Much ink has been spilled by the commentators—classical and contemporary—to explain Moshe and Aharon’s sin of smiting the rock, but the matter remains quite opaque. Greater clarity can be gained by comparing the story of the smiting of the rock in our parasha with the hitting of the rock in Parashat Beshalach.
The first difference one notes is the term used to refer to the people. In our parasha that term is “kahal,” congregation. This term, in its noun and verb forms, appears seven times in the story of the rock, indicating a particular significance. In contrast, the word used in Beshalach is “am,” a people, and again, we find this term seven times in that section. An am is a collection of people united in some way; they are most likely related to one another. A kahal are people with a corporate identity. The act of gathering, hakhel, refers to bringing people together for a purpose, the hakhel gathering to hear the Torah, for example, or the gathering of the people by blowing trumpets. A kahal, then, is a people with a collective identity, with a shared past, way of life, and sense of purpose.
When the people left Egypt they were a ragtag bunch. Having shed their identity as slaves, the people had yet to adopt a new one. This is not only a new sense of purpose, but more fundamentally, a sense of self as an autonomous and empowered agent. It is therefore no surprise that, when faced with hardship, their immediate reaction was to return to Egypt, to retreat to the one identity familiar to them. When they complained to Moshe about the water in Beshalach, their complaint was simply, “Why did you take us out of Egypt?”; you should have let us continue to live our lives as slaves.
Now, however, forty years later, the people have developed a sense of who they are. This is true collectively and individually. On the collective level, they have entered into a covenant with God and received the Torah and its mitzvot, giving structure and meaning to their lives. They have also built the Mishkan and placed it in the center of their camp. They identify as a people with a Divine mission and with God in their midst. In fact, the phrase they use to refer to themselves here is “kehal Hashem,” the community of God, a phrase we have only heard once before, in the mouth of Korach: “Behold the whole nation is holy, and God is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves over kehal HaShem, the community of God?” This identity had been formed thirty-eight years earlier, and it was still with them and defining them now, on the cusp of their entry into the land.
They also had a sense of identity on the individual level. This was a new generation, one that had grown up free from the bonds of slavery and with a life of mitzvot, the very core of which emphasizes that we are free, that we live in a world of choices, and that we must choose wisely and correctly. This is why the people do not simply say, “Why did you take us out of Egypt?,” but rather, “Why did you bring the congregation of God to this wilderness?” (20:4), and again, “Why did you take us out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place?” (20:5). This generation has no want to return to Egypt; their complaint is not why they left, but why they hadn’t arrived. They want to be in a “place of seed, figs, vines, and pomegranates” (20:5), which is none other than the land of Israel (see Devarim 8:8).
Significantly, the people do not complain that they have not been brought to “a land flowing in milk and honey,” the complaint we heard from Datan and Aviram (16:13–14). A land flowing in milk and honey is a miraculous land, where God will provide everything without any effort on the part of the people, the dream of a people who had just been slaves. This generation, however, wanted to be in a land that must be worked, a land where they will toil, seed and harvest, and chart their own destiny.
We can now begin to understand the differences in the two narratives, and the sin of Moshe and Aharon. Here, God instructs Moshe to gather the people and speak to the rock in their presence (20:8), while in Beshalach, he is told to pass before – in front of and away from – the people, after which he performs the miracle in the presence of the elders (Shemot 17:6). Here, the people can be engaged, and they become participants in the miracle. In Beshalach, however, the people can only receive, and they can only be the beneficiaries of a miracle performed from afar.
Another key difference is the staff. In the earlier event, God told Moshe to take “the staff with which you smote the river,” that is, the staff that does miracles (Shemot 17:5). Here, Moshe is told to take “the staff” (20:8). As the next verse makes clear, and as Rashbam notes, this is none other than Aharon’s staff, which was placed next to the ark. This is not a staff that does miracles, but one that represents leadership, specifically religious leadership. The role of the first staff is to produce miracles, to show God’s power. God thus tells Moshe, “I will stand before you on the rock,” that is, I will demonstrate My presence and power (Shemot 17:6). The role of the second is to lead, to engage the people directly. In this leadership, God’s presence is less “front-and-center,” less overwhelming, and thus there is no mention of God’s presence at the rock. God will still be making it all happen, but from behind the scenes.
The rock is also different. In Beshalach, the rock was a “tzur,” a word indicating a hard, flinty rock and suggestive of a holy place (see Shoftim 6:21, 13:19). A little later in this narrative, tzur is also used to refer to the place where God reveals Godself to Moshe (Shemot 33:21–22), and it is even occasionally used to refer directly to God (see Devarim 32:4, 15, 18). The message is clear: this tzur will be a place of God’s presence, where God reveals Godself. In contrast, the rock here is a mere sela. This sela is a simple rock, one that carries no religious weight, where no obvious miracle will occur.
This we arrive at the difference between hitting and talking. Hitting represents force: forcing something on the people; talking at them, not to them; forcing a miracle on the natural order of things. Talking represents engagement: leading the people through discussion and persuasion, and working within the natural order of things. Thus, in Beshalach we read that the tzur, the hard rock, will “bring forth water,” a true miracle. Here, however, the sela, the soft rock, will bring forth “its waters,” suggesting that the water was already present in the rock and just had to be extracted. Similarly, in Beshalach we are told that the waters will come out – on their own, through the miracle – and the people will drink, while here we are told, “You [Moshe] will take out the waters, you will make the people drink” (20:8). Moshe must now demonstrate leadership and a way of living that does not depend on miracles but that demands from us that we engage the world, work within the natural order, and yet still continue to see the hidden miracles and God’s hidden presence.
This was the type of leadership and the relationship with God that was now required. The people were ready for this, not just because they were about to enter the land, but because after forty years living with God in their midst, this congregation of God had internalized their reliance on God and God’s presence in the world. But Moshe was not able to make this transition. Despite all the differences in God’s instruction, Moshe was still hearing as he had thirty-eight years ago. He calls the people rebels, perhaps because he hears in their behavior, in their demands for a land of seeding and planting and harvesting, a rebellion against God, a desire to break away from full reliance on God. Perhaps this is why he says, “Shall we take the water out of the rock?”
This is exactly what God told him to do, but for Moshe, only God could take the water out of the rock. It could only be a miracle. The idea that it would be a human effort—even one with God distantly behind it—was blasphemy for Moshe. But this blasphemy was now the proper faith. The people were not rebels; it was Moshe and Aharon who “had rebelled against My words at Mei Merivah.” (20:24). The new faith is one of God’s hidden presence in the world, and the new leadership is one that shows the people how to live as a free, empowered, and self-directed nation. This is what it means truly to become the “congregation of God.”