In Parashat Chukat, Hashem punishes Moshe and Aharon for the seemingly minor sin that they committed at Mei Merivah. Hashem says to Moshe and Aharon, “Yaan Lo HeEmantem Bi LeHakdisheini LeEini Bnei Yisrael Lachein Lo Taviu Et HaKahal HaZeh El HaAretz Asher Natati Lahem,” “Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the presence of Bnei Yisrael, you will not be able to lead this congregation into the land that I gave them” (BeMidbar 20:12). Given the severity of the punishment, one would assume that Moshe and Aharon committed a capital crime. However, they seem to have committed only minor crimes. The Meforshim struggle to find what they did wrong, and no clear consensus has emerged, an indication of how small the sin must have been. Why did Hashem come down so hard on them and ban them from entering Eretz Yisrael?
The reason is because the greater a person is and the closer he is to Hashem, the less he is spared from blame and punishment. Throughout Tanach, we see many cases in which a great person is severely punished for a minor sin. For example, when Avraham asked, “How shall I know that my descendents will receive Eretz Yisrael?” (Bereishit 15:8), Hashem replied, “You shall surely know that they will become strangers in Mitzrayim” (ibid 13). The similar phraseology (“know”) indicates that Avraham was punished for his relatively minor mistake of questioning Hashem. Also, David HaMelech’s wife Michal, who criticized David for dancing in public in front of the entire nation, was punished for her remark by not having children (see Shemuel II 6:20-23). Additionally, since Chizkiyahu showed the Babylonian people the Luchot inside the Aron, his descendents were taken captive by the Babylonians (see Melachim II 20:12-19).
Immediately following Hashem’s announcement of Moshe and Aharon’s punishment, the Pasuk states, “Heimah Mei Merivah Asher Ravu Venei Yisrael Et Hashem VaYikadeish Bam,” “These are the waters of strife because Bnei Yisrael quarreled with Hashem, and He was sanctified by them.” Rashi queries as to how Hashem was sanctified by the episode of Mei Merivah. Rashi answers that the extreme punishment meted out against Moshe and Aharon showed Bnei Yisrael that Hashem punishes even the greatest Tzadikim. This understanding strengthens everybody’s Yirat Hashem. No matter who we are, we should be careful in what we do because everyone is punished for wrongdoings.