Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Hukkat 5766/ July 1, 2006

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



Of Rocks and Waters


 Dr. Gilad Sasson


Department of Talmud, Center for Basic Jewish Studies, and Safed College


There is a clear connection between the story of the Waters of Meribah [i.e., “quarrel”] in this week’s reading, a saga that took place in Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin, and the events of Massah and Meribah recounted in Parashat be-Shalah (Exodus 17), that transpired at Rephidim in the wilderness of Zin.   In both narratives the people demand water; Moses turns to G-d, who instructs him to draw water for the people from a rock.  The central differences between the two stories are as follows: at Massah and Meribah G-d instructed Moses to strike the rock, whereas at the Waters of Meribah He instructed him to speak to the rock; at Massah and Meribah Moses did what the Lord commanded, whereas at the Waters of Meribah, instead of speaking, he acted in diametrical opposition to the Lord’s command and struck the rock twice.   What is the significance of the different ways of obtaining water from the rock, and why did Moses do something other than what he was commanded?

These questions have been given a wide variety of answers.  Below we present one approach that appears in Yalkut Shimoni on this week’s reading (par. 763): [1]

“Order the rock” (Num. 20:8) – it does not say “strike,” rather, “order.”   He said to him:   When a lad is young, his Rabbi strikes him to teach him, but once he grows up, he reproves him with words.   Thus, the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses:  When this rock was young, you struck it, “Strike the rock” (Ex. 17:6), but now “order the rock”; teach it one lesson and it will give out water.

The homilist compares the rock to a youngster.  When the lad is still young, the Rabbi uses his rod to teach him a lesson, but as the lad matures, the Rabbi must set aside the staff and proceed to educate through words. [2]   So, too, at Rephidim, mentioned in Exodus, Moses was supposed to strike the rock, whereas at Kadesh, the story recounted in Numbers, he was to speak to it.   How does this comparison apply?   What sort of dynamics does a rock have?

It seems that the midrash saw a further metaphor in the rock itself.  The rock symbolizes the people of Israel.   At Rephidim, during the first year after the exodus from Egypt, the people were like a young lad.  By the time of the episode at Kadesh, forty years later, the people had matured. Indeed there is substantiation in Scripture for interpreting the homily this way.  The people’s demand at Rephidim is viewed by Moses and the Lord as a test that the Lord put to the people.  Moses asks the people:  “Why do you quarrel with me?  Why do you try the Lord?” (Ex. 17:2); and the place is called Massah and Meribah (“Trial and Quarrel”), “because the Israelites quarreled and because they tried the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord present among us or not?’” (Ex.17:7).  The Sages also note the people’s spiritual weakness in this episode:  “Why the name ‘Rephidim’? Rabbi Joshua says:  They were lax [Heb. raphu yedeihem, a play on Rephidim, means ‘they were incapable’] about the Torah” (Sanhedrin 106a). [3]   When such is the spiritual condition of the people, they must be treated like a small child and therefore Moses is commanded to strike the rock.

In contrast, at Kadesh the Torah does not view the people’s request as a sign of their lack of faith or their desire to try the Lord.  They indeed had a quarrel with the Lord there, but they did not attempt to try Him:  “Those are the Waters of Meribah [“Quarrel”] – meaning that the Israelites quarreled with the Lord – through which He affirmed His sanctity” (Num. 20:13).  The Sages understood this and interpreted the verse, “The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin” (Num. 20:1):   “‘As a body’ – upright and willing” (Yalkut Shimoni, loc. sit.).  In this the Lord saw mature behavior, and in accordance with this condition of the people He instructed Moses to speak to the rock, not to strike it.   Even though Moses was not supposed to strike the rock, he was commanded to take his staff, and thus the Lord underscores the people’s transition from infancy to maturity, as if to say:   In the past you were young and in need of the rod; but now that you have matured, it is no longer necessary.

Having explained the homily, it remains to be asked about Moses, Why did he not speak to the rock, but rather went so far even as to strike it twice? Was he not aware of the process of maturing that the people had undergone all those years in the desert? We would suggest that, unlike the Lord who sees all, Moses continued to absorb the people’s bitter complaints daily and therefore found it difficult to perceive the change that had taken place.  Finding himself in the same situation he had experienced forty years earlier, not only did he fail to perceive the maturing of the people, from his point of view he even saw somewhat of a regression, insofar as nothing had changed in their behavior over such a long span of time.   This situation frustrated him, and he took out his frustration by uttering harsh words – “Listen, you rebels” (Num. 20:10) –hitting the rock not once but twice.

The Lord viewed Moses’ inability to perceive the process of maturing that the people had undergone as a sign of the failure of his leadership and therefore His reaction was to say:  “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them” (Num. 20:12).

[1] Yalkut Shimoni, Heiman-Shiloni ed., Jerusalem 1986, pp. 437-438.  The same homily also appears in the Yalkut on Psalm 78, par. 819.

[2] Rabbi Neriah Guttel dealt extensively with the question of hitting as a means of educating in his article, “‘Hosekh Shivto Soneh B’no’?   Ha-Ka’at Yeladim:   Bein Halakhah le-Halakhah le-Ma’aseh – le-Darkah shel Mediniyut Hinukhit-Hilkhatit,” in Sedeh Hemed, 43(2000), pp. 110-139.  The article was republished in Shanah be-Shanah (2002), pp. 169-190.

[3] The next event after Massah and Meribah is the war on Amalek.   When Moses tells about this war in Deuteronomy he notes the lowly spiritual condition of the people at the time:   “when you were famished and weary, and not fearing G-d” (Deut.25:18).  This is the interpretation given in the Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Be-Shalah, Tractate Amalek, ch. 1, Horowitz-Rabin edition, p.176:   “‘Not fearing G-d’ – this applies to the Israelites, who did not have the commandments.”   Others [including the New JPS Translation of the Bible] interpret this phrase as applying to Amalek, for example, in Sifre Numbers 88, Horowitz edition, p.87.