the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
What Was the Sin of Moses?
Prof. Moshe Zippor
Department of Bible
Several suggestions have been set forth to explain the episode of the Waters of Meribah (=”Quarrel”) and the extreme punishment given Moses and Aaron for what they did. On the one hand, the text does not state clearly how they had sinned. On the other hand, later references in the Torah to this episode appear to lead to interpretations in different and opposing directions.  Rabbi Samuel David Luzzato’s comment on this verse is well-known: “Moses committed a single sin, and the commentators compounded it to thirteen or more sins, since each of them fabricated another sin in his own mind.” Further on, he writes: “Therefore, my entire life I have refrained from delving into this matter, for fear that my investigations might lead me to a new interpretation, so that I too would end up compounding new sins on Moses.” Rabbi Luzzato presents several approaches, pointing out the weaknesses of each. 
Lack of Faith
In the Bar Ilan Parasha Page in Hebrew for Parashat Hukkat in 2003 (no. 503), Professors Nathan Aviezer and Hillel Aviezer reexamined this chapter, choosing to interpret the sin as a lack of faith in G-d, as expressed by the dubious query, “Shall we get water for you out of this rock?” The authors list other instances in which Moses evinced doubt about G-d’s ability to carry out things that appeared impossible, such as, “Could enough flocks and herds be slaughtered to suffice them?” to which G-d responded, “Is there a limit to the Lord’s power?” (Num. 11:21-23).
In terms of the story’s subject matter as well as its literary style (Num. 20:7-13), there is no substantiation for such an interpretation. Had that been the case, the Lord’s response would have been phrased in the form, “Since you did not have faith in Me, therefore…;” further, the Torah would have specified the way in which they lacked faith: not believing that water would indeed come out of the rock. Also, the words “Because you did not trust Me enough” (Num.20:12) could be taken to mean a lack of faith, but the continuation, “to affirm My sanctity” is then superfluous. Moreover, it is quite strange to assume that Moses could have stood before the entire community, doubting the Lord’s abilities, instead of voicing his misgivings to the Lord privately before going to perform a miracle before the people which he was not at all sure would succeed. He could have been ultra-prudent and hit the rock before the eyes of the entire people without saying anything, without bringing up the question of whether the rock would give forth water. If, in the worst case, it would not give forth water, the people would see his hitting the rock only as an expression of anger and despair at the harsh cruelty of the wilderness, and nothing more. Incidentally, what Moses said in Exodus (5:21-22), which Prof. Aviezer also cited as an illustration of doubt and lack of faith, were words of protest and accusation against G-d for what He brought on by sending Moses to Pharaoh, and not an expression of lack of faith.
Watch Your Words
I agree with Professor
Milgrom, following the medieval commentator R. Joseph of
According to the chronology in the Torah, almost forty years had passed since that wondrous deed that Moses performed with his staff.  Those who now witnessed water being brought forth from the rock had not even been born or at most had been babes in arms at the time of the former act. They would not understand of themselves that the wondrous act performed by Moses was actually an act of the Lord, and Moses did not take care to make this clear. Perhaps this was a unique opportunity to reveal the hand of G-d dramatically, and Moses did not have the wisdom to take advantage of this rare educational opportunity. Instead, he opened the way to mistakenly ascribing the wonder to himself, a mere human being. It was with this purpose in mind – to impress them with G-d’s miracle – that the Lord commanded the act to be performed in front of the elders and the people. Therefore the Lord said: “because you disobeyed My command about the waters of Meribah” (Num. ), for they had not done what they had been requested to do. The Holy One, blessed be He, “requires the righteous to evince hair-splitting precision in their obedience” (Rashbam, based on Yevamot 121b and parallel texts). 
Aaron also inadvertently became an accomplice to the sin. Moses said, “Shall we,” thereby including Aaron as well, and Aaron did not voice any objection. Aaron was also blamed and punished (Num. ).
This explanation is substantiated and reinforced by the words of the Lord, when He instructed Moses to ascend Mount Nebo to die there, “for you both broke faith with Me among the Israelite people, at the waters of Meribath-kadesh in the wilderness of Zin” (Deut. 32:51), and continued to explain how they broke faith (me’altem) : “by failing to uphold My sanctity among the Israelite people” (loc. sit.). The notion of ma’al has to do with getting unauthorized benefit from sacred things, as in Lev. 5:15 (an entire tractate of the Mishnah, Me’ilah, deals with various forms of misappropriation of sacred things). Moses and Aaron benefited, although not intentionally, from the glory of miracle-workers, even though the miracle was entirely the doing of the Lord. This was inadvertent misappropriation, yet it also showed a lack of sanctifying G-d and a certain measure of profaning G-d’s name, and it was for this that they were punished. Profaning G-d’s name is an incomparably grave offense, of which the Sages said: “Acting inadvertently and on purpose in profaning the Name are one and the same” (i.e., the law is the same for both cases; Mishnah, Avot 4.4; also cf. Kiddushin 40a). They also said:
Anyone who has profaned the Name cannot rely on repentance, nor on the Day of Atonement, nor on suffering to cleanse him; rather, they all are undecided, and death cleanses, as it is said: “This iniquity shall never be forgiven you until you die” (Yalkut Shimoni, Jeremiah, par. 269, based on Isaiah 22:14).
Moses and Aaron sinned inadvertently by letting slip words that missed sanctifying the Lord, but they did this publicly. The Lord pointed this out again to Aaron and Moses on the day of their death (Num. ; Deut. 32:49-51).
Perhaps in the expression, lo he’emantem bi (rendered in the JPS translation as “you did not trust Me”) the verb should be understood as a causative, meaning “you did not bring others to believe in Me.” In other words, for lack of thoughtfulness they did not take advantage of this special opportunity to bring the people to believe in G-d and sanctify His name. Not having sanctified His name, amends for this had to be made in the punishment that they received: “through which He affirmed His sanctity” (Num. 20:13).  Perhaps that is the reason the place is later (Num. 27:14, Deut. 32:31, and elsewhere) referred to as the Waters of Meribath-kadesh (k-d-sh = sanctify). Also compare what Moses said about the punishment given Nadab and Abihu: “That is what the Lord meant when He said: ‘Through those near to Me I show Myself holy’” (biqerovay eqadesh--Lev. 10:3).
 See J.
Milgrom, Encyclopedia Olam ha-Tanah:
 Samuel David Luzzato, Perush Shadal al Hamishah Humshei Torah, Dvir: Tel Aviv 1966, pp. 472-477. Compounding sins also happens elsewhere in places where the scriptural text is oblique. For example, the Midrash ascribes to Nadab and Abihu about 14 different sins.
 In Rashbam’s opinion, the staff mentioned in Parashat Hukkat was Aaron’s staff that had produced blossoms and borne almonds (Num. 17:23), and that Moses had been commanded to place before the Ark of the Testament, where it was “to be kept as a lesson to rebels” (Num. 17:25-26). Using the interrogative, “Shall we get water for you out of his rock?” does not necessarily indicate doubting; in this case it is used for extra dramatization, to catch everyone’s attention. It is as if Moses were saying to those assembled: “What do you think? Shall we be able to get water for you out of this rock?” and everyone was waiting with bated breath to see what would happen.
 This is explicitly stated in the account in Exodus (17:5-6). R. Joseph Bekhor Shor is of the opinion that the account in both places, Exodus and Numbers, refers to the same event. This view is also accepted by several modern Bible scholars.
 The date of this event is not given in Scripture (see Num. 20:1). According to Seder Olam Rabbah 9, and also according to Ibn Ezra and Rashbam, it happened in the fortieth year (also according to Josephus, Antiquities, Book IV, 78).
 The psalmist also emphasizes the people’s responsibility; because of their complaints and grumbling, they brought Moses to act rashly, without carefully considering his words: “They provoked wrath at the waters of Meribah, and Moses suffered on their account. Because they rebelled against Him and he spoke rashly” (Ps. 106:32-33), thus giving an interpretation of Moses’ words, “Listen, you rebels” (Num. ).
 The preposition bam here is ambiguous and could refer either to the waters of Meribah or to Moses and Aaron.