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Dvarim – Moses, the Rock, & the Spies

Jul 20, 2023

This week, we begin the book of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is made up of a series of speeches that Moses delivered in the final five weeks of his life. In the opening speech, Moses retold the story of the sin of the spies. As we recall from Numbers 13 and 14, the spies were sent to scout out the land, brought back a negative report, and led the people into a state of despair and panic. As a result of this display of lack of faith, God decreed that the entire generation, all those over the age of twenty, would die over the course of forty years in the desert. 

In his review of these events here at the beginning of Deuteronomy, Moses added the following:

Also at me was the Lord angry because of you, saying, ‘You, too, will not arrive there. Joshua, the son of Nun, who attends you, he will arrive there. – Deuteronomy 1:37-38

Here, when recalling the punishment of the people of Israel, Moses included the decree that Moses himself would not be allowed into the land. This is difficult to understand. The reason for Moses being forbidden from entering the land is well-known. In Numbers 20, in the fortieth year of the sojourn in the desert, God commanded Moses and Aaron to speak to the rock to bring forth water. 

Then Moses lifted his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod; and water came out abundantly, and the congregation and their animals drank. Then the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe Me, to hallow Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.” – Numbers 20: 11-12

Moses and Aaron were punished for hitting the rock to bring forth water instead of speaking to it.  The decree that Moses and Aharon would not be allowed to enter the land of Israel is expressly stated as a punishment for this sin, not for the sin of the spies thirty-eight years earlier.

Furthermore, a close look at the verses in Deuteronomy chapter 1 indicates that Moses claimed here that God decreed this punishment at the same time as he decreed that the entire generation would not enter the land, in the wake of the sin of the spies. This is difficult because Moses’s rock-hitting incident occurred thirty- eight years later. Yet here in Deuteronomy 1, the implication is that Moses was forbidden from entering the land of Israel as a result of the sin of the spies. 

To sum up: In Numbers 20, we see that God decreed that Moses would not enter the promised land due to his striking the rock to bring forth water rather than speaking to it as God commanded. Yet, here in Deuteronomy, Moses claims that he was forbidden from entering the land due to the sin of the spies. How do we solve this problem?

What is the connection between the sin of the spies and the sin of the hitting of the rock? The 16th-century commentator Rabbi Ephraim Luntshitz (Kli Yakar) explains as follows. The reason that a miracle had to be performed to draw water from the rock was that the people lacked proper faith. This is evidenced by the fact that God was upset at Moses and Aharon for not maximizing the sanctification of God’s name by speaking to the rock. If the people had perfect faith in God they would not have complained the way they did and a miraculous public display would not have been necessary.

The Kli Yakar addresses the question. He explains that the sin of the spies was one of lack of faith. The spies were failed leaders who caused the people to despair. Moses explicitly stated this here in Deuteronomy in his review of the episode 5 verses earlier:

Yet, for all that, you did not have faith in the Lord your God, – Deuteronomy 1:32

God said that He would give Israel the land. The people thought that this was not possible. God’s first reaction to the sin of the spies expressed this.

The Lord said to Moses, ‘Until when will this people provoke Me, and how much longer will they have no faith in Me, despite all the signs which I have done in their midst.’”  – Numbers 14:11

Because of their lack of faith in God, that generation was doomed to die in the desert. 

Thirty-eight years later, the lack of water in the desert provided an opportunity to restore the faith of the next generation by performing another “sign in their midst.” By hitting the rock instead of speaking to it Moses did not produce the maximum miracle possible and thus did not completely restore the faith of the people. This misstep by Moses allowed the lack of faith that was initiated by the spies to continue.

Rabbi Luntshitz’s approach does not entirely answer the question. Why is Moses at fault for all of this? Why is this enough of a reason to suggest that he was punished for the sin of the spies? What does all this have to do with leading the people into the promised land?

In his review of the events of the sin of the spies Moses mentioned not only that he will not be allowed into the land of Israel. Moses’s punishment is mentioned here in direct connection to the choice of Joshua to lead the people into the land.

Also at me was the Lord angry because of you, saying, ‘You, too, will not arrive there. Joshua the son of Nun, who attends you, he will arrive there. – Deuteronomy 1:37-38

Moses and Joshua had very different reactions to the sin of the spies. After the negative report of the spies and the ensuing panic, the Torah relates Moses’s reaction: 

Moses and Aharon fell on their faces before the entire gathering of the congregation of the People of Israel.” – Numbers 14:5

Contrast that with Joshua’s reaction:

Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jefuneh – tore their garments. They said: “If the Lord desires us, He will bring us into this land and give it to us. However, do not rebel against the Lord…” – Numbers 14:6,8-9

Joshuas re’action was to implore the people to not lose faith. Moses’s reaction was to all upon his face in despair at the lack of faith of the people.

Thirty-eight years later, Moses did not maximize the faith of Israel that could have been produced by speaking to the rock as God had commanded him.

Entry into the land of Israel required great faith on the part of the people. This project would entail fourteen years of battle to conquer the land. One of the primary characteristics required for the leader of this military campaign is faith in the people that he is leading. Perhaps, Moses’s initial reaction to the sin of the spies as well has his motive for hitting the rock display that Moses – as great a leader as he was for the People of Israel in the desert – displayed some measure of lack of confidence in the faith of the people. This lack of faith prevented him from leading them into the land.

Leaders must have faith in the people they lead. A leader who loses faith in the faith of his people cannot lead them to the promised land.

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki serves as Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation and is cohost of the Shoulder to Shoulder podcast.

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