What Was Moses’ Sin? The Search Continues …



Here's the scenario: A man who has dedicated his entire adult life to his people, who has given himself unstintingly to their cause, guided them as a father, loved them as a mother, held then as a nursemaid, taught them as a teacher, prodded them as a rebbe, rebuked them with finesse and defended them as only the dream team could have dreamed of …

And yet.

Read carefully Numbers 20:7-13. They are some of the most intriguing, fascinating, perplexing and enlightening verses of the Torah.

Miriam has just died, and the flow of water that accompanied her dried up. The people gather around their leaders, Moses and Aaron, and start to moan and groan over the loss of water.

"Why have you brought the congregation of God to die in this desert, us and our cattle?" they ask. "Why did you take us from Egypt to this abominable place?"

Watergate, So to Speak
I guess it's true: It took us one day to leave Egypt and 40 years for Egypt to leave us!

And now, our verses.

"God says to Moses: Take your staff and gather together the assembly, you and Aaron your brother and speak to the rock before their eyes that it should give its waters. You shall bring forth for them water from the rock, and give drink to the assembly and their animals. Moses took the staff from before Hashem as He had commanded him.

"Moses and Aaron gathered the congregation before the rock and he said to them, Listen now, O rebels, shall we bring forth for you water from this rock?

"Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock with his staff twice; abundant water came forth, and they and their animals drank. Hashem said to Moses and Aaron: Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel, therefore you will not bring this congregation to the Land that I have given them.

"They are the waters of strife where the Children of Israel contended with God, and He was sanctified through them."

There you have it. A Jewish Watergate.

But this time, there is no 18-minute gap, no deep-throat mystery, no plumbers or Saturday-night massacre, no cover-up.

Moses, who came on the scene in the waters of the Nile, had his fate sealed at these waters of M'riva. And what a statement.

Theologically, I'm tempted to call this the doctrine of fallibility. Leadership is not about lordship, and a leader can be — indeed, always is — flawed.

The 19th-century leader and thinker Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) suggests something even more bold: Only a Divine author who is interested in truth — and not spin — would have exposed the sin of Moses in such a way.

Indeed, the Italian biblical scholar S.D. Luzato (1800-1865) writes that he is refraining from commenting on this section of Torah for fear of "adding yet one more sin to Moses." His survey of the supposed "sin" of Moses already found no less than 13 on his résumé!

Whatever Moses' "sin" was that precluded his entry into the Land of Israel, the fact that the Torah speaks of it, the fact that the commentators grapple with it, the fact that exegesis — from medieval to modern — still tries to fill in the blanks, as it were, is a stunning statement.

We are all accountable and responsible. The buck stops here — and here is with you and me.

Thus it would seem that the biblical Watergate is more a lesson about revealing responsibility than covering it up.

Rabbi David Gutterman is the executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here