It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. Yet, you are not free to desist from it.
Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avos 2:16
It’s not click bait, this essay really is about a man who got water to come out of a rock. It sounds crazy, but it’s true. Of course, you probably realize that I’m talking about Moses. He brought forth water from a stone in the desert, and he did it more than once too.
One time, when the Israelites were at Meribah, God told Moses to hit a rock with his staff, and when he did water gushed out of it. That was great because the people had just come out of slavery in Egypt, observed the first-ever Passover, and crossed the Red Sea. They were getting thirsty!
About forty years later, the people got thirsty again. But, there had been a lot of water under the bridge since the first time Moses brought forth water from a stone. These aren’t even the same people. The people who had come out of Egypt with Moses were mainly dead by then, including the giver of water herself, Miriam. — Miriam’s well — a beehive-shaped stone that lumbered through the desert with the Israelites, pouring forth enough water for everybody — somehow went away when Miriam died. Thus, this new generation clamored for new water from a new well because, once again, they were getting thirsty.
Moses did what he always did: He talked the situation over with God. God told Moses to take his staff, to get everybody together, including his brother Aaron, and to talk to the stone. God said that the stone would pour out its water. Moses did most of what God told him to do. He took his staff, gathered everybody together, including Aaron… it was all going so well. But, instead of speaking to the stone, Moses hit the stone. Twice!
Water did pour out of the stone. But Moses and Aaron incurred a very steep punishment for what happened. As this morning’s readings tell us, they were not allowed to lead the people into the promised land. Moses did get a good look at it, but the mission, like most truly great missions, would be completed by another.
From here in the 21st century, we have lots of questions about this passage: Why was God so hard on Moses and Aaron? What’s the big deal, anyway? Did God change his mind about hitting stones? These are all good questions too, but I suspect the question Moses had was simply, WHY? Why, oh why, couldn’t he be the one to lead these people into the Promised Land? His whole life had been dedicated to this one thing and now, just when the prize was in sight, it would be achieved by another. The sages tell us that Moses wanted to go into the Promised Land so badly that he prayed about it 515 times, and each time the answer was no.
We know that some are reapers, some are sowers. But, like Moses, all of us wish to see our projects through to completion. In his more reflective moments, Moses must have imagined the day he would finally lead God’s people into their own land, the land promised to them long ago. But, that dream would never be realized. So, Moses climbed the mountain and looked over into the Promised Land, and he died.
There are Jordan Rivers we’d all like to cross, things we hope to achieve, or just live long enough to see someone else achieve. But, most of us will die before any final victory. Oh, sure, we’ll have our share of little victories. But, we will not see justice roll down like water or righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. The Kingdom of God may not come at a time when we can see it. God’s will may not be completed in our lifetimes. We will work, and pray, and give for the Kingdom of God, but like Moses, we can only look into the distance at what one day may be the Reign of God.
Whatever the Reign of God looks like to you, you are not required to usher it in. You are required to love mercy, to do justice, and to walk humbly through this life of waiting and hoping.
The good news is that the Israelites did cross the Jordon, the dream did materialize, God comes through generation upon generation, from one leader to the next, All the Jordons get crossed, whether we are here to see it or not.
Some Notes of Possible Interest
You can read Pirkei Avot here. You can also get it for Kindle, some versions are free.
Exodus 17:1-7, Moses’s first time bringing forth water from a stone…
1 The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, traveling from place to place as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 So they quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.”
Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?”
3 But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?”
4 Then Moses cried out to the Lord, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.”
5 The Lord answered Moses, “Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6 I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 And he called the place Massah[a] and Meribah[b] because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the Lord saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
Miriam’s well accompanied the Israelites on the basis of Miriam’s merit. You can read a short article about it here. The protective cloud, btw, was a gift for the merit of Aaron, and the manna was for the merit of Moses. When Moses died all three went away.
Numbers 20:8-12, Moses’s second encounter with a water-yielding stone…
8 “Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink.”
9 So Moses took the staff from the Lord’s presence, just as he commanded him. 10 He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” 11 Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank.
12 But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.”
Why such a harsh punishment for what seems like a small sin?
Well, there are as many theories as there are Torah scholars. But, one of the most widely held is from Rashi. Rashi says that Moses should have simply obeyed God because if he had the people would have learned that “If a rock, which neither speaks nor hears nor is in need of sustenance, obeys the word of God, how much more so should we.” It’s hard to argue with that, but some do.
Moses, for example. Moses Maimonides, that is. Or, if you prefer, the Rambam. He says that God sets more exacting standards for great people so Moses should not have become angry.
Then there’s the Ramban… exactly like the Rambam, except with a terminal N instead of the M… they are different guys.
The Ramban, Nachmoindes, says that Moses’s sin was in asking the people, “Shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?” It implies that Moses and Aaron will be working the magic, instead of ascribing the miracle to God.
But, by far the most interesting explanation comes from someone I don’t know well: Abarbanel said that Moses and Aaron were being punished for things they did a long time ago: Moses, for the sin of sending in spies to scope things out; and Aaron for the sin of the golden calf. Nevermind that neither sinned maliciously, and both are vindicated for their actions elsewhere. Abarbanel bars them from the Promised Land based on long-past wrongs.
Some blame the Israelites. Psalm 106: 32… By the waters of Meribah they angered the Lord and trouble came to Moses because of them.
My own opinion? In striking the stone instead of speaking to it, Moses failed to realize that he was not just dealing with a new generation of the same old people, but an entirely new people. They had been raised in a highly spiritual environment, surrounded by miracles. They were mature and ready for the Promised Land. Their ancestors, those who escaped slavery, had been hard and unable to appreciate spiritual subtlety. To obtain water for a hardened people required force, a blow from Moses’s staff. But, in this new climate, Moses could achieve the same result by simply speaking to the stone. The time for use of force was over. — It’s the same with people. With some people, you have to be very clear, direct. The hardest cases will not understand at all, and may not even hear you. You will never get any wisdom out of them. That’s what the water is all about in this story, wisdom. But with others, words are almost superfluous. They are tuned in. Their wisdom flows like water from Miriam’s Well.
You can make up your own mind. There’s more information here. Or, be like me and just relax. We’ll never really know.
John 4:37… Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true.
Amos 5:24… But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.