Moshe's Misstep and Mei Merivah
Crime and Punishment?
After Miryam's death in Bemidbar 20, the Children of Israel once again complain to Moshe and Aharon over their lack of water, and Moshe and Aharon respond by prostrating themselves in prayer before Hashem in the Tent of Meeting. The ensuing verses describe Hashem's command to Moshe to take his staff and bring forth water from the rock and Moshe's implementation of these instructions:
(ז) וַיְדַבֵּר ה' אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. (ח) קַח אֶת הַמַּטֶּה וְהַקְהֵל אֶת הָעֵדָה אַתָּה וְאַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ וְדִבַּרְתֶּם אֶל הַסֶּלַע לְעֵינֵיהֶם וְנָתַן מֵימָיו וְהוֹצֵאתָ לָהֶם מַיִם מִן הַסֶּלַע וְהִשְׁקִיתָ אֶת הָעֵדָה וְאֶת בְּעִירָם. (ט) וַיִּקַּח מֹשֶׁה אֶת הַמַּטֶּה מִלִּפְנֵי ה' כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּהוּ. (י) וַיַּקְהִלוּ מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן אֶת הַקָּהָל אֶל פְּנֵי הַסָּלַע וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם שִׁמְעוּ נָא הַמֹּרִים הֲמִן הַסֶּלַע הַזֶּה נוֹצִיא לָכֶם מָיִם. (יא) וַיָּרֶם מֹשֶׁה אֶת יָדוֹ וַיַּךְ אֶת הַסֶּלַע בְּמַטֵּהוּ פַּעֲמָיִם וַיֵּצְאוּ מַיִם רַבִּים וַתֵּשְׁתְּ הָעֵדָה וּבְעִירָם.
(7) And Hashem spoke to Moshe saying: (8) "Take the staff and gather the congregation, you and Aharon your brother, and speak to the rock before their eyes and it will give its water, and you shall bring water out from the rock and give the congregation and their cattle to drink." (9) And Moshe took the staff from before Hashem as he was commanded. (10) And Moshe and Aharon gathered the assembly to the front of the rock, and he said to them: "Hear now, you rebels, should we bring you water from this rock". (11) And Moshe lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and much water came out and the congregation and their cattle drank.
At first, all appears to have gone successfully as planned. Yet, in the very next verse, Hashem proceeds to shatter Moshe and Aharon's lifelong dreams:
(יב) וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֶל מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל אַהֲרֹן יַעַן לֹא הֶאֱמַנְתֶּם בִּי לְהַקְדִּישֵׁנִי לְעֵינֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לָכֵן לֹא תָבִיאוּ אֶת הַקָּהָל הַזֶּה אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נָתַתִּי לָהֶם.
(12) And Hashem spoke to Moshe and Aharon: "Because you did not believe in me, to sanctify me in the eyes of the Children of Israel, therefore you will not bring this assembly to the land which I have given them".
What went wrong? What was Moshe and Aharon's infraction, and why did it deserve such a cruel and severe punishment?
Besides "לֹא הֶאֱמַנְתֶּם בִּי לְהַקְדִּישֵׁנִי לְעֵינֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל" in the verse above, the Torah employs two additional verbs to describe the nature of Moshe and Aharon's sin and punishment: "מְרִיתֶם אֶת פִּי" (Bemidbar 20:24, 27:14) and "מְעַלְתֶּם בִּי בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל... עַל אֲשֶׁר לֹא קִדַּשְׁתֶּם אוֹתִי" (Devarim 32:51). While the variation between them requires elucidation, these verses all share the common theme that Moshe and Aharon were punished for their own actions or inaction at Mei Merivah. However, several other verses appear to indicate that Moshe was punished for the nation's sins:
גַּם בִּי הִתְאַנַּף ה' בִּגְלַלְכֶם לֵאמֹר גַּם אַתָּה לֹא תָבֹא שָׁם. (דברים א':ל"ז)
אֶעְבְּרָה נָּא וְאֶרְאֶה אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַטּוֹבָה... וַיִּתְעַבֵּר ה' בִּי לְמַעַנְכֶם וְלֹא שָׁמַע אֵלָי... (דברים ג':כ"ה-כ"ו)
וַה' הִתְאַנַּף בִּי עַל דִּבְרֵיכֶם וַיִּשָּׁבַע לְבִלְתִּי עׇבְרִי אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן וּלְבִלְתִּי בֹא אֶל הָאָרֶץ הַטּוֹבָה אֲשֶׁר ה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה. (דברים ד':כ"א)
וַיַּקְצִיפוּ עַל מֵי מְרִיבָה וַיֵּרַע לְמֹשֶׁה בַּעֲבוּרָם. (תהלים ק"ו:ל"ב)
Also Hashem was angry with me because of you, saying, "You also will not go there". (Devarim 1:37)
Let me go over, please, and see the good land... And Hashem was angry with me because of you and did not listen to me... (Devarim 3:25-26)
And Hashem was angry with me because of your words, and He swore that I should not pass over the Jordan and not enter the good land that Hashem your God is giving you for inheritance. (Devarim 4:21)
And they angered him at Mei Merivah and Moshe was harmed because of them. (Tehillim 106:32)
How can the contradictions between these sets of verses be resolved?
The story of Mei Merivah shares many distinct features with the incident of Masa UMerivah in Shemot 17. In both stories, the people lack water and complain to Moshe, Hashem instructs Moshe to take his staff and bring forth water from a rock, and Moshe strikes a rock and water gushes forth. Yet, while the episode in Shemot has a positive conclusion, the parallel event of Mei Merivah has tragic consequences. What is the nature of the relationship between these very similar stories, and what accounts for their very different endings?
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