In this week’s Torah portion Hukat, Miriam dies and the people complain bitterly that there’s no water (Numbers 20:3-5). God tells him to take his rod and order the rock to produce water. But Moses, old and weary, instead of ordering the rock, strikes it with his rod. Though the people drink God punishes Moses from ever entering the Promised Land.
Talmudic sages said that Moses’ faith wasn’t strong enough, that because he failed to sanctify God in the sight of the people God deemed him unworthy to lead them into Canaan.
RAMBAM explained that Moses lacked compassion, that because the people were on the verge of death from thirst he should have spoken kindly to them instead of with words of rebuke.
Others say that in losing his temper Moses lost his moral authority to be leader.
And some say that because Moses claimed credit for the miracle of the water without acknowledging God, the Almighty denied him what he dreamed for most.
And there’s yet another explanation.
Earlier at Massah and Meribah (Exodus 17) the people also had complained of their dire thirst. Similar to our portion God told Moses to take his rod, but this time to hit the rock instead of speaking to it.
Why? What was different then vs now?
The answer is that Sinai intervened between the two events. There, at that lowly mountain God sought a new way for the people, to erase the experience of slavery, to create a new people in which force would yield to reason, physical strength to law, violence to dialogue and compassion.
God intended that a new age was to begin, the messianic age, and Moses was to be the Messiah. However, when Moses hit the rock instead of speaking to it, he showed the people that Sinai had actually changed nothing, that God was just a more powerful Pharaoh with bigger magic and greater violence.
In a modern midrash on the “Waters of Meribah,” Rabbi Marc Gelman writes movingly of what God intended for the people, then and now (Learn Torah with…Vol. 5, Number 16, January 30, 1999, edited by Joel Lurie Grishaver and Rabbi Stuart Kelman):
"When my people enters the land you shall not enter with them, but neither shall I. I shall only allow a part of my presence to enter the land with them. The abundance of my presence I shall keep outside the land. The exiled part shall be called my Shekhinah and it shall remind the people that I too am in exile. I too am a divided presence in the world, and that I shall only be whole again on that day when the power of the fist vanishes forever from the world. Only on that day will I be one. Only on that day will my name be one. Only on that day Moses, shall we enter the land together. Only on that day Moses, shall the waters of Meribah become the flowing waters of justice and the everlasting stream of righteousness gushing forth from my holy mountain where all people shall come and be free at last."
Turning to the present, we ask how we can apply the message of Sinai to the most challenging problem facing the Jewish people - the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Sinai teaches that the power of the fist must give way to a vision of Oneness, and that vision requires us as American Jews to publicly support our own American effort led by President Obama and Secretary Kerry to help the Israelis and Palestinians resolve their conflict diplomatically in two states for two peoples living side by side in peace and security.
The status quo in which Israel occupies another people is morally, religiously and practically unsustainable. Israel will lose its soul, its democracy and/or its Jewish majority if it continues to occupy millions of Palestinians.
Israel must be helped to choose and the Palestinians must be helped to choose a new way that leads our two peoples and two nations towards acceptance of the other and a peaceful resolution of this conflict. The extremists on both sides need to be contained and controlled. Each side will need to make significant compromises for the sake of peace.
It will not be easy, but that, I believe, is the greater meaning of Sinai and we ignore it at our own peril.
Theodor Herzl said more than a century ago when envisioning a State for the Jewish people - Im tirtzu, ein zo agadah – If you will it, it is not a dream!
If Israel and the Palestinians will it, peace is also not a dream.