In the middle of Parashat Matot, we read about Am Yisrael’s triumph in its war against the Midyanim (BeMidbar 31). After describing Am Yisrael’s success in the war, the Torah relates how the vessels that were captured by Bnei Yisrael from the war were required to be cleansed with the sprinkling water. This was done to remove the ritual impurity which had been caused due to contact with a corpse. This law is taught to Bnei Yisrael by Moshe, as he says, “VeChol Beged VeChol Keli Or VeChol Ma’aseih Izim VeChol Keli Eitz Titchata’u,” “All garments, leather articles, any goat product, and every wooden article shall undergo purification” (31:20). Several Pesukim later, El’azar adds another modification to this law. He says that all of the vessels must also be passed through fire, due to the fact that they have been used to cook non-Kosher food. The following obvious question can be asked: why did El’azar teach this law and not Moshe? Moshe had just taught the previous law!
Rashi (31:21 s.v. VaYomer El’azar HaKohein) provides an answer to this query. If one looks earlier in the Perek, he will find that upon hearing that Bnei Yisrael let the Midyani women live, Moshe became infuriated. Following his anger, he explained the laws of purifying the vessels. Due to Moshe’s anger, however, Hashem caused certain parts of the rules to be concealed from him. Rashi continues to explain that we have seen Moshe get angry before, both in Parashat Shemini and in Parashat Chukat.
Rashi’s comments cause us to ask two major questions: To say according to Rashi that Moshe “erred” is not in fact correct. Moshe rightly instructed the people with regards to one law; he merely failed to inform them of an additional law. This is not an error, but rather an omission of a separate additional law which was concealed from him. Additionally, why did Rashi wait until Moshe became angry a third time to discuss Moshe’s anger? It surely could have been taught during the first occasion of Moshes anger!
The Lubavitcher Rebbe ZT”L provides an interesting answer to the given questions.
The law that vessels which were used to cook non-Kosher food must be cleaned is a logical law. Thus, when Rashi states that the law regarding the purifying of the vessels was hidden from Moshe, it really means something entirely different. Moshe understood that logically the vessels had to be cleaned; however, he failed to recall the method of purification. Since, however, he was able to remember that they had to be sprinkled, he presumed that by sprinkling them, both the impurity from the corpses, as well as impurity from the non-kosher food, would be removed.
If one were to think about this, Moshe’s reasoning was really quite simple. We see that just a few drops of the sprinkling water affected the entire vessel from Tum’at HaMeit, removing the impurity from the entire vessel. Therefore, Moshe presumably reasoned, “Since the sprinkling water has the power to remove all traces of Tum’at HaMeit from the vessels, maybe it can also remove the impurity regarding non-Kosher flavors.” Moshe’s thought process was as such because the law regarding making the vessels Kosher was hidden from him. Therefore, when Rashi wrote that Moshe erred, this does not contradict Moshe’s omission of the laws of making the vessels Kosher – as a result of Moshe not remembering that law, he made an erroneous presumption regarding the sprinkling waters.
Now that we answered our first question, we can answer why Rashi waited until now to mention the consequence of Moshe Rabbeinu’s anger.
There are three times when Moshe was upset: when he hit the rock, when he became involved in a dispute with Aharon in Parashat Shemini, and our situation. If one examines all three cases, he will notice a fundamental difference between them. When Moshe hit the rock, he made a false presumption that Hashem meant to hit the rock, based on a previous instance when Hashem commanded that. Similarly, if one investigates Moshe’s argument with Aharon in Parashat Shemini, he will find that Rashi states that Moshe and Aharon argued over a subtle difference with regards to the Korban Chatat. The underlying theme in both cases is that Moshe’s mistake had a Torah basis. However, here in Matot, Moshe made a presumption that was based on his own logic, not based on the Torah.
Based on this, we can fully understand why Rashi could not say that Moshe’s anger led to his mistakes in the other cases. Since Moshe was using a Torah source for his arguments, one cannot argue that anger clouded his mind – he was using a legitimate source! However, in our Parashah, in which Moshe provides no Torah background for his logic, Rashi states that now we can fully deduce that anger leads to a mistake. By seeing that anger got the best of Moshe, we should realize that we must try our hardest to avoid anger at all costs.