Rocks, Leaders, and a Forbidden Journey by Reuven Herzog


3,284 years ago, Yehoshua Bin Nun led the young nation of Israel into Eretz Kena’an, to conquer it and transform it into the center of God’s holiness, Eretz Yisrael. However, as we learn in Parashat Chukat, that was not Hashem’s original plan – neither the year nor the person in charge. In fact, Bnei Yisrael were, theoretically, to spend very little time in the wilderness and enter their homeland only one short year after Yetzi’at Mitzrayim, with Moshe and Aharon leading them. But, as Sefer BeMidbar informs us, Bnei Yisrael’s sins altered the course of their history. Cheit HaMeraglim sacrificed an entire generation and delayed the time of arrival to Eretz Yisraelforty years, and Moshe and Aharon’s sin at Mei Merivah stripped them of their destiny to lead the Jews into the land.

The punishment from Mei Merivah seems to be a bit harsh, and in reality, a bit confusing. First of all, the punishment doesn’t seem to fit the crime. How is Moshe’s action, of hitting a rock when he was instructed to speak to it, in any way connected to his loss of privilege to enter Eretz Yisrael? Furthermore, why is Aharon included in the punishment, when only Moshe actually hit the rock? (This question is compounded by the fact that the only action Aharon performed in the entire sequence was of him declaring to the people, along with Moshe, “…HaMin HaSela HaZeh Notzi LaChem Mayim,” “From this rock we will bring forth water for you” (BeMidbar 20:10), nothing against Hashem’s command.)

A closer look at the text reveals that Moshe and Aharon’s punishment was not in reality what is commonly perceived. It was not directly that neither of them could enter into Eretz Yisrael; rather, Hashem said to them, “Lo Tavi’u Et HaKahal HaZeh El HaAretz Asher Natati LaHem,” “You will not bring the people into the land I have given to them” (20:12). God’s reaction to Moshe and Aharon was to bar them from leading Bnei Yisrael into Eretz Yisrael, not that they themselves couldn’t go in.

Upon further examination we can also learn why Aharon was included in this. His guilt may lie in his passiveness, his acceptance of Moshe’s wrongful actions without even a small effort to stop him. Like the listener of Leshon HaRa, Aharon bore responsibility for allowing Moshe’s sin to occur. But looking at this incident in the perspective of leadership, the reason becomes clear. The leadership of Bnei Yisrael was a true tag-team effort, with both Moshe and Aharon at the head. They each had distinct personalities, Moshe being shier and more reluctant to take a central role (see Shemot 3-4 for Moshe’s initial reluctance and refusal to take the position of Bnei Yisrael’s leader), and Aharon being more outgoing and more easily able to relate to the people. Pirkei Avot (1:12) reveals that Aharon was not only a theoretical Oheiv Shalom, or lover of accord, but was also Rodeif Shalom, actively pursuing harmony among the people. In contrast, Moshe was a disciplinarian, who judged cases but did not really get involved with other affairs of the people’s daily lives. The contrasts between the two continue in other aspects. Moshe was the political leader while Aharon, as Kohein Gadol, was the ritual director. The leadership of Bnei Yisrael was not placed on one person alone; rather, Moshe and Aharon headed the nation together. As such, they were responsible for each other and were removed together.

The Pesukim clearly indicate that God had decided here that a change at the head of Bnei Yisrael was necessary before entering Eretz Yisrael. But why did it happen as a result of Moshe’s hitting a rock? A vague but accurate answer is that it didn’t. The preface to Hashem’s judgment and ban of Moshe and Aharon from entering Eretz Yisrael does not make mention of what either of them did, but instead of what they didn’t do. Hashem explains, “Ya’an Lo He’emantem Bi LeHakdisheini LeEinei Bnei Yisrael,” “Since you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in front of the eyes of Bnei Yisrael” (BeMidbar 20:12). What Moshe and Aharon failed to do was show to Bnei Yisrael the power of God over nature, its obedience to Him, and their required obedience to Him as well.

How does this connect to them not leading Bnei Yisrael into Eretz Yisrael? Essentially, what they failed to do and what they were barred from doing are the same thing. Leading God’s nation means maintaining a constant connection between God and His people. Especially for a new generation about to finish a coming-of-age rite, revealing God’s presence and power was crucial and critical to them and to the success of Kibush HaAretz. At the most important time in the young history of Bnei Yisrael, the two leaders erred; as a result, they were stripped of their leadership. In fact, Moshe and Aharon’s punishment can be seen not as true punishment for a sin, but a realization that they can no longer do their jobs – they were let go, not fired. Once they served their purpose in life, they didn’t have much more to do: Aharon died immediately, and Moshe lived only a few months longer to set up the new leader and present his closing remarks.

The next question is why Moshe and Aharon were not allowed to enter Eretz Yisrael, even without the power of leaders. Perhaps it was a bit of true punishment for their sin, perhaps it was to save Bnei Yisrael from ultimate destruction (see Or HaChayim’s commentary to “Gam Bi Hit’anaf Hashem Biglalchem,” Devarim 1:37).  Perhaps it just wouldn’t be fair to the new leaders, Yehoshua and Itamar, to have not only the shadows of their predecessors looming over them, but their living presence as wellMaybe, the reason was because ultimately, Moshe and Aharon as well could not be anything but leaders. Moshe was the ultimate advocate of Bnei Yisrael, their vehement defender in their times of trouble and sin, and he would not be able to take a back seat in the God-Bnei Yisrael relationship that would most definitely be rocky during the coming years. Evidence of this is that he spent his last thirty days trying to influence Bnei Yisrael to avoid the inevitable troubles that would arrive amidst their sins. Moshe might not have been able to trust Bnei Yisrael’s defense to someone else, even his most trusted disciple, because he loved them too much. Were Hashem to allow Moshe to enter Eretz Yisrael, it would have to have been as someone he was not, a mold, into which he could not fit. Moshe was only a leader and a people-lover, and he was not able to become less than that.

All of this came as a result of Moshe hitting a rock, and Aharon just standing with him.  God’s command was simple enough: Talk to the rock, and it will pour out water for the people to drink.  So why didn’t the two leaders listen to such an easy command?  Their people were starving from thirst, ravenous for water, complaining but legitimately so, and Moshe and Aharon wanted to provide water for them as quickly as possible.  So, they figured, if talking to the rock can generate water, surely hitting it will create a more powerful stream of water!  Furthermore, hitting the rock worked previously for Moshe and Aharon (Shemot 17:6), so they wanted to just stick with what they knew worked.  They only had their people’s best interest in mind.  They would not settle for anything less, and could not let anyone else be responsible for them.  However, at that time, Bnei Yisrael needed to see the supremacy of God above all else.  When Moshe did not change his actions to what the situation demanded, it became clear that a change was needed.  Moshe didn’t do anything inherently wrong; instead, he had just finished his job in leading Bnei Yisrael through the desert, and a new leader was needed, a different leader for a different situation and a different generation.

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