animals, the Torah does not distinguish between the drinking of the two groups.

If the Torah compares Moshe’s generation to animals in their emphasis on quantity, one can only imagine how it would describe our generation, in which society is obsessed with having the largest and the most possessions and constantly outdoing one another. Nevertheless, it is never too late to internalize the lesson that Moshe was unsuccessful in conveying to his contemporaries — that quality trumps quantity.

Q: The Mishnah in Avos (5:18) teaches that whoever influences the masses to become meritorious will be protected from sinning. Why wasn’t the fact that Moshe and Aharon had been such positive influences on the Jewish people for so long able to save them from sinning at Mei Merivah?

Q: Moshe stripped Aharon of the garments of the Kohen Gadol and dressed Elazar in them inside the cave (20:28), as Hashem had commanded him to do, thus inaugurating Elazar as the Kohen Gadol. As a Kohen Gadol is forbidden to become ritually impure even upon the death of his immediate relatives, how was Elazar permitted to remain in the cave in which Aharon died, thus rendering Elazar impure?

A: The Chasam Sofer cites the Gemara in Yoma (87a) that explains that the reasoning behind the Mishnah is so that the teacher should not end up in Gehinnom while his students are in Gan Eden. However, in Moshe’s case, this concern doesn’t apply, as his punishment was that he died in the wilderness, but so did the entire generation that he took out from Egypt.

The M’rafsin Igri answers that such a person is only protected from accidental sins, but he still retains his free will. In this case, Moshe consciously decided that if he spoke to the rock and it obeyed him, this could be used as an accusation against the Jewish people, who didn’t always listen to his commandments, so he elected to sacrifice himself for the good of the people, which was yet another example of his devotion to their well-being.

A: Harav Aharon Leib Steinman, shlita, notes that the Baal HaTurim seems to imply that Elazar didn’t become the Kohen Gadol until after he was anointed, in which case he was permitted to be present at Aharon’s death. The Sfas Emes (Kerisos 5) maintains that Elazar did not need an additional anointing since he had already been anointed during the seven days of the consecration of the Mishkan. However, the Ramban explains (19:2) that contact with those who died through a Divine “kiss” doesn’t cause impurity. Since Aharon died in this manner, Elazar could be present even if he was already the Kohen Gadol.


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.