Likewise, the Sages understood the two events that preceded Moses’s crisis – Miriam’s death and the absence of water for the community – as connected. It was in Miriam’s merit, they said, that the Israelites had water during the desert years. A well (Miriam’s well) accompanied them on their travels, and when Miriam died, the water ceased.
So it was not simply the Israelites’ demand for water that led Moses to lose control of his emotions, but rather his own deep grief. The Israelites may have lost their water, but Moses had lost his sister, who had watched over him as a child, guided his development, supported him throughout the years, and helped him carry the burden of leadership by her role as leader of the women.
It is a moment that reminds us of words from the Book of Judges said by Israel’s chief of staff, Barak, to its judge and leader, Deborah: “If you go with me, I will go; but if you do not go with me, I cannot go” (Judges 4). The relationship between Barak and Deborah was much less close than that between Moses and Miriam, yet Barak acknowledged his dependence on a wise and courageous woman. Can Moses have felt less?
Bereavement leaves us deeply vulnerable. In the midst of loss we can find it hard to control our emotions. We make mistakes. We act rashly. We suffer from a momentary lack of judgment. These are common symptoms even for ordinary humans like us. In Moses’s case, however, there was an additional factor. He was a prophet, and grief can occlude or eclipse the prophetic spirit. Maimonides answers the well-known question as to why Jacob, a prophet, did not know that his son Joseph was still alive, with the simplest possible answer: grief banishes prophecy. For twenty-two years, mourning his missing son, Jacob could not receive the Divine word. Moses, the greatest of all the prophets, remained in touch with God. It was God, after all, who told him to “speak to the rock.” But somehow the message did not penetrate his consciousness fully. That was the effect of grief.
So the details are, in truth, secondary to the human drama played out that day. Yes, Moses struck the rock, said “we” instead of “God,” and lost his temper with the people. The real story, though, is about Moses the man in an onslaught of grief – vulnerable, exposed, caught in a vortex of emotions, suddenly bereft of the sisterly presence that had been the most important bass-note of his life. Miriam was the precociously wise and plucky child who had taken control of the situation when the life of her three-month-old brother lay in the balance, undaunted by either an Egyptian princess or a rabbi-father. Miriam was the leader of the women in song who sympathized with her sister-in-law when she saw the price she paid for being the wife of a leader. It was Miriam in whose merit the people had water in a parched land, the quiet heroine without whom Moses was temporarily lost and alone.
The story of Moses and the rock is ultimately less about Moses and a rock than about a great Jewish woman, Miriam – appreciated fully only when she was no longer there.
Adapted from “Covenant & Conversation,” a collection of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s parshiyot hashavua essays, to be published by Maggid Books, an imprint of Koren Publishers Jerusalem (www.korenpub.com), in conjunction with the Orthodox Union.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth since 1991, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Koren Sacks Rosh HaShana Mahzor” (Koren Publishers Jerusalem).