“Moses Smiteth the Rock in the Desert,” by James Tissot, ca. 1900
“Moses Smiteth the Rock in the Desert,” by James Tissot, ca. 1900

So you’ve got this kind of miracle, and this kind, and … 

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Numbers 19:1–22:1

One of the more challenging episodes in the Torah is the story of Moses at Mei Meriva. The classic understanding of the story is that Moses hit a rock instead of speaking to it as he had been commanded. The resulting punishment was that he was no longer allowed to enter the Land of Israel.

The story is troubling for many reasons. For one, it seems like it was all a setup. God commanded Moses to take his staff. Additionally, we know from a previous episode that he was actually commanded to hit a rock and that water came forth. What was Moses supposed to think this time?

I was fortunate to hear a recent presentation by Rabbi Menachem Leibtag, a faculty member of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel, in which he laid out the opinion of other classic commentators who have a completely different understanding of what went wrong at Mei Meriva. In order to do his ideas justice, we need to take a closer look at the story.

Rabbi Ovadia Ben Jacob Sforno, an Italian Biblical commentator in the 16th century, explained that in verse 20:8 in this parashah are different types of miracles that God performs for the people.

The first category is miracles that are hidden and do not openly disrupt the natural order. Those include bringing rain at the right time and healing people from illness.

Second are miracles that actually manipulate nature to do God’s bidding, but only after some action performed by a prophet. Those include the plagues in Egypt and Moses hitting  the rock in the earlier episode.

The last category is miracles that demonstrate a complete departure from the natural order with no accompanying act on the part of a prophet. Instead, the prophet is just instructed to inform or to speak the miracle in front of an audience.

This last type is a manifestation of God’s supreme power over absolutely everything, with no possibility of doubters being able to blame the actions of the prophets.

The Sforno goes on to explain that Moses was supposed to speak to the rock in order to display the higher level of power and control that God possesses. The mistake on the part of Moses and Aaron was to think that perhaps God would not perform a miracle at this level because the people were not deserving. The crux of the error was in assuming that when God promises something good, that He would relent and reverse course. They should have trusted in Him that His word is eternal, and He never reneges on a promise for something good.

It was this lack of trust that prevented the greater miracle from occurring, and hence the harsh reaction on the part of God.

When the text suggests that Moses and Aaron did not “believe in” God, the Hebrew could just as easily be rendered as did not “make God reliable.” Moses and Aaron did not allow the people’s faith to reach an exalted level of trust by performing a lower-quality miracle.

And what of the staff? The staff that he was commanded to take was really Aaron’s staff that had blossomed with almonds, as we saw in last week’s Torah portion (Numbers 17:23). After the rebellion of Korah and his assembly, there was another round of disgruntlement with Aaron’s leadership, so God commanded each tribal leader to bring his staff and place it at the Tent of Meeting.

The next day, Aaron’s staff has blossomed with buds and almonds. This miracle also fits the third category of the Sforno. The sticks were lying still and yet miraculously there was a spontaneous generation of almonds.

By asking Moses to bring that staff in front of the people, the intention was to demonstrate to them once again that God is in control of absolutely everything and that they have nothing to fear. The lack of water should not have been cause for concern, because just as God could create almonds on a dead piece of wood, He could also bring forth water.

The criticism of Moses is that he did not respond to the people properly by representing God to them in an appropriate manner. He should have told them that God would provide and reassured them that His capabilities are limitless.

Instead, Moses lashes out at them by calling them rebellious ones (Numbers 20:10) and then hits the rock, which allows for some sense of doubt as to who is really performing the miracle.

A leader always has to be measured in his or her response to their people. Unfortunately, they are held to higher standards and those expectations really do make it lonely at the top.

Rabbi Joey Felsen
Rabbi Joey Felsen

Rabbi Joey Felsen is the founder and executive director of the Palo Alto-based Jewish Study Network. He teaches at JCCs in Palo Alto and Los Gatos, and is the founding board president of Meira Academy in Palo Alto.