How To Speak To A Rock1
Take the staff and gather the assembly, you and Aharon your brother.
Speak to the rock before their eyes that it should give its waters. You
shall bring forth water for them from the rock and give drink to the
assembly and to their animals.
Rocks do not hear. Speaking to them seems pointless.
Targum Yonoson clearly had this in mind when it paraphrases our pasuk as,
“Both of you adjure the rock through the Great and Explicit Name.” In other
words, the rock did not have to “listen.” The active agent was the power in
uttering the Name of Hashem.
Medrash Yelamdenu, however, sees our pasuk differently. “‘Speak’ – a dvar
halacha or a perek.” Moshe and Aharon were instructed to speak words of
Torah in proximity to the rock.
Here is the explanation. For close to forty years, Miriam’s well supplied
the Bnei Yisrael with their water. It had ceased being miraculous, and
become part of the natural order of things. (The well was one of that small
group of things that Hashem created in the final moments of the six days of
Creation , making it part of the natural world. This should not be
surprising. The One who ordered clouds to drop their rain, and the Nile to
overflow and irrigate the land, can just as easily order a rock to become a
When the well ceased to provide their needs, the people assumed that the
change was part of the change in their life style necessitated by their
imminent entry into the land of Israel. They knew that HKBH was gradually
weaning them away from the miraculous order He had accustomed them to during
their sojourn in the wilderness. Now, it was time to slowly transition them
to the order that would prevail when they entered the Land – an order we
regard today as natural and expected. They concluded that the failure of
Miriam’s well was part of the change-over.
That conclusion was mistaken. Water was withheld from them in much the same
way that droughts would occasionally plague the Jewish community in the
future - as a consequence of its sins. Jews react to such a Divine edict
with a set of predictable and determined behaviors. They gather together in
a given place – even a nondescript place, devoid of the presence of the
Shechinah that graced the beis hamikdosh. A leader delivers a message
intended to bend the spirit of the people to the Will of the Creator. They
conclude with a joint communal prayer session. All of this is outlined in
the second perek of Taanis.
As part of their preparation for life in Israel, Hashem wanted that the Bnei
Yisrael come into the Land already familiar with the spiritual protocol to
follow in times of distress. They would need it in their arsenal. He wanted
them to understand its potency, so that they would realize that this program
would be effective even without the merit of Moshe and Aharon in their midst.
Moshe and Aharon’s job at the rock was to demonstrate the efficacy of
tefillah to the people. They were to do this by establishing the prototype
response to an unfavorable Divine edict. According to the plan, Moshe and
Aharon would speak word of mussar and of Torah learning at the rock. (A
sugya in learning, even though not related to words of inspiration or
exhortation, is also an effective preliminary to a group davening session!)
Immediately after, the people would join in a communal tefillah. Hashem
would respond by refreshing the well. It would give “its waters,” meaning
the waters that had become part of the nature of that rock until recently,
and would now return in all their strength.
The pasuk continues. “You shall bring forth water for them.” Note that here
it does not speak of “its waters,” but of generic, undefined waters. Here
Hashem offers them Plan B. Should the merit of their Torah and davening not
suffice, He would still not abandon them to die of thirst. He would still
intervene and miraculously bail them out. For this, however, Moshe would
need the staff that he had used so often before to bring about miracles.
Should the preferred plan fail, should the learning and davening not bring
them to the spiritual level at which Miriam’s well would be restored,
Moshe’s mateh would be pressed into service. Water would flow, but only
enough to sustain them. It would not be terribly attractive, and it would
not be available in abundance.
In fact, this is precisely what happened. Moshe hit the rock, and it
provided water miraculously, although not very much. This explains why soon
after this episode, the people once again complain, “Why did you bring us up
from Egypt to die in this wilderness, for there is no food and no water.”
The people survived, but an enormously important teaching moment had been
lost. Klal Yisrael had followed the procedure that they would implement at
all times in the future, but it had failed. Miriam’s well was not restored
to its previous function. Had it succeeded, the people would have directly
experienced the power of Torah learning. Away from the mishkan, they would
have seen a session of Torah learning bring the Shechinah to their midst.
Chazal tell us that when a person succeeds in presenting a topic in halachah
as accurately as it was given at Sinai, then the Shechinah is drawn to that
place as surely as it was at Sinai. Just as the Shechinah rested upon the
mountain, so does it rest in the four amos of halachah, when halachah is
accurately conveyed. Moshe became angry, however. His anger precluded his
understanding of the sugya completely and accurately. The Shechinah did not
come to rest among them, and the subsequent davening was therefore not as
effective as it could and should have been.
The Bnei Yisrael saw Hashem miraculously save them – but they did not see
from up close the efficacy of the combination of limud Torah, gilui
Shechinah, and davening. This was a terrible handicap for the future.
1. Based on Ha’amek Davar, Bamidbar 20:8
2. Our text of the Medrash (in both Yalkut Shimoni and in Yelamdenu) does
not have the words “dvar halacha.”
3. Pesachim 54A
4. Bamidbar 21:5