By Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom
MEI M'RIVAH: THE WATERS OF QUARREL
At the beginning of Chapter 20, we are told of a momentous event which took
place in the final year of traveling through the desert:
Then came the people of Israel, the whole congregation, into the desert of
Zin in the first month; and the people abode in Kadesh; and Miriam died
there, and was buried there. And there was no water for the congregation;
and they gathered themselves together against Mosheh and against Aharon. And
the people quarreled with Mosheh, and spoke, saying, "Would that we had died
when our brothers died before Hashem! And why have you brought up the
congregation of Hashem into this wilderness, that we and our cattle should
die there? And why have you made us come out of Egypt, to bring us in to
this evil place? This is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of
pomegranates; nor is there any water to drink." And Mosheh and Aharon went
from the presence of the assembly to the door of the Tent of Meeting, and
they fell upon their faces; and the glory of Hashem appeared to them.
And Hashem spoke to Mosheh, saying, "Take the rod, and gather the Edah
together, you, and Aharon your brother, and speak to the rock before their
eyes; and it shall give forth his water, and you shall bring forth to them
water out of the rock; so you shall give the congregation and their beasts
drink." And Mosheh took the rod from before Hashem, as he commanded him. And
Mosheh and Aharon gathered the Kahal together before the rock, and he said
to them, "Hear now, you rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock?"
And Mosheh lifted up his hand, and with his rod he struck the rock twice;
and the water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their
beasts also. And Hashem spoke to Mosheh and Aharon, "Because you did not
believe Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you
shall not lead this congregation into the land which I have given them."
This is the water of Merivah, because the people of Israel strove with
Hashem, and he was sanctified in them. (Bamidbar 20:1-13)
This depiction of "Mei M'rivah" - the waters of quarrel, where both Mosheh
and Aharon were sentenced to relinquish the reins of leadership before
entering the Land - is not only a dramatic and tragic Parashah, it is
enigmatic as well. Although the text clearly states that the events "at the
rock" directly led to this divine decree, nowhere does the text explicitly
define the nature of the sin. Some commentators choose to compare God's
command to its fulfillment by Mosheh (and Aharon), noting any one of the
differences between them (there are several), as the key to understanding
Mosheh's sin. Others prefer to analyze the interaction between Mosheh and
the people, identifying one of several indications of "failed" leadership.
While some commentators point to what Mosheh said (or did), others point in
the opposite direction - at what he failed to say (or do). Yet others
maintained that there was no failing here, no sin to speak of - but that
both Mosheh and Aharon were punished for other, earlier sins. A variation on
this approach views the "Waters of Quarrel" as symptomatic of a larger
problem - and that larger problem was the cause of God's fiat. The wide
range of comments offered in traditional interpretive literature is so vast
that one 19th century commentator noted that he was loath to investigate the
issue in depth, fearing that he would find yet another sin to attribute to
Mosheh, blackening his reputation even further.
Suffice it to say that the Torah chose to keep the cause of Mosheh's
putative guilt in the shade, providing the opportunity (or placing the
burden) of enlightenment on the shoulders of the giants of our interpretive
tradition, chiefly the Rishonim (medieval commentators).
As dwarfs who sees far only by sitting on the shoulders of those giants, we
continue to investigate the matter and, hopefully, shed even more light on
the matter at hand. Before suggesting a different angle on understanding
Mosheh's "sin", it behooves us to quickly review how the giants of the
generations understood this tragi-heroic Parashah. We will then build on
their explanations to try to provide additional insight into this enigmatic
and puzzling Parashah. Interested readers are encouraged to peruse the
comments in the original to see the full argument of each - as well as each
one's reason for rejecting earlier alternatives.
COMPARING THE COMMAND WITH ITS IMPLEMENTATION
When we compare the Divine command:
"Take the rod, and gather the Edah together, you, and Aharon your brother,
and speak to the rock before their eyes; and it shall give forth his water,
and you shall bring forth to them water out of the rock; so you shall give
the congregation and their beasts drink" with its performance:
And Mosheh took the rod from before Hashem, as he commanded him. And Mosheh
and Aharon gathered the Kahal together before the rock, and he said to them,
"Hear now, you rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock?" And Mosheh
lifted up his hand, and with his rod he struck the rock twice; and the water
came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their beasts also, we
note several differences, each of which may be significant.
First of all, God told Mosheh to "speak to the rock" - but Mosheh struck the
rock. Rashi (Bamidbar 20:12) highlights this difference and sees it as the
key to understanding Mosheh's sin. Many Rishonim are bothered by this
approach, since, as Ramban (ibid. 20:1) argues, since God had commanded to
take the rod, it implies that he was to strike the rock. Ramban's own
approach is outlined below.
Second, even if we accept the notion that Mosheh was to hit the rock, his
striking it twice seemed to violate the Divine command - this is a piece of
Ibn Ezra's explanation (20:8).
Further, we note that whereas Mosheh was commanded to assemble the "Edah"
(group), he assembled the "K'hal" (congregation), implying a much larger
Finally, as some commentators point out, Mosheh was to speak to the rock -
and instead, he spoke to the people (this is how some understand Sifri,
SINS OF COMMISSION
Many Rishonim, instead of comparing the command with its performance, point
to particular "failings" on the part of Mosheh which can be independently
found within the implementation.
One of the earliest comments we have is that found in the Pesikta (approx.
[God] told [Mosheh] not to refer to His children as "rebels" and here, you
called them "rebels"; therefore "you shall not lead this congregation into
the land..." (Pesikta d'Rav Kahana 14:5).
In a somewhat similar vein (following the more conventional understanding of
Sifri Matot #5), Rambam (Introduction to Commentary on Mishnah Avot, Ch. 4)
notes that Mosheh's anger in speaking to the people was a serious failing
and was the essential sin in this context. Ibn Ezra's "double-striking" is
also built on this approach, as he maintains that (as the Midrash [Bamidbar
Rabbah 19:9] says), when Mosheh hit the rock the first time, only a few
drops came out, necessitating a second "strike. Ibn Ezra's understanding of
the reason that only a few drops came out was that, due to his anger, Mosheh
had interrupted his communion with God and needed to "refocus".
Ramban (Bamidbar 20:1) quotes this comment and takes issue with it,
preferring Rabbenu Chananel's approach that it wasn't how he spoke, rather
what he said: "... must WE fetch you water...", placing the emphasis on his
(and Aharon's) ability to extract water from the rock, as opposed to Divine
SINS OF OMISSION
Abarvanel cites an unnamed authority who comments that Mosheh and Aharon
should have led the people in song (see Bamidbar 21:17-18).
R. Yosef Albo (Sefer haIkkarim) notes that the failure of Mosheh to speak to
the rock prevented God's Name from being sanctified.
Don Isaac Abarvanel takes an entirely different approach (one which is, as
far as I can tell, unmatched among the medievalists). Part of the
difficulty in any of the earlier approaches is Aharon's inclusion in the
sentence. There would be every reason, following any of the other
approaches, to fully exonerate Aharon (he is only mentioned as a bystander),
or, at best, to view him as an "accomplice" in whatever sin was committed
here. Why were they equally sentenced to relinquish their leadership over
Abarvanel's approach is innovative, although problematic from a purely
textual perspective. He maintains that both Aharon and Mosheh were punished
for earlier sins - Aharon for his role in the Golden Calf episode and Mosheh
for his part in the sin of the scouts. Although his approach is fascinating
- and helps explain a puzzling verse in D'varim (1:37), it is still
difficult to read the Mei M'rivah incident as merely an "opportunity" to
punish these two great leaders.
[interested readers are directed to the Ramban and Abarvanel, each of whom
surveys some earlier approaches and delineates reasons for rejecting them
before presenting his own understanding.]
A MORE CAREFUL READING...
If we look carefully at the "sentence" imposed by God, we see that, unlike
the generation of the Exodus who were condemned to die in the desert, Mosheh
and Aharon were only sentenced to relinquish their leadership. As the
"Mosheh said to God: Master of the World, let Yehoshua take my crown, and I
shall live. God said to him: Act with him as he has acted with you. Mosheh
immediately went to the house of Yehoshua... They went out, and Mosheh
walked on the left of Yehoshua... At that time, Mosheh cried and said:
Better a thousand deaths than one jealousy." (Devarim Rabbah 9:19).
In other words, Mosheh was not condemned to die in the desert - rather that
he could not be the leader of the people in the Land. He had the
opportunity to enter the Land as a "citizen", but preferred death to the
jealousy of living under Yehoshua's rule.
We now need to understand, instead of why Mosheh was "punished" as a result
of the events at Mei M'rivah, why this "quarrel" signaled the impending end
of his term as leader.
R. MEIDAN'S EXPLANATION
R. Yaacov Meidan (of Yeshivat Har Etzion and Machon Herzog) has written
several beautiful essays on the relationship between the sin of the M'raglim
(scouts) and Mei M'rivah. His goal is to resolve the apparent contradiction
between our selection, where Mei M'rivah is indicated as the cause of
Mosheh's losing the reigns of leadership, and Mosheh's autobiographical
statement in D'varim where the events of 38 years earlier, the story of the
scouts, is depicted as the cause. [Note that the events at Mei M'rivah are
presented as the reason for Mosheh's early removal from leadership in two
other verses in the Torah: Bamidbar 27:14 and D'varim 32:51.]
R. Meidan sees a continuum between the two events, both demonstrating a
shortcoming in Mosheh's leadership:
"[in the story of the scouts] Mosheh, facing the sin of the M'raglim,
appears...bereft of any signs of leadership...Mosheh's reaction to the
outrageous demand to return to Egypt was, 'And Mosheh and Aharon fell on
their faces before the entire assembly of the congregation of the Jews'
(14:5). This was not the required act of leadership. In the vacuum created
by Mosheh's paralysis, Calev and Yehoshua attempt to enter the breach,
coming close to endangering themselves. But they are unable to supplant
Moshe and Aharon, and the situation is about to completely deteriorate,
saved only by the direct appearance of the presence of God. Now is the time,
I believe, that Calev and Yehoshua assume the leadership that will
eventually lead to their bringing the Jews into the Land, instead of Mosheh
"Mosheh is denied entry to the Land, not because of a particular
transgression, but because he is no longer the leader who can accomplish the
entry into the Land. It is not so much a matter of punishment as the natural
consequence of his shortcomings as a leader. The advantage of this
explanation is that it explains the connection to the oft-repeated reference
to Merivah as the cause of Mosheh's exclusion from the Land. We are not
explicitly told what was the sin of Mosheh and Aharon at the waters of
Merivah. (There are at least sixteen different explanations in the
commentators!) For our purposes, we may follow the Ibn Ezra. On the verse,
'Mosheh and Aharon came to the entrance of the Ohel Mo'ed (Tent of Meeting)
from before the congregation and fell on their faces' (20:6), the Ibn Ezra
comments: 'Mosheh and Aharon came - as ones who flee.' Compare this to the
similar problem at Refidim, where the people complained of thirst, and
Mosheh remonstrates with them: 'Why do you argue with me, why do test God?"
(Shemot 20:6). There, Mosheh struggled with the complainers, trying to
return them to the proper path. Here, at the waters of Merivah, he is
silent, falling on his face, actually fleeing, according to the Ibn Ezra,
before his people. Waiting for God's answer is not true leadership. Mosheh's
fate is originally decreed at the time of the spies, as stated in Devarim 1,
but he is given another chance 38 years later, at Merivah. When challenged a
second time, his fate was sealed."
Although R. Meidan's approach has much to recommend it, it still leaves us
with the "Aharon-problem". As much as Aharon stood at Mosheh's side during
both of these crises, that does not mean that we could expect him to act as
a leader in the presence of Mosheh. Our Rabbis often point out that Aharon,
although three years his senior, recognized his own position as
"second-in-command" to Mosheh and was unwilling to assume any directorial
position in his presence - or even in his absence (witness the Golden calf
episode). How then can we understand Aharon's "removal from office" as a
result of Mosheh's "failed leadership"?
I would like to suggest that we need to consider the change in leadership,
effective from just before the people enter the Land, from a different
perspective - one which takes us back to the monumental events recorded in
Bamidbar 11 (Parashat B'ha'alot'kha).
TWO MODES OF LEADERSHIP
In the aftermath of the episodes of the complainers (Mit'onenim) and the
voluptuaries (Mit'avim), Mosheh spoke with a heretofore unheard-of
despondence and resignation:
"Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in
your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? I am not able
to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is
the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once if I have found
favor in your sight and do not let me see my misery." (Bamidbar 11:11-15)
In response to Mosheh's "I am not able to carry all this people alone", God
designed a new form of leadership; shared "assumption of the burden" under
the leadership of Mosheh:
"Gather to me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the
elders of the people, and officers over them; and bring them to the Tent of
Meeting, that they may stand there with you. And I will come down and talk
with you there; and I will take of the spirit which is upon you, and will
put it upon them; and they shall carry the burden of the people with you,
that you carry it not yourself alone." (ibid. vv. 16-17).
Unlike the earlier "delegation of authority" suggested by Yitro (Sh'mot 18),
which was for practical purposes of adjudication, this delegation was one of
shared leadership, sharing the burden of dealing with the people and their
complaining nature. Instead of the one leader (Mosheh) who had
single-handedly guided the people, chastising them while pleading their case
(the pinnacle of Mosheh's leadership, as Rabbi Soloveitchik points out, was
in the aftermath of the Egel tragedy), we now have a leadership by
consensus. At least - that's how it should be. Mosheh goes on to
demonstrate an even greater willingness to share the burden - and the power
- of leadership, when Eldad and Meidad prophesy without benefit of his
presence. (Note: the Divine directive was to have the seventy elders only
capable of prophesying in Mosheh's presence, as a sort of reflection of
Mosheh's prophecy.) When Yehoshua, his servant, demanded that they be locked
up (assumedly for threatening Mosheh's leadership by prophesying
independently), Mosheh responded:
" would that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would
put his spirit upon them!"
As we know, the thirty-eight years between the decree of the forty years and
the final year in the desert are blank pages in the T'nakh - we have little
information about the development of the nation during this time. When we
meet them near the end of the forty years, we see a "finished product" - and
can only surmise and theorize about what happened during that time,
including how leadership may have developed. Since the events of Mei
M'rivah took place during the fortieth year (according to almost all
Rishonim - note the B'khor Shor's dissent), we have to view the episode at
Mei M'rivah against the expected result of nearly forty years of "shared
WHAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN...AND WHAT WAS
Note that God's antidote to Mosheh's despondency (Bamidbar Ch. 11) is not to
appoint one, two or three "co-leaders" (such as he apparently had during the
war against Amalek); rather, God asked Moshe to call together tribal
representatives who would be imbued with the spirit of prophecy via Mosheh.
What this meant was that, instead of a single leader, who would lead,
defend, chastise and teach the people, each tribe would have its own
representatives among the leadership.
Based on this Divine response and how Mosheh handled the new form of
leadership, we should have expected to find a government made up of
representative leadership from each of the tribes. Note that Mosheh seems
to accept this form of shared, representative leadership quite well; when it
comes time to send scouts into the land (Ch. 13), Mosheh selects one
representative from each tribe (excluding Levi, who would neither go to war
nor inherit; see our shiur on Parashat Sh'lach). [We could even suggest that
this expansion of leadership and power presented Korach and his followers
with the opportunity they needed in order to argue for full investiture of
everyone as Kohanim.]
Whether or not this diffusion of leadership was ideal is unclear; what is
clear is that at the point when the our window into the history of Am
Yisra'el closes for thirty-eight years, this is the mode of government in
the Mahaneh Yisra'el.
As the window opens again, beginning with the tragedy of Miriam's death
(which, following the Midrash, was the direct cause of the thirst at
M'rivah), we find the people complaining to Mosheh about thirst. This is
not unusual for the B'nei Yisra'el - or so we suspect. Throughout Parashat
B'shallach the people complain about hunger and thirst (see Sh'mot
15:22-17:7) - so we aren't surprised to hear:
"And there was no water for the congregation; and they gathered themselves
together against Mosheh and against Aharon. And the people quarreled with
Mosheh and Aharon respond as leaders - with trepidation ("And Mosheh and
Aharon went from the presence of the assembly to the door of the Tent of
Meeting, and they fell upon their faces..."), then with words of
chastisement ("Hear now, you rebels..."). But the basic question must be
asked: Why are Mosheh and Aharon responding alone; indeed, why are the
people congregating against Mosheh and Aharon? Where is the rest of the
"government"? Why aren't the people complaining to their tribal representatives?
We must draw the conclusion that neither form of leadership was fully
successful. Whereas Mosheh complained about his bearing the load alone,
conversely, the notion of shared leadership never really took hold. The
B'nei Yisra'el continued to come directly to Mosheh and Aharon - "just like
in the old days" - and they responded as the only fully invested leaders of
In other words - neither model of leadership had been fully successful. The
entire nation was too much of a burden for even Mosheh to bear; yet this
"Omein" (nursemaid - see Bamidbar 11:12) was not able, over thirty-eight
years, to wean the nation. As R. Meidan points out, the decree was not that
Mosheh would die in the desert - but that neither Mosheh nor Aharon (who was
Mosheh's constant support as leader) could lead the people into the land,
where they would be settling onto tribal soil. Central leadership, too much
for even the greatest of men while traveling, would be impossible after
settlement. Delegated leadership was the vision (at least, after the events
in Bamidbar 11); but, clearly, that never developed.
Parenthetically, this approach helps to resolve an apparently minor
inconsistency between the various accounts of the events at Mei M'rivah as
presented in the Torah. In the two occurrences in Sefer Bamidbar (20:12,
27:14), Mosheh is accused of failing to sanctify God "L'eini B'nei Yisra'el"
- in front of the eyes of the people. Conversely, in D'varim (32:51),
Mosheh's sin is described as failing to sanctify God "b'Tokh B'nei Yisra'el"
- in the midst of the people. How do understand this textual variation?
In several places, our Rabbis understand "the eyes of the people" to be a
reference to the Sanhedrin - i.e. the representative and delegated
leadership of the people, whose formation begins in the events chronicled in
Bamidbar 11. (see, e.g., Shir haShirim Rabbah 4:2, Eikhah Rabbah 2:8, JT
Horayot 1:4). In Sefer Bamidbar, the shortcoming which stands out is
Mosheh's inability to maintain and develop the representative government
which he had request of the Almighty. In Sefer D'varim, with a "longer
view" at Mosheh's life, he stands accused of not carrying the burden alone -
of not sanctifying God "in the midst of the people", as their one and only
We now understand why both Mosheh and Aharon were relieved of the leadership
of the people before entering the Land - it was due to the overwhelming
sense of dependence that the B'nei Yisra'el felt towards them that prevented
a more practical mode of leadership from developing, one which would be
necessary throughout the period of settlement in the Land.
Text Copyright © 2012 by Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom and Torah.org. The author is Educational Coordinator of the Jewish Studies Institute of the Yeshiva of Los Angeles.