Friday, June 22, 2007

The Invisible Sin

There is no Jewish Pope. Or, as King Solomon put it, “There is no Tzaddik in the world who does good and does not sin” (Kohelet 7:20). No human is infallible and even the greatest of the great, our beloved and revered teacher Moshe, wasn’t perfect. He sins this week, and the Torah has no qualms telling us all about it.

The story begins when the Jews find themselves in the middle of a desert with nothing to drink. It’s a most unfunny predicament, but that’s no excuse for the shrill chutzpa that ensues:

The people attacked Moshe. “We wish we had died together with our brothers before G-d!” they declared. “Why did you bring G-d’s congregation to this desert? So that we and our livestock should die? Why did you take us out of Egypt and bring us to this terrible place?

Bamidbar 20:3-5

There’s more, but you get the idea. It’s all Moshe’s fault. At this point G-d appears and gives Moshe instructions:

“Take the staff and gather together the community, you and Aaron your brother. Speak to the rock in their presence and it will give its water. You will bring out water from the rock and provide the community and their animals with something to drink.”

Ibid 20:8

Here comes the climax:

Moshe took the staff from before G-d as he was commanded. Moshe and Aaron assembled the congregation before the rock. Moshe said, “Listen up, you rebels! Should we get water out of this rock for you?”
Moshe raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff. A huge amount of water came out and the community and their animals drank.

Ibid 20:9-11

G-d performed a miracle and the Jews got their water. Sounds great, but something went wrong. Very wrong.

G-d said to Moshe and Aaron, “Since you did not have enough faith in Me to sanctify Me in front of the Children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this congregation to the land that I have given you.

Ibid 20:12

For their crime, they are doomed to die in the desert. Moshe and Aaron, the men who led the nation from the slave camps of Egypt to the shores of the Jordan River, will not live to see the Jews enter the Promised Land.

But what exactly was their crime? They got the water out of the rock. What did they do wrong?

All the commentators weigh in on this question. The Ohr HaChaim (R. Chaim ibn Atar, 1696-1743) counts no less than ten different opinions, and that’s just counting the classical, medieval commentators! Alternative explanations are offered not simply because someone came up with a new possibility, but because there are real issues with the earlier interpretations. These rabbinic debates can get a little heated.

Rashi believes the sin was hitting the rock. Moshe was ordered to talk to the rock, not hit it. The Ramban counters that G-d told Moshe to take his staff – what’s the staff for, if not for hitting? (Of course, Rashi would probably respond with Theodore Roosevelt’s credo: “Speak softly and carry a big stick!”). The Rambam writes that Moshe’s sin was losing patience with the Jews. The Ramban counters that this is utter nonsense (sic!). The Torah does not say that Moshe got angry here, and elsewhere where Moshe does if fact get angry with the Jews (cf. Bamidbar 31:14), he is not punished. Moreover, this explanation would not explain what Aaron did wrong. Other suggestions include the failure to lead the congregation in a song of thanksgiving, calling the Jews “traitors,” hitting the rock twice, and not stressing that it was G-d who was making this miracle happen (cf. 20:10). Even after all this and more, the Ohr HaChaim is unimpressed. “None of these ten interpretations satisfy the need for truth!” He points out flaws in each one and then presents his own idea.

It’s fun to read all these creative suggestions, but it’s also mildly disturbing. No one can seem to nail this sin down. Of course, biblical commentators disagree all the time, but to find a multitude of opinions and contentious debate on such a basic question is most unusual. It raises an altogether different question, and a more important one. Why didn’t the Torah just state the sin clearly? If the Torah is being so vague no one can agree what it means, it is doing so deliberately. Why?

The answer to this question takes us back to our opening statements. There may be no Pope in Judaism, but genuinely holy Jews do exist. While all men are created equal, living a Jewish life, exercising free will and performing mitzvot transforms a person. As you climb the ladder of Torah, you build spiritual muscle. You graduate to advanced levels where old challenges and demons fade away and new challenges are presented. Eventually, the Jew finds himself standing in the throne room of the King.

When dealing with spiritual supermen like Moshe and Aaron we need to be careful not to make the mistake of projecting. They are different than you and I, and they are judged differently. Standing in the presence of G-d, Moshe and Aaron are held to a different standard. Behavior that would not be considered sinful for regular people may be a major failing for people like them.

The point is this: We should have no expectation of understanding the sin of Moshe and Aaron. The Jews who stood there and watched probably didn’t notice anything wrong either. Note that G-d did not say that they actively did something wrong, it was just that they missed an opportunity to “sanctify” G-d (cf. 12:20).

The Torah reported the event faithfully. The sin of Moshe and Aaron was so subtle it was invisible and the Torah kept it that way. That’s why, to this day, no one really knows what they did wrong.


  1. Thank you. I've heard so many times that Moses was denied entrance into the promised land because he hit a rock rather than talking to it to get water. Sounds crazy, no? I much prefer this explanation, that Moshe and Aaron are being held to a higher standard that we cannot understand or at least wasn't explained.

  2. As Winston Churchill pointed out, the greatest American military hero of the America revolution was Benedict Arnold!! His obstinancy in going against his superior and entering battle at Saratoga Springs(which led to a victory by the colonists) caused his demotion to a remote outpost at West Point. Thus, sometimes it is better to stop physical history at an apex in man's struggle.

    Such is the case with Moshe. HaShem knows the future and saw that Moshe would not have the same position in the new country as he had as a leader from Exodus to the new land. The people's views of Moshe in the new country would change and diminish his prestige as Moshe Rabbaainu. Moshe had fulfilled his mission and could now rest in the spiritual world. The manner in which Moshe was sentenced was a way of impressing upon the Nation that even the greatest are susceptible to the supreme power, especially for what appears to the multitude to be a small misdemeanor. This then adds to the greatness of Moshe in the eyes of the people and to their memory of him.
    I do wonder if HaShem induced Moshe to "sin" by first offering him the stick to take in helping to perform his act of speaking to the rock. What function was the stick supposed to play in performing the miracle, and why did HaShem specifically tell Moshe to take the stick to perform the miracle of "speaking to the rock"? Also, the exact rock was not known, so it would seem that it would have been more appropriate for Moshe to simply raise his arms over the field of rocks and request that the water appear, rather than use a stick to point to a specific rock.