“And Hashem said to Moshe and Aharon: Since you didn’t believe in Me, to publicize the miracle in front of the Children of Israel, you will not bring this congregation into the land that I have given them.” Bamidbar 20:12
For the forty years the Jews travelled in the desert, all their needs were provided miraculously. They were guided and protected by the clouds of glory, their food fell daily in the form of man, and they received their water from a unique be’er (well) – a boulder that followed them through their travels.
This miraculous be’er didn’t just provide water; it provided a lot of water. When they would stop, the head of each shevet would come to the rock and then walk back from it to his people’s camp, drawing a line in the ground with his staff. Water would then flow from the rock via that line, broadening to provide enough water for the entire tribe. The Jews at the time numbered approximately three million. Between water needed for cooking, cleaning, and all the animals, it’s estimated that at least 11 million gallons a day came forth from this rock.
Towards the end of the forty years, Miriam died and the rock, which Chazal tell us had been provided in her merit, disappeared. Hashem told Moshe to speak to the rock to get water again, but Moshe miscalculated: Many years back, when Hashem first introduced the be’er, Moshe was instructed to hit the rock, and he assumed that must be necessary this time as well. Moshe hit the rock, and the water began flowing – but he was chastised for it.
Rashi explains Hashem’s rebuke as follows: “Had you spoken to the rock, the people would have learned a great lesson. They would have said ‘If the rock, an inanimate object, obeys Hashem, how much more so must we’.” Because Moshe hit the rock instead of speaking to it, that great lesson was lost. This was the “sin” for which Moshe was punished and not allowed to enter the land of Israel.
This explanation is quite difficult to understand. A rock bringing forth water is an open miracle. What difference did it make that Moshe hit the rock instead of speaking to it? Either way, it is a clear manifestation of Hashem’s control over nature.
The answer to this can be understood with an observation.
We live in remarkable times. Knowledge, information, and technological advances explode in front of us—each one outdoing the one before it. Never in the course of history has the speed of change been so dramatic and apparent, or brought such extraordinary power and wealth to the average person.
When Magellan set out in 1519 to circumnavigate the globe, it took three years and cost most of the crew their lives. Today, any one of us can fly across the world in a matter of days.
When the first US Mint opened in 1793, it produced 1 million pennies in three years. Today, the Mint produces 1 million pennies in a day.
In colonial America, most clothing was sewn by hand at home, taking months to complete. As a result, many people owned just two sets of clothes. Today, factories across the globe produce clothing by the boatload, and we have racks and racks of clothing: suits, shirts, slacks, sweaters, winter coats, summer jackets, light fall coats – all with matching accessories.
In short, industry, technology, and the harnessing of energy have vastly increased the human ability to produce, making our lives much richer and more convenient than ever before in history.
While this is a blessing, it has a liability: we become habituated. We are so accustomed to these wondrous phenomena that they become commonplace, no longer even drawing notice.
This habituation was illustrated by an exchange a friend of mine had with another passenger on a plane. After touching down in New York City, the plane stopped a distance from the terminal and a flight attendant announced that there would be a delay as they waited for the walkway to be wheeled over. The passengers watched as a technician maneuvered a mobile gangplank into place. The person sitting next to my friend remarked, “Look at the wonders of technology. They even have moving walkways!”
My friend was flabbergasted. They had just been traveling five hundred miles an hour at an altitude of thirty-two thousand feet. No cables, no wires – flying in the air. And this person was astonished by a movable gangplank! What happened to the sense of amazement that man has mastered the laws of gravity and can fly? What happened to the sense of astonishment of traveling across the world in a matter of hours? Ah, that’s yesterday’s news. We are so used to it that we take it for granted.
In reality, the luxuries that we enjoy due to technological advances are fantastic: We have iPhones, e-mail, microwave ovens, laptop computers, even GPS devices capable of guiding us to the most far-flung destinations. And with but a few clicks of a mouse, Amazon promises us every imaginable device, clothing, or accessory, with two-day delivery right to our doorstep.
If a man had gone to sleep in the early 1800’s and awakened today, his astonishment at the power, the abundance, and the wealth of today’s common man would be overwhelming. Yet, because we live with these marvels, we become habituated. They lose their wonder, quickly becoming pedestrian, and no longer bring us any sense of appreciation.
This seems to be the answer to the question on Rashi’s comment. Moshe was standing in front of a generation that had been born in the desert. All they had ever seen was that water comes from a rock. To them, it wasn’t a miracle; it was simply nature. Had Moshe spoken to the rock, they would have seen something unique – a rock listens and obeys. But since Moshe hit the rock, which was the same thing that had been done 38 years earlier, there was nothing unusual about it – and the miracle lost its impact. It was just the same old thing.
As science continues to bring us new vistas of understanding of the wonders of this world, we have the same challenge as the nation in the desert. The continuous stream of novel concepts in physics, biology, and chemistry should serve as an unending source of inspiration – a tiny glimpse of the wisdom and greatness of our Creator. The difficulty is that we come to expect it. These discoveries are nothing new; we have become habituated to them. However, if we train ourselves to look with eyes wide open, we can learn to see the wonders of this world anew, like a rock producing water in response to a spoken command. Recognizing the wonders all around us can and should provide a constant source of chizuk, building in us a sense of awe of our Creator, the One who brought forth and maintains everything in existence.