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Hashem is angered that Moshe hits the rock instead of following His specific instruction to speak to the rock. “Hashem said to Moshe and Aharon: Because you did not believe in me to sanctify me in the eyes of the Children of Israel, therefore you will not bring this congregation to the land which I have given them.” [ibid 20:12]. Here, Rashi explains that Hashem is saying, “Had you spoken to the rock, and it would have brought forth water, I would have been sanctified before the eyes of the Assembly, and they would have said ‘Just as this rock, which neither speaks nor hears and does not need sustenance nevertheless fulfills the will of Hashem, how much more so should we fulfill His word.’” [Rashi, ibid].

At first glance, this seems difficult to understand. When Moshe hits the rock, it still brings forth water. Given that the Children of Israel do not know that Hashem commanded Moshe to speak to the rock, surely, whether Moshe hits the rock or speaks to it, they see the rock produce water and deduce that if a rock obeys Hashem, how much more so should humans obey Him. What is the special significance of speaking to the rock? Why can’t the same message come across though hitting it?

  • One of the problems is that Moshe didn't follow G-d's command exactly as commanded. That's the main reason G-d was angry. Is the focus of your question why G-d was angry and why Moshe was punished, or is the focus on why did G-d ask Moshe to speak to the rock this time vs. hitting the rock as he did before? – DanF Jun 22 '15 at 16:15
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    The focus is on the kal vechomer and the result that was desired. isnt the same result accomplished by hitting? ie. that water came out of a rock? klal yisroel didnt know that Hashem told Moshe to speak rather than hit. – Shoel U'Meishiv Jun 22 '15 at 16:17
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    Explained greater detail in the comment below, but the basically the purpose of the miracle was to teach something new, and simply hitting the rock with the staff meant (to the people) that the "magic" came from the staff -- nothing they hadn't seen before. – Nic Jun 23 '15 at 15:27
  • Similar to @Nic, but in a different direction: using the staff means that they would need THE STAFF to perform miracles. Bringing (but NOT USING) the staff displays that the power comes directly from HASHEM, and that the dibbur of Moshe (and, by extension, anyone) acting on Hashem's behalf/command is, by itself, sufficient to perform miracles. I have a much longer answer that deals with understanding the language itself (lehakdisheini), but isn't well sourced. – Isaac Kotlicky Jun 23 '15 at 15:59
  • I don't get your issue with the Kal Vachomer. If a stone listens, without being coerced, how much more do should we. They will be leaving the Midbar and won't be getting instant rebuke anymore and they need this lesson to listen even without a stick. – HaLeiVi Jun 25 '15 at 7:43
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Rav Hirsch states that Moshe is to take the mateh in order to show that he is acting as the messenger of Hashem. However, hitting the rock with the mateh would imply that this is a special intervention from Hashem as a result of the uproar. Moshe is to take the staff "show them that you are still my messenger", but speak to the rock to show that it was Hashem who led them here and

... the required water was already provided by Hashem at the place to which He had directed them, and it merely required a word from Moshe and Aharon to the rock which would suffice for it to produce the water which Hashem had placed ready for them

... without any fresh miracle, simply with a word from you, you are to provide them with a sufficiency for their undeniably present requirements.

This manner of obtaining the water would have convinced the people of the deep wrong they had done in accusing Moshe and Aharon of leading them to this waterless place against the will of Hashem; whereas water gushing forth only as a result of a blow could still leave room for the assumption that their having been led into the wilderness of Tzin was originally a wilful arbitrary act on the part of Moshe and Aharon and only subsequently their justified revolt and their pressing need brought about the merciful miracle of Hashem.

Note that the first time in Beshalach he was instructed to hit the rock to show that this was an explicit miracle by Hashem just as the makos in Mitzraim or the splitting of the Yam Suf which also used the mateh.

Rabbi Sorotzkin in Oznayim Latorah states that the speaking actually was not to the rock but was to teach the Bnai Yisrael Torah and to raise their spiritual level to the point that they would have deserved the miracle of the water coming from the rock themselves (with no further action by Moshe). Moshe was to take the mateh as a "Plan B" only if Bnai Yisrael could not reach that level. The error was that he concluded that Bnai Yisrael could not be raised to that level and he required the explicit miracle of hitting the rock. This should have been delayed until after he had attempted to raise the Bnai Yisrael to that level.

Note that this also explains why Moshe Rabbeinu was instructed to hit the rock in Beshalach, since they were not yet at the higher level.

an amazing yalkut shimoni on the sin of mei meriva

Not to be missed among the many views of what Moshe did wrong at Mei Meriva is the opinion of Yalkut Shimoni (remez 564):

יען לא האמנתם בי ארבע חטאות כתובין כאן לא האמנתם, לא קדשתם, מעלתם, מריתם, לא האמנתם שלא אמרתי לכם להכות והכית אותו. ולא קדשתם לעיני כל ישראל להוציא להם מים מכל סלע שרוצים, מעלתם אמרת המן הסלע הזה, מריתם ודברתם אל הסלע שנה עליו פרק אחד ועברת על דברי.

The sin of “not speaking” according to the Yalkut does not mean not ordering the rock to produce water, but rather refers to the sin of not studying Torah near the rock. Moshe should have responded to the demand for water by sitting and learning! Hitting the rock to produce water undoubtedly demonstrated Hashem’s miraculous power, but it did not demonstrate the power of Torah, and it was for that specific crucial failing that Moshe was blamed.

the Hafla'ah on Moshe's sin -- mei meriva

We once discussed here the amazing Chazal that says the “dibartem el ha’sela” that Moshe was supposed to do instead of hitting the rock was to learn Torah. Chasam Sofer (brief version here at the end of Shu”T E”H 121, longer version in his commentary on chumash) adds another dimension to this interpretation that he heard from the Hafla’ah. Chazal interpret the complaint of thirst in Parshas Beshalach as not just a thirst for water, but as a thirst for Torah; the takana of kri’as haTorah on Monday/Thursday was a response to this need. No longer would there be “va’yelchu shloshes yamim b’li mayim;” no longer would there be three days without public learning.

The episode of mei meriva in our parsha occurred right after the death of Miriam. It was in her zechus that there was a well in the desert; with her death, the well vanished. The thirst of the people returned, but again, it was not just a thirst for water, but a thirst for Torah as well. However, this time around Moshe and Aharon were in aveilus for their sister. They could not learn torah or teach Klal Yisrael! “Lu gavan’u b’gva acheinu lifnei Hashem,” the people complained – had we died earlier, it would at least have been “lifnei Hashem,” enveloped by ruchniyus; now, we have nothing.

The Midrash says the sin of Moshe and Ahraon was not learning even one perek or one halacha to satisfy their needs. Explains the Hafla’ah, they could have learned perek “eilu megalchin; they could have learned a din in hilchos aveilus. There is never a need or an excuse to completely abandon learning.

The Chasam Sofer (al haTorah) adds his own two cents to this idea. Why in the earlier episode of thirst in Parshas Beshalach was Moshe commanded to hit the rock but this time he was told to speak to it? There are different ways to combat the yetzer ha’ra. One way is the brute force method – crush it into oblivion. That method is symbolized by the hitting of the rock that took place shortly after yetzi’as Mitzrayim. Forty years later a more mature Bnei Yisrael was ready to appreciate another approach to combating the yetzer – “mashcheyhu l’beis ha’medrash,” redirecting its energy to a positive goal. Moshe was supposed to engage in talmud torah to demonstrate that the stubborn rock could be harnessed for good as well.

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