כשהנער קטן רבו מלמדו ומכה אותו, כיון שהגדיל בדיבור הוא מיסרו, כך אמר הקב"ה למשה כשהיה הסלע קטן הכית אותו שנאמר והכית בצור אבל עכשיו שהגדיל ודברתם אל הסלע
When the child is young, the teachers instructs via striking the child. But when the child grows up, he should rebuke them with language. So too said The Holy One to Moshe, “When the rock was young, you hit it, as it says ‘You shall hit the rock,’ but now that it grew up, “Speak to the rock.’” — Yalqut Shemon.
What did Moshe and Aharon do to the rock that was deserving of punishment? On the face of it, it seems that events follow the same routine they have throughout the Torah. The people feel afflicted. They complain to Moshe and Aharon, who in turn approach Gd. Gd answers their pleas and directs them with a way to satisfy to the people. They carry it out, and things are fine until the next crisis.
But when Moshe and Aharon try to provide the people with water here, somehow they condemn themselves to punishment. They are told to speak to a rock, end up hitting it, and then are told they failed to sanctify the name of Gd as they did not believe in Him fully. What made them hit the rock instead of talking with it, if that was indeed the problem. The Torah is not clear how they failed, and commentators come up with a myriad of ideas.
The story is all the more interesting because it has an exact parallel. Moshe previously hit a rock and produced water all the way back in Parashat Beshalah when the Israelites first came to the Desert, as he was commanded to do at the time. What changed now at the end of the time in the Desert? The Yalqut says somewhat cryptically, that what changed was time. At the beginning of their “relationship,” the rock was a child that could understand nothing but force. But after years, then it is more fitting for the now older rock to learn through instruction. Hence the command to talk.
As the Keli Yaqar points out, rocks cannot really be described in terms of youth and wisdom of age. It is not alive that it would respond to being hit versus being talked to. It is obvious that the rock is a metaphor for the People. If so, then the Yalqut is hinting that Gd was ordering Moshe and Aharon to move the people beyond repeated cycles of punishment and begging for mercy to real rebuke and change. Why should Israel be hit a hundred times and not change its ways, when the right rebuke of words would effect a true change in behavior? The message was that Israel is grown, so to speak, and is ready to be motivated by love of Gd, not fear of punishment. Only then, could they form a lasting relationship with their Creator. In hitting the rock, Moshe and Aharon failed to see this.
But why should this be so? Were the people likely to understand rebuke? The people seem no more ready now than thirty eight years before. They still complain about food and water, and as we will see in the next parasha, they are still vulnerable to the temptations of idolatry. If the People were supposed to be ready for instruction, they buried it deep. It’s a small wonder that Moshe did not understand the message. Teaching must have seemed like a hopeless task.
Yet, it is definitely true that fear of punishment alone is not enough to cause people to behave. For after the punishment is removed, without any loyalty, people quickly revert to the old ways. The people are about to travel into Israel. They will need to find to how to live as Jews in the absence of miracles. If Moshe’s mission is to educate the People, then he has to figure out how to accomplish that before they get there. Whether or not the People had truly grown, Moshe and Aharon needed to instill in them a strong foundation for belief. Sometimes people need to grow up whether they have matured yet or not. Even if it seemed hopeless to teach them, there was no other choice. But for whatever reason, Moshe and Aharon couldn’t manage it. The rock was hit, and the People remained uninspired. The rock needed talking to, but hitting a rock is easier than talking to it.
It seems to me that opinions that say Israel was not worthy of having Moshe lead them into Israel, and therefore Gd arranged to have him die in the desert are saying the same thing from the opposite perspective. Israel did not reach a level of worthiness, and the leaders unfortunately could not pull them up. Therefore, Moshe and Aharon were doomed to die, rather than lead the people into the land. It is a sad end to their legacy. Without their guidance, Israel did end up lashed many times by the outcome of their choices before they learned from them.
However, all was not entirely lost. Although it came too late, it seems to me that Moshe did eventually impart some wisdom to the people before his passing. The Book of Devarim, Words, is essentially a speech to the People. He delivers a long-needed oratory on what Israel’s relationship with Gd should be and how it can achieve potential..
This story has obvious implications when we are teaching our own children and students. Very young kids might be motivated by love of reward or fear of punishment, though not literal beating, but these are only temporary motivations which lead to only a half-hearted connection to Judaism. There quickly comes a time that we have to instill in them a love of Gd and Torah for their own sake. It is my hope that we can all learn from our greatest teacher’s mistakes and dare to give the next generation the education they need.