Parashat Hukat: Moshe’s Stick
The Torah in Parashat Hukat relates an episode that is among the most misunderstood stories in the Torah – the story of Moshe and the rock. Most of us probably learned in school that Moshe was punished because he was told to speak to the rock to produce water, but he hit the rock, instead. If we think about it for a moment, however, this seems very difficult to accept. Moshe was the greatest prophet that ever lived, who had the clearest perception of G-d of any person at any time. Is it conceivable that G-d would tell him to do one thing and he would knowingly do something else? Imagine that G-d spoke to us and told us to speak to a rock in order to produce water. Would we hesitate for a moment? Of course not. If G-d gave us a clear instruction to do something, we would do it. Can we imagine Moshe Rabbenu being less obedient than us?
It stands to reason that this episode and Moshe and Aharon’s mistake are far more complicated than how it might first appear, and for this reason, many different approaches have been taken to explain this most enigmatic episode.
One particularly fascinating explanation was suggested by Rav Shimon Schwab (1908-1995), in his work Ma’ayan Bet Ha’shoeba. Rav Schwab writes that when G-d instructed Moshe to bring the stick to the rock when he assembled the people, He did not tell him to bring his own, personal walking stick. Rather, this was the staff of Aharon which had miraculously blossomed as a Heavenly sign of his status as G-d’s chosen Kohen Gadol. After the rebellion of Korah, G-d commanded Moshe to collect the staffs of all twelve tribal leaders – including that of Aharon, the leader of Levi – and said that the one whose staff blossomed would be determined as G-d’s chosen Kohen Gadol. Sure enough, Aharon’s staff blossomed, whereupon G-d instructed Moshe to place Aharon’s staff inside the ark so it can serve as a sign "for the rebellious ones" ("Li’bneh Meri"). When the people would challenge Moshe and Aharon’s authority, they would be shown the stick which proved that everything Moshe did was in accordance with the divine command.
When the people complained at Meh Meriba, Rav Schwab explains, G-d told Moshe to take the stick and show it to Beneh Yisrael. He was not supposed to use the stick at all; he was simply told to show it to the people in order to silence the voices of protest and rebellion against him. Moshe, however, used the stick for a different purpose, beating the rock with it to produce water. He was thus guilty of the prohibition of "Me’ila," which forbids misusing sacred property. This is why when Hashem announces His punishment for Moshe and Aharon’s mistake, He says, "Al Asher Me’altem Bi," referring to the violation of "Me’ila" which they committed. This also explains why Aharon was included in the punishment. As this was his stick, he was held responsible for its misuse.
Rav Schwab further explains that Moshe and Aharon were punished for angrily scolding the people before hitting the rock, and calling them "rebels," saying, "Shim’u Na Ha’morim" – "Listen, now, O rebellious ones!" G-d had instructed Moshe to show the people the staff which would have the effect of silencing their complaints and protests. But Moshe and Aharon, it seems, did not trust that the staff would have this effect, and angrily called the people "Morim" even after showing them the stick. And it was for this reason that they were punished. Rather than trusting that the sight of the miracle staff would quell the nation’s rebellion, Moshe and Aharon instead continued berating the people even after producing the staff, and G-d thus punished them and decreed that they would not enter Eretz Yisrael.