By Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, WebYeshiva
After Moshe draws water from the rock, God suddenly informs both Moshe and Aharon that they have sinned and will not lead the Jews into the Promised Land. According to Bamidbar 20: 12, their sin involves lack of belief and failure to sanctify God in the eyes of the people. The precise sin remains unclear and the attempt to identify it has occupied commentaries for centuries.
Rashi famously says that God commanded Moshe to speak to the rock; he erred by ignoring the divine command and hitting the rock. Ramban (Bamidbar 20:7) raises several difficulties with this approach. Hashem told Moshe to take the staff; it would then be reasonable for Moshe to assume that he should use that staff. Furthermore, extracting water from a rock is the same miracle whether Moshe speaks to the rock or strikes it. Why should the distinction matter so much? Finally, how does Rashi’s suggestion cohere with the Torah associating the sin with meila (Devarim 32:51)?
In his introduction to Avot (Shmoneh Prakim chapter 4), Rambam suggests that Moshe’s sin was anger, unjustified anger which served as a negative model for the people. Ramban levels cogent criticism at Rambam as well. Moshe’s utilizing harsh language when referring to the people as rebels (20: 10) does not clearly establish that he lost his temper. Even if we assume that Moshe did give in to rage, constant complaining might deserve an angry response. In fact, Bamidbar 31: 14 provides a more obvious example of misplaced anger and we do not see Moshe punished in that scenario. Additionally, how does Rambam’s explanation account for the Torah terming Moshe’s actions a lack of belief?
Ramban prefers Rabbenu Chananel’s interpretation that Moshe’s sin was using the plural form: “Hear now, you rebels; are we to bring you forth water out of this rock.“ That formulation implies to the people that Moshe and Aharon perform the miracles independent of divine assistance. Rabbenu Chananel’s suggestion fits the Torah’s phraseology when describing the sin. They fail to sanctify the divine name because their language removes the divine role. While they themselves do not lack faith, their language minimizes the place of belief. The term “meila” also makes sense because it refers to taking something away that truly belongs to Hashem.
This interpretation relates to an important Torah theme. Our tradition includes a pantheon of great sages and prophets, none greater than Moshe. At the same time, we emphasize that only God runs the world and only He is worthy of worship. Moshe was the greatest prophet in history but when he inadvertently took credit for divine intervention, punishment was swift and decisive. This sensitive area of religious life leaves no margin for error.