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Hirsch At Your Table

Water from the Rock

A brief Dvar Torah on the Parsha, based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary
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ויקהלו משה ואהרן את הקהל אל פני הסלע ויאמר להם שמעו נא המורים המן הסלע הזה נוציא לכם מים. (Nm 20:10)
The nation of Israel reaches Kadesh, the first inhabitable area that they had seen since leaving Egypt. Expectations of improved conditions are dashed, however, when Miriam’s well that had provided water for forty years suddenly dries up after her death. The nation fights with Moshe, accusing him of some misdeed, since God, who had brought them to this point, would not deprive them of the vital water just as they are about to enter the land. God commands Moshe to take his staff, the symbol of his God-given authority, gather the people around the rock and speak to the rock. Moshe brings them together and reproaches them for questioning God’s attitude to them and specifically his own ability, as God’s delegate, to provide them with water.

In analyzing this particular verse, Hirsch finds most unusual the use of the word המורים/the rebels, to describe the attitude of the people. Where was the rebellion? These rebels had not committed any crime or violated any of God’s precepts. Instead, the people had shown a lack of responsiveness to all the teaching and all the experiences of the forty years in the desert. They were obstinate, conceited, litigious, and negative to views other than their own. One would have expected that after all of the miracles, the people would be "moving" in conformity with God’s will. Instead they were moving in the opposite direction.

The word מורים is from the root מ-ר-ה which means "to oppose" and move in the opposite direction. The idea of moving in opposition that is the root of this word is manifested in a more physical way in the word מרה/razor, as in the verse in Jd 13:5 ומורה לא יעלה על ראשו.


However understandable was Moshe’s description of the people as rebels, it is difficult to comprehend Moshe’s reaction to their complaint. He was told to speak to the rock, not to strike it. How was it possible that Moshe, the faithful servant of God, could so disregard God’s specific instructions about how to deal with these rebels? Moshe had indeed intended to do exactly as God had commanded him. He took the rod/מטה, the symbol of his authority, from the Mishkan. A rod or staff essentially extends the reach of a person and permits him to spread his control over a larger surface, as the rod implied Moshe’s God-granted control over the people. He gathered/ויקהלו, the people around that rock ready to obey God’s commands.

The word מטה is from the root נ-ט-ה which means "to spread over a surface." The word ויקהלו is from the root ק-ה-ל which means "to gather" to implement a common plan. Its phonetic cognate י-א-ל means "to initiate action."


And at that point, Moshe realized that the forty years of his leadership had accomplished nothing. He stood before the people now with the very same rod in his hand, facing the exact same problems that he had faced forty years ago. In all that time he had not succeeded in earning the trust of the people or in firmly establishing his leadership position. Experiencing this bitter reality, Moshe momentarily forgot God’s instructions. Instead of speaking to the rock, as he was told, he harshly castigated the people and struck the rock and produced water.

Hirsch also has an interesting explanation for the question posed to the people:המן הסלע הזה נוציא לכם מים/shall we bring out water for you from this rock? He stresses the word "we" which is subsumed in the word נוציא. The "we" is Moshe and Aharon. Moshe says that he and Aharon have been accused of causing all of the problems in the desert, including the current lack of drinking water. He asks rhetorically: do you really think that we can bring water from a rock? If water indeed comes from the rock, perhaps you, the people, will finally realize that it is God who has brought you to this point and it is at His direction that everything has been provided for you.

The word המן is a causative preposition from the root מ-נ-ן which means "to hold back." The prefixed particle הא is the interrogative/question. The word סלע is from the root ס-ל-ע "to raise high" as in a tall rock. The word נוציא is the causative of the root י-צ-א "to exit."


Moshe did not consciously deviate from God's command to speak to the rock. What he said, when he spoke, was to prepare the people for the miracle of producing water from the rock. Only at the last minute did he sin when he impulsively struck the rock.


Copyright © 2014, Matityahu Clark. All Rights Reserved. This is an excerpt from the forthcoming Hirsch At Your Table, a collection of brief divrei torah based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary.
Rabbi Matityahu Clark
Served in principal/director positions throughout North America. One of the founders of the Educator's Council of America, and former president of the Council for Jewish Education. Former Director of the Board of Jewish Education of Greater Washington.
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