Moses Draws Water From the Rock by Francois Perrier, 1642,
currently at the Capitoline Museums, Rome, Italy

Ok. You know how for quite a few blog posts lately I’ve been complaining about how repetitive this part of the Old Testament is? That God is dictating His rules for cleanliness again and again and again? Well, now that we’ve been dealing with the COVID-19 Pandemic situation for about a month, I take it all back. I ask God’s and your forgiveness. There’s a reason that still exists for repetitive messaging and it’s because YOU HAVE TO DO IT. Right now, we’re daily hearing information about public health – we should isolate ourselves, wash our hands often, stay at least six feet from others in public, don’t gather as groups of more than 10, etc. AND YET. People in my own region are still having neighborhood parties, crowding public parks and walking areas, organizing kid play-dates, complaining that they can’t go to the movies or eat at a sit-down restaurant. The information is meant to prevent literal deaths AND YET. Apparently NOTHING HAS CHANGED in this regard within the past few thousands of years. The repetition was necessary and if we think that we’re so much more advanced than that community of prehistoric desert nomads, well, this is one aspect where we’re not.

So. Anyhow. In today’s blog post, I’m only reviewing two chapters because they’re jam-packed. Buckle up, buckaroos.

Chapter 19 starts with more information about one of God’s (and recently, one of my own) favorite topics: cleanliness. For the Old Testament God, being physically clean and spiritually clean are nearly the same thing. He tells Moses and Aaron to have a young red heifer sacrificed. Eleazar the priest is to be present to the slaughter so he can take some blood on his finger and sprinkle it toward the Tabernacle. Then, every bit of the heifer is to be burned, along with some cedar, hyssop and scarlet wool. Another man is to collect the ashes and place them at a ceremonially clean place outside the camp, and then all three men – Eleazar, the burning guy and the ash guy – are to wash their clothes and bathe themselves, but they’ll still be unclean until that evening.

God gives an ordinance regarding the touching of dead bodies. Anyone who does so will be unclean for seven days, although they are to purify themselves with water on the third and seventh days. If someone dies in a tent, anyone in the tent is also similarly unclean. The same goes for anyone who touches a human bone or a grave. Ashes from the burned purification offering is mixed with water in a jar, and then a clean person takes hyssop, dips it in the water and sprinkles everything and everyone that is unclean from death-related purposes.

In Chapter 20, the Israelites have arrived at the Desert of Zin, and are staying at Kadesh. Moses’ and Aaron’s sister, Miriam, dies and is buried.

Additional Info! According to Rabbi Naftali Reich on Torah.org, while the community had traveled through the desert, they were accompanied by a rock shaped by a sieve called ‘Miriam’s Well.’ It would roll along with them and wherever they stopped, it would dig into the sand and create a spring. The Talmud explains that the three miracles the Jews had in their wanderings – the traveling rock-well, the pillar of clouds and the manna – were all given to them through the merit of Miriam, Aaron and Moses. When Miriam died, Miriam’s Well dried up. Miriam was literally and symbolically linked with water throughout her life and scholars say that like water, which can adapt its shape to any container, Miriam’s faith was adaptable to any circumstance.

The Israelites have no water and they start complaining again to Moses and Aaron, their usual ‘If only we had died when everyone else previously died,’ yadda yadda yadda. Moses and Aaron go to the Tabernacle and prostrate themselves. God tells Moses (watch the italics) to get his staff, gather the community together, speak to the rock so they can all see it (He doesn’t say which rock, but it must have been indicated somehow, maybe it was the Miriam’s Well rock), and it will pour out water.

Moses gets his staff and assembles the Israelites. He then says in Verse 10: “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” He then strikes the rock with his staff, and water flows from the rock.

At this, God has been displeased by Moses and Aaron one too many times. In Verse 12: “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.” They are pretty much on Canaan’s doorstep, this close to the Promised Land, and God has just shut them out completely.

Wait, What? Unanswered Questions From the Bible. Scholars and religious leaders have studied this chapter, likely since it was formally written in the early hundreds. Moses and Aaron messed up time and again and previously, each time God forgave them. Moses ‘kinda nearly’ did what God asked – what was so wrong with what he did, that God condemns him for literally the last time? Rabbi Shlomo Chaim Kesselman, in his awesome article on Chabad.org, says that Torah scholars for centuries have come up with a number of theories. They are:

  • Rashi: Moses hit the rock when God explicitly told him to speak to it; God wanted to show the people that even a rock listens to the word of God, and an object lesson for the Israelites was missed
  • The Rebbe: Same as above, but also because the disobeying was so public; they desecrated God’s orders in front of everyone
  • Nachmanides: It wasn’t the rock hitting that was the problem, it was that Moses said, “Must we bring you water from this rock?” It implied that Moses and Aaron were doing the miracle, not God
  • Maimonides: Moses’ sin was through his anger. The Jews were stressed at the lack of water, which was justifiable, but Moses’s yelling at them and calling them ‘rebels’ was not
  • Ibn Ezra: Moses’ problem was that he hit the rock twice; Moses got mad and hit it a second time, which desecrated God’s name
  • The collective Midrash: All of the above, combined
  • Rabbi Joseph Albo: a righteous person can – through God – manipulate nature; Moses didn’t need to ask God, he should have just drawn the water forth from the rock of his own volition; because he didn’t, the Israelites lessened their opinions about righteous people, and therefore also of God
  • Abarbanel: God had decided He didn’t want Moses and Aaron to enter the Promised Land because of their many previous sins but they still needed to lead the Israelites there; God pretended that the rock hitting was the reason, but it was to protect Moses’ and Aaron’s honor and to cover up the real reasons
  • The Rogatchover Gaon: Because the Israelites needed the water to serve as a ritual immersion pool, and because the laws of mikveh state that any tool that is deemed impure cannot be used with regard to the pool, when Moses hit the rock he used Aaron’s wooden staff and not his own jeweled one; the wooden staff was not kosher and as a result, no ritual immersions could happen for months, and that’s why God punished Moses

One final question, then: why would Moses disobey God in this way? Why did he not follow God’s directive to the letter? According to the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, the rock represents the Torah and if Moses had not hit the rock, the Jews would never have had to work hard to study the Torah. Striking the rock caused the scripture to be difficult to understand; if Moses had just spoken to it, as God had directed, its meaning would have been open and simple. Moses purposefully hit the rock because he believed that the Jews needed to study and toil over the verses in order to bring about a real connection between the people and the Word. If it had been easy to understand, they would never have those moments of inspiration that connect us to God when we figure something out. As their lives had been dedicated to demonstrating how God operates, Moses and Aaron’s last action was another example, this time not only showing that obedience to God was mandatory, but also ensuring that an even stronger bond between God and His Chosen People would be forged through scholarship.

So. Much. To Think About. We started this blog post with a literal holy cow, and now we end it with a ‘holy cow!’ Neat, huh?

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