Of Rocks, Wells, and Desert Elevation
During their travels in the desert the Jews existed on a miraculous plane. They were sheltered in the Clouds of Glory, eating Manna, and drinking from Miriam’s Well. Thirty nine years and counting, Miriam died and the phenomenon of Well ended. No longer did the water supply of B’nai Yisroel travel with them through the desert. People were now literally dying of thirst. Moshe began to receive complaints from the people.
Why did you bring G-d’s congregation to this desert? So that we and our livestock should die? Why did you take us out of Egypt and bring us to this terrible place? It is an area where there are no plants, figs, grapes or pomegranates. There is not even any water to drink!
Moshe prayed to Hashem for direction, in responding to their grievance. In this Parsha,Hashem commanded Moshe to approach a certain rock and speak to it,asking for water. Moshe spoke to the (wrong) boulder and there was no water. Moshe raised his staff and struck the rock twice. Water trickled,and then gushed,forth. Hashem informs Moshe that because he failed to glorify to Hashem,he would not lead the nation from the desert into Eretz Yisroel.
Nearly forty years spanned between B’nai Yisroel and their time inEgypt. In fact,most of B’nai Yisroel toward the end of their desert years had never been in Mitzrayim! Why,is their response to adversity,‘take us back to the life we had forty years ago!’?
What difference does it make,if Moshe speaks to or hits the rock? Even accepting that there is importance in speaking to the rock as opposed to hitting it,why was Moshe’s punishment so severe?
During their long sojourn in the desert, B’nai Yisroel had experienced many times of mass death. After the Spies return,during Korach’s rebellion,and in the incident of the Slav-birds there were many dying. If the people aimed to highlight earlier episodes during which they might have died,they could have referred to any of these recent incidents why was Eygpt particulary mentioned. Obviously,something in their situation in Mitzrayim excited them beyond the mere prevalence of death.
Egyptwas B’nai Yisroel’s most recent experience of life on a natural level. The nation had an underlying desire to live independent of miracles,by the work of their hands. When Moshe led in the desert,the people were on a high spiritual plane. They were beyond the pale of mundane,natural occurrence. This was the highest level that B’nai Yisroel would ever reach. That is the basis for B’nai Yisroel’s dissatisfaction with the lack of agriculture in the desert. They did not need to plant and harvest for food. They relied on Hashem’s delivery of Manna for that. Still,they wanted to produce food for themselves according to the natural order of the world. To live natural lives was supremely important to them. Their comments in Parshas Chukas on lack of arable land were driven by this desire.
Now let us turn to the second question: It is natural for some rocks to give water when smitten. As a shepherd,Moshe was familiar with water-giving rocks. However,no boulder gives water when spoken to. Such an experience would apparently be a miracle. Hashem expected Moshe to use the command to speak to a rock for Divine glory. Moshe failed to speak to the rock and obtained water by hitting it. Moshe was leader of B’nai Yisroel when they were on a level beyond nature. If Moshe is no longer operating on an elevated,miraculous plane he may no longer lead the Jewish people. Therefore,the consequential occurrence was not death. It was that Moshe not take the nation to their next stage – that of conquering Eretz Canaan. Moshe’s death in the desert ensured cessation of his leadership.
We are sometimes raised above the natural arrangements of the world. We must appreciate the incidences responsibly. Recognize small miracles for what they are – a taste of celestial living. There are those living in poverty,not knowing how to pay their next credit card bill,relying on Hashem to provide them sustenance. They do not know how or when Hashem will next grant food,but they are very aware that it is from Hashem. Will they give that clear knowledge up for more regular meals at the hand of another? Living on a lofty spiritual level often involves difficulty. Let us enjoy these times of direct contact with Hashem,and not pull ourselves down to natural means.
A rich businessman once came to Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin (1749 – 1821) for advice. “Rabbi,” he said,“I have a large lumber shipment which is being held by customs at the border. I may lose everything I own if it doesn’t come through.”
“Trust in Hashem,“said Rabbi Chaim,“He will help.”
While the merchant’s lumber was still at the border,the price of wood rose. By the time the wood was delivered,its value had escalated well beyond the norm. The merchant rushed to Rabbi Chaim. “Rebbe,” he exclaimed,“now I know that Hashem is involved in our daily living.”
“You differ from the poor,” responded Rabbi Chaim. “They see the hand of Hashem on a daily basis. The rich see it only at rare intervals.”