וַיִּצְעַ֤ק משֶׁה֙ אֶל־ה לֵאמֹ֔ר מָ֥ה אֶֽעֱשֶׂ֖ה לָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֑ה ע֥וֹד מְעַ֖ט וּסְקָלֻֽנִי:
Moshe cried out to Hashem, saying “what should I do with this nation? A little more and they will stone me. - Exodus 17:4
עבר לפני העם: וראה אם יסקלוך, למה הוצאת לעז על בני:
Go before the people and see if they stone you. Why do you slander my children? — Rashi
וַיֹּֽאמְרוּ֙ כָּל־הָ֣עֵדָ֔ה לִרְגּ֥וֹם אֹתָ֖ם בָּֽאֲבָנִ֑ים
And the whole congregation sought to pelt them with stones. — Numbers 14:10
When the Jewish People went to Rephidim and had no water, they complained bitterly to Moshe about it. So vehemently did they complain, that Moshe seems to think his life is now in danger if Gd does not provide immediate water. According to Rashi, Gd seems to ridicule Moshe’s fears. Of course, the People aren’t going to stone Moshe. They are still essentially righteous and deserving. Such a thing would be unthinkable. Yet, it turns out Moshe was prophetic. For less than a year and a half later, in the wake of the Spies’ unfavorable report, the people immediately turn against Moshe and actually try to stone the leadership, just as he had feared they would. According to the Talmud, they would have stoned the Divine Presence, had such a thing been possible. How did Moshe know they were capable of this, and why was Gd so quick to tell him off when he was right?
The link between the argument here at Rephidim and the ultimate fall at the spies is explicitly made in Psalms 95. There the “hardening of the heart” and the “testing of Gd” at Rephidim is directly connected to the wandering in the desert that was the punishment for the Sin of the Spies. Their attitude at at the one directly led to the punishment at the other. Moshe knew, as Gd surely also did, that a people whose relationship with their leaders and with Gd consisted only of complaints and demands even as they continuously got miraculous deliverance from every situation, would never progress. No matter what the Jewish People experienced, they seemed to have no independent desire for spiritual growth or trust in Gd beyond the immediate situation.
Gd answers Moshe’s despair by telling him to go to Horeb with the Elders and bring out water from a rock. Go to the Mountain of Gd, where Moshe was previously promised that the people would serve Gd after going out of Egypt. He was to go there and prove that the water of life, both physical and spiritual only comes from Heaven and is always at the ready. This was a sign for him as much as for the people. The People are still Gd’s children, and the previous promise of worship on the mountain was still in effect. Maybe he would sadly be right. Maybe the people in front of him would never achieve perfection, but the promise and potential would forever remain. As the psalm says “For He is our Gd, and we are the people of his pasture, the sheep of his hand. Today if we listen to his voice.”