The Water of Controversy

מרן הגאב"ד שליט"א
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After the passing of Miriam, the miraculous well that followed Bnei Yisrael in the Desert suddenly disappeared.  With no water to drink, the nation complained to Moshe, fearing that they would die of thirst in the Desert.  Hashem heard their complaints and commanded Moshe to take his staff, gather the nation together, and speak to the stone in their presence, directing it to produce water.

Moshe took his staff and gathered the nation together, but instead of just speaking to the stone, he struck it twice with his staff, causing it to produce ample water for the entire nation and their livestock.

Hashem then said to Moshe and Aharon, “Because you did not believe in Me, to sanctify Me before the eyes of Bnei Yisrael, therefore you will not bring this congregation in to the Land that I have given them.”  The verse then concludes, “These are the waters of controversy, for which Bnei Yisrael contended with Hashem, and He was sanctified through them.”[1]

The commentaries offer several suggestions to explain what exactly was the sin for which Moshe and Aharon were punished.  How did Moshe and Aharon fail to sanctify Hashem, and why was this sin so terrible as to be unforgivable?



A Lesson of Obedience


Rashi explains that they were punished for striking the stone rather than speaking to it, as they had been commanded to do:


להקדישני - שאילו דברתם אל הסלע והוציא הייתי מקודש לעיני העדה ואומרים מה סלע זה שאינו מדבר ואינו שומע ואינו צריך לפרנסה מקיים דבורו של מקום, קל וחומר אנו.


(Since you did not believe in Me) to sanctify Me” – Had you spoken to the stone, and thus caused it to produce water, I would have been sanctified before the eyes of the congregation.  They would have reasoned, “This stone does not speak, does not hear, and has no need for livelihood, yet it fulfills Hashem’s command.  How much more so must we.”[2]


The Ramban raises three objections to this explanation.  Firstly, Moshe did in fact speak Hashem’s command that the stone produce water: “Moshe and Aharon gathered the congregation around the stone and he said to them, ‘Listen now, you rebels, shall we produce water for you from this stone?’”[3]  Speaking to Bnei Yisrael in the presence of the stone was sufficient to fulfill Hashem’s command, since they were not necessarily expected to speak directly to the stone.

Secondly, it was reasonable for Moshe to assume that Hashem wanted him to strike the stone with his staff, since Hashem did command him to bring it. Very often Hashem’s directions are not related in the Torah in full detail, and Moshe was expected to realize what exactly Hashem had meant.   Why did Hashem tell Moshe to bring the staff, if not to use it to strike the stone, as he used it to strike the Egyptians with the plagues?

Thirdly, Rashi’s explanation does not clarify how Moshe failed to sanctify Hashem.  Water pouring out of a stone is an openly revealed miracle, whether caused by staff or by speech.  Hashem was thus indeed sanctified by this incident.

To answer these challenges, perhaps we can explain that Hashem did not seek to be sanctified by means of an openly revealed miracle that would display His power.  This was entirely unnecessary, since Bnei Yisrael were well accustomed to miracles in the Desert, having been fed for forty years by manna that fell from the Heavens, and led by Clouds of Glory that flattened the mountains and the raised valleys in their path.  One more miracle could hardly have altered their relationship with Hashem in such a profound way that Moshe and Aharon should loose their lives for failing to produce it.

Rather, the sanctification Hashem desired was the lesson of obedience, as Rashi stresses: “This stone does not speak, does not hear, and has no need for livelihood, yet it fulfills Hashem’s command.  How much more so must we!”  Hashem would much prefer us to obey His command upon having heard it the first time, and not have to suffer punishment to make us comply.  Our Sages teach:


טובה מרדות אחת בלבו של אדם ... יותר ממאה מלקיות שנאמר "תחת גערה במבין מהכות כסיל מאה."


One thought of repentance in man’s heart is more effective than … one hundred blows, as it is written, “A harsh word to the thoughtful takes the place of a hundred blows to the fool.[4][5]


Moshe was told to bring the staff and raise it in the air as a warning of the punishment that might befall them for defying Hashem’s will.  However, he was also told to speak to the stone and refrain from hitting it, to teach them that they too should suffice with Hashem’s command, and not wait until punishment befalls them before they learn to obey Him.  Since Moshe immediately struck the stone, this lesson was lost.



Misimpression of Anger


The Rambam explains that Moshe was punished for the anger with which he chastised Bnei Yisrael, using the harsh words, “Listen now, you rebels.”[6]  Whereas others might have been forgiven for this slight display of anger, Moshe was held to a much higher standard.  Bnei Yisrael viewed him as the very model of perfection.  They did not attribute his anger to normal human deficiencies, but presumed that Hashem was also angry with them and Moshe was just expressing Hashem’s anger, in his role as Hashem’s emissary to Bnei Yisrael.

Moshe was thus punished for misrepresenting Hashem, Who was in fact not angry with Bnei Yisrael at all, since their plea for water was justified.  In Hashem’s response to their complaints, He made no threat of punishment, but simply directed Moshe to provide water for His thirsty children and their livestock, showing mercy both towards themselves and towards their possessions.[7]  Therefore, Moshe was unwarranted in showing them any degree of anger.

The Ramban challenges this explanation as well, noting that Aharon did not say, “Listen now, you rebels,” nor display any other show of anger.  Why then was Aharon punished together with Moshe?  Furthermore, in this case Moshe’s anger was surely justified, since Hashem must have been angered by Bnei Yisrael’s complaints:


ולו גוענו בגוע אחינו לפני ה'.  ולמה הבאתם את קהל ה' אל המדבר הזה למות שם אנחנו ובעירנו.  ולמה העליתנו ממצרים להביא אתנו אל המקום הרע הזה.


“If only we had died as our brothers died before Hashem.  Why did you bring the congregation of Hashem to the desert, to die here together with our livestock?  Why did you take us out of Egypt and bring us to this bad place?”[8]


Of all the sins of Bnei Yisrael in the Desert, the very worst was the declaration that they would have preferred slavery in the land of their affliction to the service of their loving Father, Hashem.  How then could the Rambam claim that Moshe’s anger was unwarranted?

To defend the Rambam’s position, we must explain that Hashem’s general attitude towards Bnei Yisrael is that of a loving, patient father, who seeks only the welfare of his children, and attempts to correct them in a pleasant way whenever possible.  Even when Hashem’s anger would be justified, His emissaries have no right to display this anger to Bnei Yisrael unless they are expressly commanded to do so.  Therefore, in this case Moshe was unwarranted in showing them any degree of anger.

Furthermore, although Aharon did not show any anger in this episode, it is reasonable to presume that he did show some amount of anger in his role as the teacher of Bnei Yisrael, as the verse states: שפתי כהן ישמרו דעת - “The lips of the Kohen preserve wisdom.[9]  In general, Aharon loved peace, pursued peace, loved Hashem’s creations and drew them close to the Torah.[10]  However, there are some situations that call for a teacher to intimidate his students for the sake of discipline.[11]  Even in such situations, the Rambam warns against true anger:


הכעס מדה רעה היא עד למאד וראוי לאדם שיתרחק ממנה עד הקצה האחר, וילמד עצמו שלא יכעוס ואפילו על דבר שראוי לכעוס עליו, ואם רצה להטיל אימה על בניו ובני ביתו או על הציבור אם היה פרנס ורצה לכעוס עליהן כדי שיחזרו למוטב יראה עצמו בפניהם שהוא כועס כדי לייסרם ותהיה דעתו מיושבת בינו לבין עצמו כאדם שהוא מדמה כועס בשעת כעסו והוא אינו כועס.


Anger is a terrible trait, from which a person must distance himself to the opposite extreme.  Man must train himself never to get angry, even in situations that justify anger.  If a person finds it necessary to intimidate his family, or if a community leader finds it necessary to intimidate the community to guide them towards self-improvement, he may only give the appearance of anger that is necessary to rebuke them, while his thoughts remain calm – like a person who feigns anger, but is not really angry at all.[12]


Surely the hearts of Moshe and Aharon were filled with love for Bnei Yisrael. They rebuked them with angry countenances only to the degree they thought was necessary for their benefit.  However, Hashem is exacting with the righteous to a hairsbreadth of perfection,[13] such that even the smallest taint of true anger was enough to warrant the punishment of being denied entrance to Eretz Yisrael.


Rabbeinu Chananel:

The True Source of Blessing


Rabbeinu Chananel suggests that Moshe and Aharon were punished for saying, “Shall we produce water for you from this stone?,” thus implying that it would be their own achievement, and not Hashem’s.  Instead, they should have said, “Shall He produce water for you?”, just as they had previously said, “Hashem gives you meat by night to eat, and bread by morning to satisfaction.”[14]

Those who work for the sake of the community must always remember that the benefit they provide is not their own creation.  They have the great merit to be the channels through which Hashem blesses His nation.  However, they must sanctify Hashem’s Name by constantly reminding their congregation that Hashem is the true source of their blessing.

This explanation best fits the wording of Hashem’s rebuke to Moshe:


וידבר ה' אל משה בעצם היום הזה לאמר: עלה אל הר העברים הזה הר נבו ... ומת בהר אשר אתה עלה שמה והאסף אל עמיך כאשר מת אהרן אחיך בהר ההר ויאסף אל עמיו, על אשר מעלתם בי בתוך בני ישראל במי מריבת קדש מדבר צן על אשר לא קדשתם אותי בתוך בני ישראל.


Hashem spoke to Moshe on that very day, saying, “Ascend this Mountain of Avarim, Mount Nevo … and you shall die on the mountain that you shall ascend and be gathered unto your nation, as Aharon your brother died on Hor Hahar and was gathered to his nation.  Since you were unfaithful (ma’altem) to Me among Bnei Yisrael at the waters of contention in Kadesh, in the Tzin Desert, when you failed to sanctify Me among Bnei Yisrael.”[15]


The word “ma’altem” stems from the same root as the word me’ilah, which refers to the sin of misappropriating the property of the Beis HaMikdash for mundane purposes.  Here too, a person who takes personal credit for Hashem’s kindness is guilty of misappropriating Hashem’s miracles.

The Midrash states that even the angels were guilty of this mistake.  For having told Lot, “In another three days we will destroy this place,”[16] we – and not Hashem, they were banished from Hashem’s Presence for 138 years.[17]

Torah scholars are also considered like angels, as our Sages teach: “If your rav is like an angel of Hashem, seek Torah from his lips.”[18]  The Hebrew word for angel, malach, literally means “messenger”, thus emphasizing that angels and Torah leaders alike must present themselves as emissaries of Hashem, claiming no credit for themselves.

Moshe and Aharon were humble individuals, and were certainly innocent of any sort of crass self-glorification.  Nevertheless,  as we have said, Hashem is exacting with the righteous, demanding from them the highest standards within a hairsbreadth of perfection.  Therefore, they were held accountable for the merest slip of the tongue, in stating, “Shall we produce water.”


Sefer Ha’Ikarim:

Bending the Rules of Nature


Quite to the contrary of the Ramban’s explanation, the Sefer Ha’Ikarim explains that Moshe and Aharon were punished for failing to exhibit their power to bend nature to their will, thus misleading Bnei Yisrael into doubting the ability of tzaddikim to work miracles:


שעקר גדול אל התורה ושורש אל האמונה שהוא מסתעף מאמונת ההשגחה הוא שהשם יתברך מכריח הטבע תחת כפות רגלי המאמינים ... אמרו על רבי חנינא שאמר מי שאמר לשמן והדליק יאמר לחומץ וידליק, והיה כן, ודברים אחרים כאלה. וכן אמרו על רבינו פנחס בן יאיר במסכת חולין, שנחלק הנהר במאמרו פעמים הרבה, עם שאין הנהר בעל שכל, ונחלק למקיימי מצוה ולהולכים עמהם, וכן בנחום איש גם זו ושאר החסידים שנזכרו במסכת תענית, עצמו מספר הנסים שהיו נעשין על ידם בדבורם הקל, מזולת שיביאם בזה נבואה או דבור או צווי מהשם יתברך.

 וכן אמר אליפז לאיוב ותגזר אמר ויקם לך, שיראה שזה דבר מוסכם מהנביאים והמדברים ברוח הקודש כאליפז שהטבע משתנה על פי הצדיקים כפי מה שירצו, וכל שכן על פי הנביאים שהיו הנסים מתחדשים על ידם ככל היוצא מפיהם ...

ומי שיספק שהשם יתברך לא ישלים רצון הנביא או הצדיק או החסיד הראוי לכך, הנה הוא כמטיל ספק בתורה ובשרש משרשיה, וכל שכן במקום שיש בו קדוש ה', שראוי ומחוייב לפרסם שהטבע משועבד ומוכרח לעשות רצון שומרי התורה ומקיימי מצותיה, ומי שיראה הנביא שראוי שיעשו על ידו נסים בלתי עושה אותם להצלת אומה אחת או כלל אחד, הנה הוא בלתי ספק גורם להטיל ספק באמונה, שהרואה יחשוב שאין האמת כמו שהכתוב מיעד בתורה במקומות הרבה שהטבע הוא נכנע ומשועבד למקיימי מצות התורה, ויבואו להטיל ספק בתורה.

וכל שכן כשיראו הנביא עצמו שנתנה תורה על ידו שאינו נשען על האמונה הזאת לגזור אומר ולדבר דבר כנגד הטבע לשנותו ממנהגו או לחדש אות או מופת, עם היות הנביא ההוא ממי שראוי שיעשו על ידו נסים יותר מעל ידי זולתו, וזה בלי ספק גורם לחלול השם ולהטיל ספק באמונה, וכאלו הנביא עצמו הוא מסופק אם הדבר אמת שישתנה הטבע על פי דברו כמו שתיעד התורה, ועל זה נאמר יען לא האמנתם בי וגו', כי כששאלו המים, אלו היה משה ואהרן גוזרין שיבקע הצור ויזובו מים, היה השם יתברך בלי ספק מקים דבר עבדו ועצת מלאכיו ישלים, והיה השם יתברך נקדש בזה לעיני כל העם.

ובעבור שלא עשו כן משה ואהרן, אבל באו מפני הקהל כדמות בורחים אל פתח אהל מועד, כמו שפירש החכם רבי אברהם אבן עזרא ז"ל, כאלו אין להם עצה מה לעשות, והיה זה בלי ספק חלול השם וגורם מעוט אמונה בו ובתורה לרואים...

והם עליהם השלום אף על פי שעשו זה לרוב ענותנותם, שלא היו רוצים ליטול עטרה לעצמן מבלי מצות ה', מכל מקום נחשב להם לעון ולמעוט אמונה מפני חלול השם שנמשך מזה כמו שבארנו.


A fundamental principle of the Torah and basic tenet of our faith is the belief that Hashem watches over His faithful, subjecting nature to their will …

For example, the Gemara tells the story of R’ Chanina ben Dosa, who once said, “He Who commanded oil to burn shall command vinegar to burn,” and so it happened (that the vinegar accidentally lit in place of oil for Shabbos candles burned until after Shabbos), and many such miraculous incidents.  Similarly, we learn in Maseches Chullin that the river split several times at the command of R’ Pinchas ben Yair.  Although the river has no conscious will of its own, its waters split for the sake of those who perform mitzvos and those who accompany them.  And so it is told of Nachum Ish Gamzu and the other pious Sages, as detailed in Maseches Taanis the countless miracles that were performed by their slightest word, even if they were not so commanded by a prophecy or a direct instruction from Hashem Yisborach.

Elifaz said to Iyov, “Make a decree and it shall be upheld,”[19] implying that it was an established fact among prophets and those who spoke with ru’ach hakodesh, like Elifaz, that nature is altered to fulfill the will of the righteous, and all the more so are the prophets able to perform miracles by the word of their mouth…

Anyone who doubts that Hashem Yisborach fulfills the will of a prophet, tzaddik or chassid who so deserves it, doubts the Torah itself and the very roots of our faith.  Thus, in a situation where the sanctification of Hashem’s Name is at stake, it is both fitting and necessary to publicize that nature is subject to the will of those who observe the Torah and fulfill its mitzvos.  If a person sees a prophet through whom miracles have occurred in the past unable to perform a miracle for the salvation of a nation or a group of people, this will most certainly undermine his faith.  He will question the veracity of the Torah’s numerous accounts of how nature was subjected to those who fulfill the Torah’s mitzvos, and will thus come to doubt the entire Torah.

All the more so when the prophet in question is he who delivered the Torah, yet that same prophet does not rely on his emunah to make a decree to alter the usual course of nature,  or create a wondrous sign or portent.  If this prophet could have been  worthy of having miracles occur at his hand [yet fails to do so], this most certainly causes a chilul Hashem and shakes the foundations of people’s faith.  It seems as if the prophet himself is uncertain if his words are true, and if nature will change by his word, as the Torah testifies.  Therefore, Hashem rebuked Moshe, “Because you did not believe in Me.”[20]  When Bnei Yisrael asked for water, had Moshe and Aharon commanded the stone to break open and pour forth water, Hashem would undoubtedly have fulfilled the words of His servants and supported the counsels of His agents, thus causing His Name to be sanctified before the entire congregation.

However, since Moshe and Aharon did not do so, but seemed to flee from the congregation into the Ohel Moed, as R’ Avraham Ibn Ezra zt”l explains, it seemed as if they had no solution to the problem.  This was undoubtedly a chilul Hashem, which shook the faith of all who saw it…

[Moshe and Aharon] did so only out of their great humility, since they did not want to claim any renown for themselves until they received a direct commandment from Hashem.  Nevertheless, this was considered a sin, since it caused a breach in the emunah of Bnei Yisrael and a chilul Hashem, as we have explained.[21]




These are but a few of the explanations offered by Rishonim to understand the sin that caused the death of these two greatest individuals of all time.  All opinions agree that there sin was not spurred by any personal desire, but simply from a slight misjudgment in how to best fulfill the will of the Creator.  Nevertheless, as we noted above, Hashem is exacting with the tzaddikim within a hairsbreadth of perfection.


אם בארזים נפלה שלהבת מה יעשו איזובי קיר לויתן בחכה הועלה מה יעשו דגי רקק.


If flames fell upon the mighty cedars, what hope is there for sprigs that grow from the wall?  If the Leviathan was caught with a fishhook, what hope is there for fish who swim in puddles?[22]


If even Moshe and Aharon, who conversed directly with Hashem Himself, were capable of such misjudgment, how careful must we be in our own decisions to always set our eyes upon our path and weigh our every deed to ensure that it is indeed in alignment with Hashem’s will.


[1] Bamidbar 20:1-13

[2] Rashi, Bamidbar 20:12

[3] 20:10

[4] Mishlei 17:10

[5] Berachos 7a

[6] Rambam, Shemoneh Perakim, end of chapter 4.

[7] See Rashi 20:8

[8] Bamidbar 20:3-5

[9] Malachi 2:7

[10] Pirkei Avos 1:12

[11] Kesubos 103b

[12] Rambam, Hilchos Dei’os 2:3

[13] Bava Kama 50a

[14] Shemos 16:8

[15] Devarim 32: 49-51

[16] Bereishis 19:13

[17] Yalkut Shimoni, Bereishis 119

[18] Chagigah 15b

[19] Iyov 22:28

[20] Bamidbar 20:12

[21] Sefer Ha’Ikarim 4:22

[22] Moed Katan 25b