The discussion of the sin of Mei Merivah in this week’s parashah comprises only a few pesukim, but it’s a fascinating topic. The Midrash says that Moshe Rabbeinu asked that Hakadosh Baruch Hu should specify the reason he was not allowed to enter Eretz Yisrael, so that people shouldn’t think that he’s not going into Eretz Yisrael because he angered Hakadosh Baruch Hu the way that the rest of Klal Yisrael did, through their 10 nisyonos of Hashem. The Midrash brings the parable of two women who were punished in beis din, one for immoral behavior and the other for eating Shemittah produce. The one who had eaten Shemittah produce said, “Please publicize the reason I am being punished, so people shouldn’t think that I sinned the way the other woman did.” Similarly, the Torah writes that Moshe Rabbeinu was not allowed to bring Klal Yisrael into Eretz Yisrael because of Mei so that no one should think that he sinned in a more grievous way. What’s fascinating about this topic is that it’s very unclear what the sin of Moshe Rabbeinu actually was. The Rishonim labored to figure out how, exactly, he sinned, and they offer dozens of explanations, some of which are polar opposites of each other. The Ramban brings four explanations; the Ibn Ezra brings another four, and the Ohr Hachaim brings ten, all of which are proposed by the Rishonim. The Ohr Hachaim says that the Ramban refuted three of these explanations, the Ibn Ezra another three, and the remaining four he’s going to refute himself, after which he’ll offer his own explanation. Some Rishonim say the sin was that Klal Yisrael didn’t sing a song of thanks for the water they received. The Ibn Ezra cites an explanation that the reason Moshe Rabbeinu had to hit the rock twice was because the first time he lost his kavanah and dveikus as a result of the tumult. The second time he hit the rock, he did it with intense dveikus, so water came out. But for a leader of Klal Yisrael to lose his kavanah and dveikus for even a second is considered a sin. The Rambam, in Moreh Nevuchim, says that the sin was that Moshe Rabbeinu got angry at Klal Yisrael, and Klal Yisrael understood that if Moshe Rabbeinu is angry then it must mean that Hakadosh Baruch Hu is angry at them. But Hashem wasn’t angry, and therefore Moshe’s anger was out of place, and considered a sin. The Ramban challenges this, however, saying that this reason would only explain why Moshe was punished, but why was Aharon punished? The pasuk states clearly that Aharon was involved in the sin, and, as the Ramban says, “Aharon lo ka’as miyamav – Aharon never in his life got angry.” The Ramban suggests, therefore, that the sin was that Moshe and Aharon implied that they were bringing water of their own abilities; they forgot the “b’ezras Hashem” and the “im yirtzeh Hashem,” and this lack of attribution of the miracle to Hashem cost them dearly. But the Ohr Hachaim challenges this xplanation, too.
In short, we don’t know what the real sin was. When learning this inyan, I am reminded about a Midrash regarding the dor hamidbar. The Midrash says: Fortunate is someone whose sins are few enough to count. If someone’s sins can be counted on one’s fingers, that shows tremendous greatness of the person. The dor hamidbar sinned 10 times – and no more! What a shevach! I think that idea can be applied to Moshe Rabbeinu as well: Fortunate is Moshe that even the sin he was punished for has to be scrutinized under the microscopic eye of the Rishonim, and even then we can’t figure out exactly what the sin was.
With that introduction, I want to suggest an explanation of the sin of Mei Merivah according to the approach of Rashi. Obviously, we have to know that when we’re talking about Moshe Rabbeinu, we have absolutely no inkling of what the criticism actually was; everything we’re discussing is purely as a lesson for ourselves, what we can take out of it for our own lives. Rashi learns that the sin was that Hakadosh Baruch Hu commanded Moshe to speak to the rock, and Moshe Rabbeinu went and hit the rock. Why did Moshe do that? Rashi brings down a Midrash that says that Moshe Rabbeinu did speak to the rock at first, but the rock he spoke to didn’t give water because it was the wrong rock; the “real” rock, the well of Miriam, was hiding among the other rocks. Moshe Rabbeinu decided that since speech wasn’t working, he had to hit the rock. The rock that he hit was the correct one, and water came out. I’d like to pose two questions on this Rashi. The first question is: What was Moshe thinking? If Hakadosh Baruch Hu said speak to the rock, and speech didn’t work, why did Moshe think he could bring forth water through a different method? Hakadosh Baruch Hu is the One bringing out water from the rock – obviously you have to follow His directions for making that happen! Furthermore, when Klal Yisrael challenged Moshe by saying, “What’s the difference which rock you bring the water from? This one, that one, what difference does it make?” Moshe Rabbeinu chastised them, explaining that he couldn’t just bring forth water with his own powers, he had to do it according to the instructions of Hashem. We’re asking the same question about Moshe Rabbeinu: If speaking to the rock didn’t work, you try a new method and you think that will work? The second question is, the passuk says that the sin showed a lack of faith but where do we see a lack of emunah? The Gemara (Shabbos 97) teaches that when Moshe was sent to redeem Klal Yisrael from Mitzrayim and he said, Klal Yisrael is not going to believe me, Hashem rebuked him, saying, “Klal Yisrael are maaminim bnei maaminim – but at the end, you’re not going to have, sufficient emunah, as the passuk says. But where do we see a lack of emunah in the incident of Mei Merivah, according to Rashi’s explanation that he hit the rock instead of speaking to it? Maybe he didn’t listen to Hashem fully, but does that mean that he didn’t believe in Hashem? Unlike Rashi, most of the Rishonim explain that Hashem’s commandment was to hit the rock, not to speak to the rock. How, then, do they explain the words, “you should speak to the rock?” The Rashbam writes that the way you speak to a rock is by striking it; a rock doesn’t have ears. The language with which you speak to a rock is the language of hitting. With this insight, we can explain both what Moshe was thinking and why there was a lack of emunah in his thought process. After Moshe Rabbeinu spoke to the rock and did not manage to bring forth water from it, presumably a beis din convened to figure out what to do. At this meeting, Moshe Rabbeinu said, “It seems that we have to understand Hashem’s instructions differently. When Hashem said to speak to the rock, He didn’t mean actual speech, He meant speaking to the rock in its own language, by hitting it.” Moshe Rabbeinu wasn’t saying, “Let’s forget about the command of G-d and find our own method”; he was simply proposing a new interpretation of Hashem’s command. This was his deficiency in emunah. Because if you believe in Hashem’s commandment one thousand percent, then you don’t have to come up with new interpretations of Hashem’s words. If Hashem said, “and you shall speak”, it means to speak. If speaking doesn’t work, then you have to figure out what the problem is, but you don’t have to reinterpret Hashem’s command. So the root of Moshe Rabbeinu’s sin of hitting the rock was his lack of emunah in Hashem’s words. I once heard a story that illustrates this concept. Someone came to Rav Elyashiv and quoted the Gemara that says that a person who has bad middos can’t learn Torah properly. “I know someone who has terrible middos,” he said, “and this person is a rosh yeshiva! He says shiurim, he writes sefarim, and it’s clear that he can learn. How can this be?” The person then proposed a new explanation of the Gemara, bringing two Maharals and a Sifsei Chaim and building a whole new explanation based on remez, derush, and sod to reconcile the Gemara. Rav Elyashiv’s response was: If Chazal say that someone who has bad middos can’t learn Torah, and you have a question, there are two possibilities: either you don’t know what it means to have bad middos, or you don’t know what it means to know how to learn. Just because you have a question about something Chazal said, that doesn’t mean that you have to come up with a new pshat in divrei Chazal, as though Chazal’s words don’t necessarily mean what they say. Of course Chazal’s words can be understood at face value! If you don’t understand it, and you break your head to come up with a new understanding, that’s a chisaron in emunah! What would Moshe Rabbeinu have done if he hadn’t had this chisaron in emunah (on his level, of course)? He would have tried to figure out what the problem was, but without reinterpreting Hashem’s command. Maybe he had spoken the wrong words? Maybe he had spoken the to wrong rock (as indeed Rashi says)? But instead of saying, “The problem is with us, we have a big question,” he decided to say a complicated pshat in Hashem’s command – that speaking didn’t necessarily mean speaking. How many times do we see Gemaras or hear Midrashim of Chazal and try to translate them our own way, according to our own understanding? Sometimes, we resort to derush because the words of Chazal don’t seem to fit into our everyday lives, so we think it can’t actually mean what it says. A person has to have emunah sheleimah that whatever Chazal say is emes, and when we have a question, a tzaruch iyun, we can blame ourselves for our lack of understanding – but we shouldn’t come up with exceptions and new understandings of Chazal!
By: Harav Hagaon Elimelech Reznik Shlita
From The Mirrer Yeshiva in Yerushalayim.
Have A Great Shabbos!!