Speak To the Rock

At last, the moment had arrived. For 40 years they had wandered together in a wilderness. Most of the older generation had already passed on. Even the beloved Miriam was no more. By now, the young nation of Israel was finally ready to enter the Promised Land, under the leadership of Moses. But an incident occurred that would transform the nation and its leader's destiny.

Even the beloved Miriam was no more.

"The congregation had no water, so they assembled against Moses and Aaron."

"The people quarreled with Moses, saying, 'If only we had died with the death of our brothers before the Lord. Why have you brought the congregation of the Lord to this desert so that we and our livestock should die there? Why have you taken us out of Egypt to bring us to this bad place; it is not a place for seeds, or for fig trees, grapevines or pomegranate trees, and there is no water to drink'…

"G‑d spoke to Moses, saying, 'Take the staff and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and speak to the rock in their presence so that it will give forth its water. You shall bring forth water for them from the rock, and give the congregation and their livestock to drink.'

'Now listen, you rebels, can we draw water for you from this rock?'

"Moses took the staff from before the Lord as He had commanded him. Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock, and he said to them, 'Now listen, you rebels, can we draw water for you from this rock?'

"Moses raised his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, when an abundance of water gushed forth, and the congregation and their livestock drank.

"G‑d said to Moses and Aaron, 'Since you did not have faith in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the Land which I have given them.'" (Num. 20:2-12)

The Tragedy

This was an incredible tragedy: Moses would not enter the Holy Land. But why not?

What exactly was Moses' and Aaron's sin? G‑d instructed them to produce water from a rock and quench the thirst of the people. This they did. What were they being penalized for?

A subtle examination of the text reveals the nature of Moses' and Aaron's transgression. G‑d told Moses to speak to the rock. Instead, Moses struck the rock (his brother Aaron complied). It was this error of Moses that prevented him from entering the Holy Land.

Yet, this explanation leaves us with many more questions. Here are a few of them.

  • What compelled Moses to sin? If G‑d instructed him to speak to the rock, why did he choose to strike it? I, for one, know of no particular lust to strike rocks.

  • Why was Moses punished so severely for this sin? Does it really make a difference whether you communicate to a rock verbally or by force?

  • G‑d claimed that by striking the rock, Moses and Aaron failed to sanctify His name. How so?

  • Why did Moses need to strike the rock twice before it would emit abundant water? If G‑d did not allow the water to come out after the first blow because it was contrary to His will, why did He allow the water to flow after the second blow?

Why did Moses need to strike the rock twice...?

Forty Years Earlier

Forty years earlier, shortly after the Egyptian exodus, a similar incident occurred. But in that instance, G‑d expressed His desire that Moses actually strike the rock:

"There was no water for the people to drink. So the people quarreled with Moses, saying, 'Give us water that we may drink!' Moses said to them, 'Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test G‑d?'

"The people thirsted there for water, and complained against Moses, saying, 'Why have you brought us up from Egypt to make me and my children and my livestock die of thirst?'

"Moses cried out to G‑d, saying, 'What shall I do for this people? Just a little longer and they will stone me!'

"G‑d said to Moses... 'take into your hand your staff, with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold, I shall stand there before you on the rock in Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it, and the people will drink.'

"Moses did so before the eyes of the elders of Israel. He named the place Massah and Meribah because of the quarrel of the children of Israel and because of their testing G‑d, saying, 'Is the Lord in our midst or not?'" (Ex. 17:2-7)

...40 years later, Moses was under the impression that striking the rock was not that bad.

This episode might explain why 40 years later, Moses was under the impression that striking the rock was not that bad. After all, G‑d Himself commanded him once before to smite the rock in order to produce its waters.

But why did G‑d indeed change His position? What is the reason that in the first incident G‑d instructed Moses to strike the rock, while in the second incident He insisted exclusively on verbal communication?

A Process of Education

It wouldn't be an exaggeration to state that over the centuries, more than one hundred different interpretations have been offered to explain this puzzling episode. Today, I wish to present one of these interpretations, based on a Midrashic tradition.

The Midrash Yalkut Shimoni, makes the following comment:1

"Speak to the rock, do not strike it. G‑d told Moses, 'when a child is young, the educator may hit the lad in order to teach him. When the child grows into adulthood, however, the educator must rebuke him only verbally. Similarly, when the rock was but a 'small child,' I instructed you to strike it; but now [after 40 years when it has "grown up"] you must only speak to it. Teach it a chapter of Torah and it will produce water."

What is the comparison between a rock and a child?

This is a strange Midrash. What is the comparison between a rock and a child? And how are you supposed to teach a rock a chapter of Torah?

Obviously, according to the Midrash, the story with the rock was more than a physical event concerning an attempt to draw water from a hard inanimate object. It was also a psychological and moral tale about how to educate and refine human "rocks" so that they can produce water.

"A Rock Feels No Pain"

"I am a rock," goes the famous ballad. "A rock feels no pain, and an island never cries." So here is the question: How do you impact a rock? How do you transform a crude, coarse and stone-like mind and heart to become sources of water, wisdom and inspiration that could quench the thirst of parched souls? How do you open a locked heart? Do you smite it or do you speak to it? Do you transform a rock by force, or do you negotiate with it verbally, attempting to explain, persuade and enlighten?

Some parents, educators and psychiatrists are inclined exclusively toward one of the two paths. On one side are those committed to the path of discipline, severity and punishment. They do not let their children or students get away with any shtick, and if the kids don't respond, they show them the stick and coerce them to behave until the troublemakers learn their lesson for the next time.

On the other side are those who embrace the more liberal approach of empathy, love and compassion. They believe only in enlightenment and slow persuasion. They loathe the aggressive path that employs strength and coercion as a medium.

In the Kabbalah, these two paths are known respectively as gevura (strength) vs. chesed (loving kindness). Both approaches in and of themselves are flawed.

Judaism always advocates an ethos of education based on the path of love, but it also understands the need, at times, for force and coercion as a means to an end. At times, destructive behavior needs to be stopped immediately, and if the child will not respond to peaceful pleas and explanations, you must employ the minimum amount of required force to set the person and the situation straight.

And there are times when some people — children or adults — are in need of a strong, decisive decision imposed upon them, at times even a form of "shock treatment," since they are not in a place where they can understand and internalize the proper path. They may be too immature, mentally enslaved, addicted, sick, vicious, or victimized, to be able to forge their own future and embrace their destiny in a productive and moral manner.

Yet even while employing force, you must never lose focus of your ultimate objective...

Yet even while employing force, you must never lose focus of your ultimate objective, which is to enlighten the child or student and educate him or her to internally appreciate the proper way to live.

A Developing Nation

When the Jewish people departed from Egypt after decades of physical and psychological oppression, they were raw and crude. Steeped for two centuries in the immoral culture of Egyptian pagan society and stripped of much of their human dignity, they had developed a profound obstinacy and roughness. Let us recall Moses' cry to G‑d shortly after the Exodus (ibid.), "What shall I do for this people? Just a little longer and they will stone me!'"

That is why the generation that emerged from Egyptian bondage and abuse was, according to the biblical narrative, constantly rebelling, hollering, fighting and arguing. They had simply been through too much to develop a sense of loyalty, confidence and trust. They had been beaten slaves for too long.

In a novel interpretation, Maimonides suggests2 that this is the reason, the generation that left Egypt could not settle the Promised Land. Observing the mass hysteria which consumed the Jews after hearing the report of the spies about the land of Canaan and its inhabitants demonstrated to the Almighty that the nation was psychologically and emotionally unready to conquer the land. Decades of oppression, slavery and suffering under the brutal Egyptian empire deprived the Hebrews of the courage and confidence required to win wars and create their own society. The Jews may have left Egypt, but Egypt had not left them. They possessed neither the dignity nor the self-assurance critical to reclaiming G‑d's gift to them: the land of Israel. They were paralyzed by a slave mentality.
How are slaves transformed into free-minded individuals?
How are slaves transformed into free-minded individuals? Such a dramatic change cannot happen overnight. G‑d therefore contrived a two-point plan to prepare His people for the challenging road ahead. First, He had them spend four decades in wilderness. Maimonides wrote in the 12th century, "It is a well-known fact that traveling in the desert, being deprived of physical enjoyments such as bathing and the like, subjecting the body to the wildlife, produces courage. An antithetical lifestyle, on the other hand, creates weak character."

But that was not enough. G‑d realized that the first generation of Jewish adults born and raised in Egyptian slavery and oppression would never be able to undergo the profound psychological metamorphosis needed to develop a psyche of liberty. The slave mentality had become too deeply ingrained in their lives. "During the wanderings, however, another generation arose, one that has not been accustomed to degradation and slavery," Maimonides writes. G‑d realized that it would take a generation born and raised in freedom to possess the courage required to fight the battles of conquest and create a Jewish society on the soil of the land of their forefathers.

This is not to underestimate the quality of that first generation of Jews. According to the Kabbalah, the generation that departed Egypt possessed extraordinarily lofty souls, never to be repeated in our history. But before any refinement could be achieved, the outer "rock" needed to be cracked. The "hard skin" they naturally developed over 210 years in exile, needed to be penetrated before its inner vibrant and fresh waters could be fully discovered.

That is why, immediately after the Exodus, G‑d instructed Moses to strike the rock. At this primitive point in Jewish history, smiting the "rock" was appropriate, indeed critical. Their hearts were too dense to be pierced in any other way. Moses needed to be forceful, direct and blunt.

A New Generation

Forty years later, their children and grandchildren, born and raised in liberty and in a highly spiritual environment, developed a sense of selfhood quite different from their parents and grandparents. Forty years in wilderness, in the presence of Moses, Aaron and miracles, left a dent. The nation had spiritually and psychologically matured.

This new generation of Jews asks only for water, not for meat or other delicacies.

But suddenly, they, too, began to lament and kvetch about a lack of water. Yet a subtle reading of the text exposes us to a tune quite different from the tune present in their parents' cry 40 years earlier. This new generation of Jews asks only for water, not for meat or other delicacies. They do not express their craving to return to Egypt. Nor do they wish to stone Moses. They are simply terrified of the prospects of death by thirst.

G‑d was sensitive to the nuanced distinctions. He commanded Moses to speak to the rock, rather than strike it. "Now you must speak to it, teach it a chapter of Torah and it will produce water," in the above recorded words of the Midrash. The Jews have come a long way. The model of smiting must be replaced with the model of teaching and inspiring.

At that critical juncture, however, Moses was unable to metamorphose himself. Moses, who came to identify so deeply with the generation he painstakingly liberated from Egyptian genocide and slavery and worked incessantly for their development as a free and holy people, could not easily assume a new model of leadership. Moses, calling the people "rebels," struck the rock. He continued to employ the method of rebuke and strength.

And he struck it twice, because when you attempt to change things through pressure, rather than by persuasion, you must always do it more than once.

This demonstrated that Moses belonged to the older generation and because of his profound love and loyalty to that generation - about whom he told G‑d that should He not forgive them, He could erase Moses' name from the Torah (Ex. 32:32) - he was not the appropriate person to take the new generation into the land.

Moses did not possess the ability to properly assess the transformation that had taken place in the young generation of Jews who had come of age. This was not a flaw of Moses, it was his virtue: A result of his extraordinary intimate connection with the minds of his generation. Moses has become one with them.

Moses chose to diminish himself rather than diminish his people.

What is more, Moses wished not – perhaps could not — speak to the rock, for that would demonstrate the flaws of the Jews he faithfully led for forty years; it would highlight the contrast between enslaved parents and liberated children. Moses chose to diminish himself rather than diminish his people. That is what made Moses such a unique leader.

So G‑d told Moses, "You did not have faith in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel." Instead of exposing the elevated spiritual status of the new generation of Jews, Moses diminished their moral level, creating a crock in their profound and mature relationship with G‑d.

Moses' place, it turned out, was in desert with his beloved people, these heroic souls who began the march from slavery to freedom, but could not complete it because of the incredible pain they have endured. Freedom, after all, is a long and slow journey. They began the journey; their children would complete it.

Two Types of Stones

The above explanation will clarify another curious anomaly in the biblical description of the two incidents with the water. The description for the "rock" in the first incident is the Hebrew term "tzur." The description for the rock in the second incident is the Hebrew term "selah." Why?

In English we translate both Hebrew words — tzur and selah — to mean a rock. But in the Hebrew there is a significant difference between the two terms. A tzur is a rock that is hard and solid both in its exterior and interior parts. It is all rock. A selah, on the other hand, is a rock that is hard and rocky on its outside, but its interior contains water or moisture.3

When you are dealing with a "rock" that has no moisture stored in it, you have no choice but to smite it. However, when you are confronted with a rock that is merely rocky on the outside but soft on the inside, you have no right to smite it. Now, you must speak to it and inspire it to reveal its internal waters of wisdom, love and inspiration.

Clash of Civilizations

Just as this is true in the word of child rearing and education, it is also true regarding our attempt to eliminate clashes between cultures and civilizations, and create a world of peace.

Here, too, people can be divided into two categories: the strikers and the talkers.

Some people are hawks by nature. They are convinced that every clash must be dealt with through force and coercion. You must "strike the rock" until it surrenders. Others are lovey-dovey pacifists who believe exclusively in "speaking to the rock," never employing aggressive measures.

Adolf Hitler was not defeated through negotiation, but through war.

Either perspective used exclusive of the other is wrong. Force and violence ought never be embraced as an ultimate goal. Violence is ugly and painful. But when other attempts fail, righteous might is the only response to immoral violence. Adolf  Hitler was not defeated through negotiation, but through war. There are many innocent men and women alive today solely because others used force to save their lives.

Moral vs. Immoral Violence

A close friend of mine, a Jewish man recently taking a stroll one night in Colombia, was attacked by two men, who tried to stab him to death. My friend, by nature a very peaceful and emotionally sensitive individual, employed violence. He kicked them hard, stunned the thugs and escaped.

He did not tell them, "Hey, guys, I promise you that when I return to the U.S. I will go to therapy to find out why you hate me." Or, "You must be so deeply frustrated because your father was so poor and your mother an alcoholic; let me give you a big hug." Had he done that, it is most likely that his three children would be orphans today.

The key is to distinguish between moral violence and immoral violence. Violence used by police is what stops violent criminals from murdering and hurting innocent people. If somebody had killed the Muslim savages before they beheaded Daniel Pearl, Nicholas Berg, Paul Johnson and Kim Sun-il, that person would have saved innocent human being from a barbaric death. Eliminating Chamas terrorists before they kidnap and murder, is highly moral. It saves innocent lives.

Winston Churchill once said: "Appeasement is feeding the sharks in the hope that you will be eaten last." When you are dealing with a shark, you must smite the "rock." If not, innocents will die. At other times, you must speak to the rock.

In the wise words of King Solomon: "There is a time for everything under the heaven…A time to kill and a time to heal; a time to wreck and a time to build… A time to embrace and a time to shun embrace… A time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace." (Eccl. 3:1-8) May we add: A time for smiting a rock and a time for speaking to a rock.

We must always be ready to change our vision and mentality based on the reality confronting us. When the opportunity is ripe for love and respect, when you see that you can change the reality through education, enlightenment and words, you must employ this path with the same vigor and passion that you employed previously the method of coercion.


This essay is based on a discourse of the year 1872 by Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch, the fourth Lubavitcher Rebbe (1834-1882); and on a discourse of 1909 by his son, the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Dovber of Lubavitch (1860-1920)
These discourses are published in Sefer Hama'amarim 5632 vol. 2 Parashat Chukat; Sefer Hama'amarim 5669 i>Parashat Chukat. Some of their ideas are apparently based on the Klei Yakar's final explanation to this episode (Numbers Ibid).

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