In Parashat Chukat, we read the celebrated story of Moshe being asked by Hashem to provide water to Bnei Yisrael as they travel through the desert. Moshe is given specific instructions by Hashem regarding how to provide this water. As the Pasuk states (BeMidbar 20:8), “Kach Et HaMateh VeHakheil Et HaEidah Atah VeAharon Achicha VeDibartem El HaSela LeEineihem VeNatan Meimav,” “Take the staff and gather together the assembly, you and Aharon your brother, and speak to the rock before their eyes and I shall give its waters.” However, when reading further into the story, we see that Moshe, like the last time he was commanded to produce water, hits the rock. Moshe does so instead of talking to it, and Bnei Yisrael receive water; however, Hashem does not approve of Moshe’s actions, and declares (20:12), “Ya’an Lo He’emantem Bi LeHakdisheini LeEinei Bnei Yisrael Lachein Lo Tavi’u Et HaKahal HaZeh El HaAretz Asher Natati Lahem,” “Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of Bnei Yisrael, therefore you will not bring this congregation to the land that I have given them.” Thus, because of his action of hitting the rock, Moshe is punished and is not allowed to lead the Jewish people into Eretz Kena’an. Immediately, the following question arises: Why is the hitting of the rock such a significant sin that it would warrant the punishment of preventing Moshe from entering into Eretz Kena’an, Moshe’s dream and goal since leading the Jews out of Egypt?
In order to understand the answer to this question, we must first understand the motive of Hashem to instruct Moshe to talk to the rock instead of simply hitting it. According to Rav Chaim Paltiel, the reason why Hashem wants Moshe to talk to the rock instead of simply hitting it is because Hashem wants Bnei Yisrael to understand that He is with them. Hashem understands the fact that Moshe will not be around forever for Bnei Yisrael to rely on, and He also understands that Bnei Yisrael have a tendency to panic, as demonstrated to Him through the Cheit HaEigel. In addition, the generation of the Jewish people which saw all of the miracles in Egypt, at Har Sinai, and during war, are either gone or dying out. Therefore, Hashem perceives the need to remind Bnei Yisrael who their God is and who Moshe and Aharon are really working for. As such, when Moshe fails to succeed in this crucial task, he is punished in a severe fashion.
A second approach to the problem of why Moshe is punished and why he is required to talk to a rock is offered by the Midrash Aggadah. The Midrash Aggadah explains that this “test” of talking to the rock is not really a test for Bnei Yisrael, but rather an indicator for Hashem. Ibn Ezra (BeMidbar 20:2 s.v. VeLo Hayah Mayim LaEidah) explains that there were three gifts which Bnei Yisrael received because of the merits of Moshe, Aharon, and Miriam; Miriam’s merits brought to the Jewish people the gift of water. However, at this point in the nation’s travels in the desert, Miriam has already been brought up to Shamayim; therefore, Bnei Yisrael are no longer be able to benefit from her merits, and no longer have a surplus of water. Based on this idea of Ibn Ezra, the Midrash Aggadah explains that this task of talking to the rock is meant to indicate to Hashem whether or not Bnei Yisrael are on a high enough level of Kedushah in order for Hashem to stay with them. And when Moshe hits the rock instead of just talking to it, he demonstrates that Bnei Yisrael are not necessarily on a high enough level yet - they still demonstrate their desire for physical pleasure over Hashem. As such, Hashem is not only punishing Moshe for hitting the rock, but also for failing to train Bnei Yisrael to trust Hashem without any disbelief or lack of trust.
It is clear from both answers that the theme of the punishment revolves around Moshe failing to do a task for the entire community. Based on this, there is a valuable lesson to be learned; that is, following Halachot does not only involve refraining from acting out of the parameters of the Torah and Halachot, but it is also about understanding that we have obligations which go beyond the letter of the law, which obligate us to act for the greater good of the Jewish people. And when we fail to live up to this obligation, bad consequences will arise. Therefore, we must do everything possible in order to maintain order and peace amongst the Jewish people in any way possible. By learning from one of the few mistakes of Moshe, we should learn to be not only good Jews by ourselves, but to spread the power and righteousness of the Torah throughout the greater community as well.