The Zechus of Mei Merivah

Vayomer Hashem el Moshe v’el Aharon yaan lo he’emantem Bi l’hakdisheini l’einei Bnei Yisrael lachein lo savi’u es hakahal hazeh el haAretz asher nasati lahem (Bamidbar 20:12)

In the prayer for rain recited by the chazzan during his repetition of the Mussaf prayers on Shemini Atzeres, each stanza invokes the water-related merits of one of our righteous forefathers. In the stanza referring to Moshe, we include a reference to the fact that at the time the Jewish nation was thirsty for water, he struck the rock and caused water to come forth, and we pray that in the merit of his righteousness, Hashem should bless our water supply. Since Moshe was punished for his actions and was not allowed to enter the Land of Israel as a result, why do we invoke an incident that is considered more of a sin than a merit?

In his responsa Shu”t Tzitz Eliezer (17:41), Harav Eliezer Waldenberg writes that the Gerrer Rebbe suggests that this difficulty is a proof to the Rambam’s explanation (Shemoneh Perakim 4) of the nature of Moshe’s sin in this episode. In contrast to Rashi, who explains that Moshe’s error was that he hit the rock instead of speaking to it as he was commanded, the Rambam maintains that Moshe’s sin was that he lost his temper and angrily addressed the people as rebels (20:10). The Gerrer Rebbe posits that according to Rashi’s opinion that the sin was hitting the rock, it would be inappropriate to mention this incident in our prayers, but according to the Rambam’s explanation that Moshe did nothing wrong in hitting the rock to produce water and only sinned in how he spoke to the people, it would not be as problematic to mention this episode in our prayers for water.

In order to understand our prayers even according to Rashi’s opinion, the Tzitz Eliezer cites the explanation given by the Lev Aryeh (Chullin 7b) for Moshe’s actions. In Parashas Chukas, the Jewish people complained to Moshe about a lack of water, just as they did in Parashas Beshalach (Shemos 17:2–3). In both cases, Hashem commanded Moshe to respond to their protests by extracting water from a rock. However, there is one subtle difference between the two episodes. In Parashas Beshalach, Hashem told Moshe to strike the rock with his staff (17:5–6), whereas in Parashas Chukas, Hashem told him to speak to the rock in order to produce the water. What is the reason for this change?

Rashi writes (20:2) that the Torah juxtaposes the death of Miriam to the complaints of the people about a lack of water to drink as a way of teaching us that the well that provided them with water until now existed in the merit of Miriam, and now that she died, the well disappeared and the people had nothing to drink. The Lev Aryeh explains that as great as Miriam was, she was not on the spiritual level of Moshe. As a result, the initial miracle of bringing forth the water in her merit had to take place in a slightly more natural manner, in which Moshe was instructed to strike the rock with his staff.

Once Miriam died, the well returned in the merit of Moshe (Taanis 9a), and on his lofty level, he was capable of producing the water in an even more miraculous fashion: by merely speaking to the rock, without needing to hit it. However, Moshe was concerned that if he did so, it would on some level reflect badly on Miriam in that she only had the merit for water to come forth by force, while he was able to do it through speech. In Moshe’s humility and righteousness, in order to avoid appearing greater than his sister, he specifically elected to hit the rock, just as he was originally commanded to do in her merit.

The Tzitz Eliezer suggests that this interpretation perfectly explains the request that we make in our prayers. After telling Hashem of our need for rain, we beseech Him that even if we are not worthy of receiving it, He should leniently treat us with mercy and compassion, just as Moshe went above and beyond to hit the rock and protect his sister’s reputation.

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?

A: The Chasam Sofer cites the Gemara in Yoma (87a) which 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.

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