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Moshe Striking the Rock

The Torah tells us, in the eulogy of sorts for Moshe in the very last chapter of the Torah, that “Moshe was 120 years old when he died; his eye had not dimmed and his vigor had not diminished” (Devarim 34:7). This verse establishes that Moshe suffered no physical decline as he aged; he died not because of any infirmity but, rather, because God decided that his time was up.

What is far less clear is how Moshe responded, as he grew older and the challenges facing him as leader of the Jewish people changed dramatically after decades in the desert. We see in this week’s parsha that Moshe may have gradually lost the ability, as a leader, to respond in an adaptive way to the difficulties of leading the next generation of the Jewish people. On some level, this has much to do with the inability of that generation to meet the stellar expectations around which he had built his life as it does with Moshe’s own inability to readjust his expectations downward.

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Whatever the background, the eventual break is most powerfully symbolized by the event that ultimately formalized Moshe’s inability to lead the new generation into the Land of Israel; the hitting of the rock to get water (Bemidbar 20:7-13).

This episode has puzzled commentators for centuries, since the text is ambiguous regarding the precise nature of Moshe’s sin. Many understand that Moshe did not follow God’s exact command, and that he was subsequently judged according to the very high expectations God had for Moshe.

The main point of the story, however, is not so much Moshe’s actions as it is their cause. Moshe’s frustration with the people’s pettiness, seen throughout Bemidbar, made it increasingly hard for him to exercise effective leadership. Once this became so clearly demonstrated with the situation at the rock, God formally put an end to Moshe’s mandate as leader. It was not a punishment as much as something that had to be done.

Hence, we may conclude that while Moshe’s physical stamina remained intact, changing times meant that his capabilities as a leader reached their limits and then suffered a decline. God recognized this and, in his concern for his chosen people, immediately initiated the process of designating a new leader – Yehoshua.

{Adaptation by Harry Glazer from Rabbi Francis Nataf’s book – Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Numbers: Explorations in Text and Meaning}

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