The Leader’s Punishment
By Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
This week we read parashat Chukat. One of the stories told in this parasha is the famous (and sad) story of “Moses and the rock.” In this episode, Moses, the longtime leader of the Children of Israel, loses control of himself and is punished by God in a particularly harsh way. Let’s review this story.
The Israelites are camped at Kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin, when Miriam, Moses’ sister, suddenly dies. Immediately after that we are told that the people don’t have water. The people start complaining bitterly about the lack of water to Moses and Aaron. God instructs Moses to, “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” (Numbers 20:8).
Moses and Aaron do as they are told, but then scold the people, and demand, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” (Numbers 20:10) Then, instead of speaking to the rock, Moses hits it twice with the rod. As God promised, water flows from the rock, but Moses and Aaron are punished, presumably for not exactly following God’s order (although the commentators disagree on the exact reason for the punishment). What is the punishment for Moses and Aaron? “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them” (Numbers 20:12). Neither Moses nor Aaron will be allowed to enter into the Promised Land.
It is hard to understand the severity of God’s punishment of Moses. After all, we are talking about Moses! He is the great leader of the Jewish people, the one who led the Israelites out of Egypt, brought the Torah from Mount Sinai and continued to lead the people for 40 years in the desert! His whole life was dedicated to bringing the Israelites from Egypt to Canaan. Should Moses not at least be allowed to enter into the land that had been promised for so long? Should God not have shown more mercy to his most faithful servant?
To answer these questions we should probably be aware that Moses was not an average Israelite; he was the leader of the people and therefore, expected to set an example for the community.
Not only did Moses hit the rock instead of speaking to it, but he also spoke to the people with harsh language. Even when the people had bitterly complained to Moses, they were only looking for water. There was no reason to speak to the people as Moses did. He compromised his own leadership with his words. Even if you think that perhaps Moses’ sin was not so great, as the leader of his people, he was held to the highest accountability for his actions.
The exemplary punishment that Moses (and Aaron) was (were) given, is proportional to his leadership position. When you have a higher position of leadership, one with more responsibilities, you are expected to behave above the average and set an example for your group. At the same time, you should be aware that you will be judged more severely than people who have less responsibilities. That is the nature of leadership.