Upon liberation, even after all the signs and wonders that devastated Egypt and its gods, the people were so accustomed to small-minded thinking (moach katnut) that they complained to Moses: “Why did you bring us up from Egypt, to kill us … with thirst?”
God instructed Moses: “Pass before the people; … and take the rod with which you struck the Nile, [and] strike the rock and water will issue from it, and the people will drink?” (Exodus 17:5-6)
Nearly forty years later a similar rebellion rose up against Moses and Aaron, and the people complained bitterly yet again: “Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink!” (Numbers 20:1-13)
Moses was old and tired, frustrated and disgusted by his own people, and he did not know what to do. God instructed him again, but with a slight difference: “…take the rod…and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water.”
“Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank.”
God was unforgiving and charged Moses with defying Him, of hitting the rock instead of speaking to it, and the Almighty punished the leader decreeing that Moses would never enter the Land of Promise.
What changed in those forty years and why did Moses defy God?
From God’s perspective the meeting at Mount Sinai was supposed to have transformed the people, to have washed Egypt from their veins, hearts, minds and souls.
Sinai was meant to change Israel’s understanding of itself as a victimized people without transcendent purpose into a holy people wherein they and the world would live in such a way that force would yield to reason, strength to law, violence to dialogue, and hardheartedness to compassion.
Moses’ hitting the rock before the eyes of the people after Sinai in defiance of God showed that little had actually changed, that brute force justifies ends and that might still makes for right.
God intended that a new age would begin at Sinai, but by striking the rock Moses stopped history in its tracks and publicized before the people that Sinai was not a mountain high enough to be seen throughout the world.
Rabbi Marc Gellman has written a moving midrash explaining this idea:
“Moses understood that God wanted him to speak to the rock and usher in the Messianic age of peace and tranquility. However, Moses knew that though the desert land was behind, the land of Canaan was ahead…and that it… would still have to be taken [by force] by the people….that the strong hand that smote the Egyptians would still be needed to smite the Canaanites. Moses knew that it was too soon for the power of the fist to yield to the power of the word.
…God asked Moses, ‘When do you think it will be time?’
Moses said, ‘I do not know. All I do know is that…You were the One Who sanctified the power of the fist in this world. Because of You people will learn forever that the land and the fist go together. And if You wanted the power of the fist You should never have given me the signs and wonders …. Now it is too late.’
God was silent… [Moses] said, ‘Why did You let me do the miracles and the signs and wonders? Why did You command me to strike the rock even the first time? …If the power of the fist is to disappear from this world it must begin with You, El Shaddai. Together we have made Your people free of the power of Pharaoh only to enslave them again to the power of the fist. O God, help us to become free for Your words.’
After a long silence God said: ‘When my people enters the land you shall not enter with them, but neither shall I. I shall only allow a part of My presence to enter the land … The abundance of My presence I shall keep outside the land. The exiled part … shall be called My Shekhinah and it shall remind the people that I too am in exile. I too am a divided presence in the world, and that I shall only be whole again on that day when the power of the fist vanishes forever from the world. Only on that day will I be One. Only on that day will My name be One. Only on that day Moses, shall we enter the land together. Only on that day Moses, shall the waters of Meribah become the flowing waters of justice and the everlasting stream of righteousness … and all people shall come to be free at last.’
Then God lifted Moses to Heaven …and the shepherd’s staff slipped from Moses’ hand and fell to earth into the waters of Meribah and was gone forever. And God kissed Moses on the lips and took his breath away.”
We wait still for the word to vanquish the fist, for the world to yield to reason and dialogue, compassion and justice, righteousness and understanding. We are waiting still!