A glimpse at the narrative in the book of Numbers reveals an almost parallel pattern of events to that which occurred to the Jews after their leaving Egypt.
In Numbers, the Jews began to murmur that they did not have meat to eat (Numbers 11:4). This corresponds to the longing of the Jews “for the fleshpots” in Egypt, resulting in the giving of the manna (Exodus 16:3).
Also, the Numbers narrative states that after the Jews complained that they lacked water, Moshe hit instead of spoke to the rock, and water came forth (Numbers 20:2, 3, 8, 11). So too in the Exodus story did Moshe hit the rock after the Jews militated for water (Exodus 17:2, 6).
And the Numbers narrative includes several challenges the Jews faced from nations like Edom (Numbers 20:14-21). This is much like the battle the Jews fought with Amalek after they departed Egypt (Exodus 17:8-16).
Finally, the story of the spies that highlights this week’s portion is viewed as an episode revealing the Jews’ basic lack of faith in God (Numbers 13, 14). This, of course, is similar in underlying theme to the Golden Calf story that seems to describe the Jews’ lack of faith (Exodus 32, 33).
So similar are the stories in these two narratives that the Bekhor Shor (a medieval French commentator) insists that the water stories are one and the same. The latter is a more detailed account of the former.
But a closer look reveals an interesting pattern. In each of the narratives the consequences escalate in their seriousness in the Book of Numbers.
Unlike the manna story in Exodus, the request for meat in the Book of Numbers resulted in the Lord “smit[ing] the people with a very great plague” (Numbers 11:33). Also, only after Moshe hits the rock in the Book of Numbers is he given the severe punishment of not being allowed to enter Israel (Numbers 20:12). And while Amalek was defeated with no mention of Jewish losses in Exodus, many Jews died when they were forced to go around the land of Edom (Numbers 21:4, 6). Finally, only after the spy incident – not after the episode of the Golden Calf – does God decree that the generation that left Egypt must die in the desert (Numbers 14:29).
Why are the consequences greater in the Book of Numbers, when the transgressions seem so similar? First, the events in the Book of Exodus occur either prior to Sinai or (according to Rashi) in the case of the Golden Calf, prior to the construction of the sanctuary. With the Sinaitic teachings and the Tabernacle construction in place the Jews should have known better than to falter again.
Second, to err once is forgivable and even sometimes understandable. The same transgression committed again deserves to be treated much more harshly.
So the patterns of the narratives may be similar but the message is clear: God understands that we will fall. But we must take the lessons we learn in our mistakes and redeem ourselves. God gives us opportunities for repentance, but we cannot address those opportunities as unlimited. Sometimes one is given just so many chances.