After describing the law of the red heifer, the Torah skips thirty-eight years. During this time, the Jews wandered around the desert. The slave generation – whose leadership was too fearful of entering the Promised Land, as we saw in Parashat Shelach – died. We know very little about either the events of their lives or how they passed away.

Then, in Parashat Chukat, the Torah relates the death of Miriam – one of the last of her generation to die – and then rapidly moves on to describe a critical event in the life of Moses.

This dramatic story begins with G‑d’s command to Moses:
"Take the staff and gather the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and speak to the rock in front of their eyes, and it will give of its water…."

...Moses struck the rock with the staff, instead of speaking to it as commanded.

Of course, we know Moses struck the rock with the staff, instead of speaking to it as commanded. G‑d then barred him from entering the land of Israel as punishment.

Some commentators ask: If Moses was directed to speak to the rock, why did he need the staff? Others question the order of the verse: Why was Moses told to first to take the staff and then assemble the whole congregation?

The Maharal of Prague tells us that Moses’ staff was among the object created at the very beginning of time – during that "twilight zone" between day and night, between the sixth day of creation and the night that began the seventh Shabbat, when G‑d rested. The staff was an intermediary between the physical and the spiritual worlds. It was a "supernatural" staff.

Building on the Maharal’s insight, Shem miShmuel explains that the staff was the right instrument for calling the congregation together. To assemble 600,000 people in a short time before Moses was a supernatural act. The normal instrument for calling the people together would have been the trumpet, but that is a man-made tool, subject to the physical world. Therefore, Moses was told to use a supernatural creation – the staff – to summon the congregation. That’s why the verse mentions first the staff and then the call to congregate.

Shem miShmuel goes further, pointing out that the first time Moses was called upon to produce water for the Jews, he was not told to gather the entire congregation, but only a few of the elders. In other words, shortly after the exodus, it was sufficient to gather only a few of the elders together in order to perform the miracle. Why, then was it necessary to gather the entire generation the second time?

According to Shem miShmuel, the difference between the two generations was the difference between the head and the heart.

...the difference between the two generations was the difference between the head and the heart.

The generation of the Exodus, which journeyed in the desert for forty years, was composed of men of huge intellect. Each was an entity unto himself, with this own opinion and his own approach. They were united at the giving of the Torah itself, but we see that disunity and arguments accompanied all of their subsequent journeys and camping in the desert.

The next generation, however, learned from the mistakes of their fathers. They knew that the main thing was to listen to G‑d and do what He wants, whether or not they understood. They were a generation of the heart, ready to listen and accept the word of G‑d. Nevertheless, they weren’t on as high an intellectual level as the previous generation. In order to convince them that this was what G‑d wanted, it was necessary to gather them all together.

Whereas the generation of the desert (called the "generation of knowledge" by the Sages), needed only a few elders to bring about the miracle of bringing forth the water, this generation of the heart needed everyone together, waiting with huge expectation in their hearts, to cause the miracle to happen.

The first generation to enter Israel was a generation of the heart. We, a few hundred generations later, are the "generation of the heels." We also need a "Moses" to bring us into the land of Israel; the Mashiach will be our Moses. As the "heels", we don’t even have to feel in our hearts as strongly as the generation which entered the land. We just have to "go" – to do another mitzvah, help a fellow Jew – and with some help from Above, we’ll also reach the Promised Land.

[From "Inner Lights from Jerusalem" based on the Shem miShmuel and other Chassidic and Kabalistic Sources, translated and presented by Rabbi David Sterne]