Torah Portion of the Week: What Was Moses’ Crime?

Parashat Hukat.

'Moses Striking the Rock,' Tintoretto, 1563.
Wikimedia Commons

Why was Moses not allowed to enter the Land of Israel?

The Torah often answers questions through stories, not arguments. Parashat Hukat (Numbers 19:1-22.1) describes Moses and Aaron dealing with a typical situation of complaining, one of many such situations in the Torah: The nation, wandering through the wilderness and dying of thirst, confronts its leaders, who turn to the Tent of Meeting, where God dwells. God reveals himself to them, instructing Moses to take his staff, speak to the rock and quench the nation’s thirst with water that will flow from the rock.

Though he obeys God, Moses apparently makes a slight deviation from his mandate: He takes his staff as commanded, and together with Aaron assembles Israel, whom he rebukes for their conduct. Then he strikes the rock with the staff, and abundant water flows forth. God is unhappy and decrees the leaders’ fate: “Because ye believed not in me, to sanctify me in the eyes of the Children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them” (Numbers 20:12). The narrator concludes: “These are the Waters of Strife [mei meriva], where the Children of Israel strove with the Lord, and he was sanctified in them” (Num. 20:13).

Over the centuries, commentators have been puzzled by the disparity between the severity of the sin and the penalty. In fact, it is not even clear to them what sin was committed: Was it the words of abuse with which Moses addressed the nation on his own initiative, or was it striking the rock instead of speaking to it – or maybe something else?

The bewilderment increases when we recall a similar story in Exodus: In both stories, Israel complains about a shortage of water; God sends Moses, with his staff, back to the people; and Moses strikes the rock with his staff, drawing forth water. In the version in Exodus, God sees nothing amiss in Moses’ conduct; in fact, God explicitly commands Moses: “And thou shalt smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it” (Exodus 17:6). In this week’s Torah portion, however, God metes out to Moses, for the same act, an extraordinarily heavy penalty.

In Hukat, the site of this incident is called the “Waters of Strife”; in the parallel story in Exodus, it is called “Trial and Strife” [massa umeriva] (Exod. 17:7). One can logically assume the two stories are different versions of a single tradition. Apparently, though, they are not the only versions.

In Moses’ words to the Tribes of Israel, toward the end of the Torah, he addresses the members of his own tribe, Levi: “Thy Thummim and thy Urim be with thy holy one, whom thou didst prove at Trial [massa], with whom thou didst strive at the Waters of Strife [mei meriva]; Who said of his father, and of his mother: ‘I have not seen him’; neither did he acknowledge his brethren, nor knew he his own children; for they have observed thy word, and keep thy covenant” (Deuteronomy 33:8-9).

These verses praise the Levites for their actions, but what event is being referred to here? There are at least three possibilities: “whom thou didst prove at Trial” – the Trial and Strife story in Exodus; “with whom thou didst strive at the Waters of Strife” – the story in Hukat describing Moses and Aaron’s sin; and perhaps a third incident – the killing of 3,000 Israelites by the Levites (Exod. 32:26-29). This verse seemingly suggests that the Trial and Strife and Waters of Strife stories actually describe the same event.

The phrase “Waters of Strife” also appears in the Book of Psalms, in connection with our ancestors’ sins, which they commit in spite of God’s compassion toward them: “Our fathers in Egypt gave no heed unto thy wonders; they remembered not the multitude of thy mercies ... Nevertheless he saved them for his name’s sake, that he might make his mighty power to be known” (Psalms 106:7-8). The sins include the following: “They angered him also at the Waters of Strife, and it went ill with Moses because of them” (106:32). This verse implies that the sinners at the Waters of Strife were the Israelites, not Moses and Aaron, and that Moses’ punishment is due to their conduct, not his.

The claim that Moses was barred from entering Canaan because of the nation’s sins also appears in Deuteronomy. Moses describes the outcome of the spies’ sin. God decrees that the generation of Israelites who left Egypt will die in the wilderness without entering Canaan – and this punishment applies also to Moses: “Also the Lord was angry with me for your sakes, saying: Thou also shalt not go in thither” (Deut. 1:37). Moses begs God to let him briefly glimpse the land he longs to enter, but God refuses: “But the Lord was wroth with me for your sakes” (Deut. 3:26) – that is, because of you. Even in Parashat Hukat, which depicts Moses and Aaron’s sin, we read: “These are the Waters of Strife, where the Children of Israel” – not Moses and Aaron – “strove with the Lord” (Num. 20:13).

From all of this discussion, it becomes clear that the Torah does not tell us categorically why Moses could not enter Canaan or what happened at the Waters of Strife. Let us return, therefore, to Parashat Hukat and to the reason for Moses’ and Aaron’s punishment: “Because ye believed not in me, to sanctify me in the eyes of the Children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them” (Num. 20:12). This reason tells us less about Moses and Aaron and their sin, and more about God’s character, as it is presented in this story.

In Parashat Shemini, we read how Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu are burned to death on the day of the Tabernacle’s inauguration because they deviate from the ceremony’s protocol. Moses tries to console his brother, the bereaved father: “This is it that the Lord spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified” (Leviticus 10:3).

God is sanctified through those close to him: He publicly sanctifies his name when he severely punishes those closest to him if they deviate from his commandments. Indeed, in this week’s Torah portion, this is what happens to Moses and Aaron: Because they disobey God’s instructions, undermining God’s holiness in Israel’s eyes, they are found unworthy of finishing the task. They were God’s senior partners but, from now on, he will continue without them.