Parshat Chukat records the tragic story of Mei Meriva. Moshe’s sister, Miriam, dies, and with her passing, Bnei Yisrael’s miraculous water supply (a well which sustained them in Miriam’s merit) vanishes. The nation complains for water; Hashem instructs Moshe what to do; Moshe deviates slightly, and he is severely punished.
Until this point, whenever Bnei Yisrael complained, they were answered in one of two ways: Either Hashem granted their wish, or they were punished. Here, Hashem asks Moshe and Aharon to gather the people and speak to a rock. Instead Moshe hits the rock (twice) and Hashem rebukes Moshe and Aharon for this reaction, and for not having faith in Him. Rashi on the spot says that were it not for this misstep by Moshe, he would have been able to enter the land of Israel. Instead, Moshe is punished, and denied entry into the Land.
The Netziv has a very interesting explanation for the “crime” and punishment involved in this episode of Mei Meriva.
In the Netziv’s hakdama to Sefer Bamidbar, he writes that the main theme in Bamidbar is the transition from Bnei Yisrael’s supernatural relationship with G-d, to a relationship more grounded in the natural order. From the time Moshe confronted Paroh in Egypt, until the 40th year in the desert, Bnei Yisrael witnessed and were sustained by the most incredible miracles ever performed. To use the Netziv’s poetic words, Bnei Yisrael went from walking “b’midat tiferet” in the desert, until the 40th year when it began to change into a more natural interaction with Hashem – “bderech heteva b’sitrei hashgachat malchut shamayim.”
As Bnei Yisrael made their way toward Eretz Yisrael, their relationship would start to change. The desert became a training ground for the new reality that awaited them in their own land – a life more in line with a natural existence.
The Netziv sees Moshe’s misstep within this broader context of Sefer Bamidbar: Moshe was the ultimate agent of and conduit to Hashem. With the passing of Miriam and the disappearance of their supernatural water source, Bnei Yisrael stood poised to learn a pivotal lesson. Moshe – Moshe Rabbeinu – was supposed to teach that lesson. He was directed to teach the nation that their physical survival – something as basic as drinkable water – would hinge on more than one-sided, overt miracles. In a situation of distress and crisis, they would need to rely on the belief in their hearts and the power of words on their lips.
Moshe received specific instructions – to take the staff with which all of the miracles until this point had been performed, but not use it. Hold the symbol of the supernatural, but do not use it. Instead, begin to teach the People the power of speech and the power of prayer. Show them that as individuals and as a collective nation, they have the ability to have a natural relationship with Hashem through teffila. The Netziv says, that Hashem’s method of punishment, of not allowing Moshe entry to the Land, was a midah k’negged midah – because Moshe didn’t use the opportunity he was given to teach Bnei Yisrael about how farmers, removed from the Dor HaMidbar, would one day have to react when faced with drought in Eretz Yisrael (i.e. through belief and prayer), Moshe demonstrated that he was not the proper leader for the nation in Eretz Yisrael.
In Sefer Devarim (32:51) Hashem describes the actions that Moshe took in Parshat Chukat:
עַל אֲשֶׁר מְעַלְתֶּם בִּי בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּמֵי-מְרִיבַת קָדֵשׁ מִדְבַּר-צִן עַל אֲשֶׁר לֹא קִדַּשְׁתֶּם אוֹתִי בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל
(1) “ma’altem bi” = you trespassed against Me”; and (b) “asher lo kidashtem Oti” = you did not sanctify Me.
By hitting the rock, Moshe “misappropriated” the miracle of water being brought forth. The purpose of the episode was to teach the people to pray and inculcate a deeper feeling of emunah in Hashem during trying times. Instead, Moshe “trespassed” the miracle – using it for an unintended purpose – and gave the impression that it was his own, great prophetic stature that produced the desired results. Moshe misappropriated the emunah of the nation.
Indeed, we are supposed to find that proper mixture of investment of time and human effort, on the one hand, with belief and dependence on Hashem, on the other. We put our heads down and work as hard as we can, yet still remain cognizant that we must lift our heads to the heavens and pray for rain, and pray that Hashem will steer our efforts toward success.
The Land of Israel is not like Egypt. There are no overflowing rivers to sustain life. All of its water – its life-source – comes from above: Devarim (11:10-12):
“For the land, which you enter to possess, is not as the land of Egypt, from where you came out…But the land, which you are going over to possess, is a land of hills and valleys, and drinks water from the rain of the skies; A land which Hashem your G-d cares for; the eyes of Hashem your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.”
We are a nation that believes in human effort coupled with Divine oversight, in a land that demands both.
Tragically, the greatest eved Hashem of all time missed just one opportunity to teach emunah in the way Hashem had prescribed, and he paid the ultimate price.
We no longer have a Moshe, or a miracle-performing staff. Prophets and staffs will not provide us sustenance, protect us from our enemies, win our battles, or “bring back our boys”. If only…
But the efforts of Chayalei Tzahal, and the outpouring of prayers from Jews all over the world for the safe return of Yaakov Naftali ben Rachel Devora, Gilad Michael ben Bat-Galim. and Eyal ben Iris Teshurah, is how we are meant to respond in periods of hardship.
The lesson meant to be taught to Bnei Yisrael in the desert, was the beginning of what has been taught throughout the generations to this day – that through our hard work, resilient effort, unwavering emunah and heartfelt prayer, we will achieve our goals and bring the ultimate Redemption.