Seizing the Opportunity to Sanctify God's name
Numbers 20 presents a fascinating story, the story of the death of Miriam and the subsequent loss of water. “And the nation settled in Kadesh and Miriam died there and was buried there. Now there was no water for the nation.” (Numbers 20:1-2)
Clearly, Miriam’s life is associated with water; upon her death, there is a sudden lack of water. This association with water is actually seen earlier, just after the parting of the Red Sea. Immediately after Miriam’s song of praise to G-d, upon the plentiful Red Sea that has drowned the Egyptian enemies, there is a lack of drinking water. (Exodus 15:22-25) G-d then provides the water needed for drinking which remains plentiful until Miriam’s death.
Then begins the story of Moses and Aaron bringing forth water from the rock, that has had centuries of Bible scholars puzzled. What exactly did Moses and Aaron do wrong to have warranted G-d’s terrible wrath and punishment: “Because you have not believed in me to sanctify me before the Children of Israel, therefore, you will not bring this congregation to the land that I have given to them.” (Numbers 20:12)
Some commentators have noted the difference between G-d’s commandment to Moses and Aaron to speak to the rock and Moses and Aaron’s actual action, which included hitting the rock. Because Moses and Aaron had assembled the entire nation of Israel and were about to demonstrate a tremendous miracle of G-d, bringing water from a dry rock, it was vital that they obey the letter of G-d’s instruction, so as to ensure the miracle exactly as G-d had intended.
I have always been troubled by this interpretation. After all, going to Israel is what Moses and Aaron had dreamed of and remained loyal to more than anyone else in the nation. To deprive them of this dream for such a technical error seems difficult to understand.
I would like to suggest a slightly different interpretation. Yes, the fact that Moses and Aaron had gathered the entire nation to witness the miracle is critical. For it is moments like these that can make all the difference — the difference between a tremendous sanctification of G-d’s name and the absence of such sanctification. Pay attention to what Moses actually says to the nation: “Will we not draw you water from this rock?” They don’t say — watch how G-d will draw water from this rock, but rather, “we” will draw water. They missed the point — and they missed a tremendous opportunity to sanctify G-d’s name. They hit the rock and made it look as if there were some magical powers in the staff that made the rock bring forth the water. When actually, this was G-d’s doing.
There is no question in my mind that Moses and Aaron were well aware that it was G-d’s miracle that they were taking part in. But they missed the opportunity to demonstrate that in no uncertain terms to the children of Israel. And that is the meaning of G-d’s statement to them: “You have not believed in me to sanctify me before the Children of Israel.”
This is a powerful lesson, indeed. For it behooves us all, as human beings, to recognize G-d’s hand in daily events in our lives and in the lives of nations. And we must declare that hand of G-d, not just understand it within our own selves. I believe that the victories that Israel has experienced in the many wars against her, especially during Israel’s War of Independence, when Israel survived as a new state, and the Six Day War, when Israel regained control of the heart of biblical Israel, were miracles, direct gifts from G-d. Perhaps if more of us were to declare that in public, in recognition of what G-d has given us, He would enable us not only to enter the land but to dwell there in peace and security.
Shabbat Shalom from Israel,
Sondra Oster Baras
Director, Israel Office