When a person becomes ritually unclean a red heifer is slaughtered and burnt. The unclean person is purified by sprinkling the heifer’s ashes, mixed with spring water, on them but the person doing the sprinkling then becomes unclean.
I recently came home from a long, hot and tiring trip to town and sunk into a warm bath full of bath salts and emerged clean and refreshed. However when I cleaned the bath my hands were covered in dirt and soap suds and it took a lot of time and effort to clean them.
Water also plays a part later in this sedra. When the Bnei Yisrael complained about the lack of water God told Moshe and Aharon to speak to a rock so it would bring forth water. Instead Moshe struck the rock twice and water gushed out. By disobeying God he failed to sanctify Him and was not allowed to enter the promised land, to which he had faithfully led the people for the last 40 years. This seems an appallingly harsh punishment by a God, who retains his mercy for a thousand generations.
The Rogatchover Gaon said that, in addition to drinking, the Jews needed the water of the well to serve as a mikveh. One of the laws of mikveh states that when drawing water from a stream or well to a mikveh, no tool that can become impure may be used. Only vessels that could never become impure (like stone) may be used in directing the water flow.
Moshe’s sin was that he took the wrong stick. God wanted him to hit the rock with his own stick, but in his humility, Moshe thought God meant Aharon’s stick. Whereas Moshe’s stick was made of precious stone, Aharon’s was wooden, which can become impure, so when Moshe hit the rock with Aharon’s stick, the water that flowed from the rock was not kosherfor a mikveh.
Until a few months later when the Jews found a different water source that was kosher for a mikveh, Jewish couples were not intimate with each other. This breakdown in the family unit was Moshe’ fault. Why did Moshe, our greatest prophet, disobey God?
The 5th Lubavitcher Rebbe said, “The rock represents Torah. Had Moshe (spoken and) not hit the rock, the Jews would not have to toil in the study of Torah. By hitting the rock Moshe caused the Torah to descend from its place of purity…into the falsehood of this world.” Striking the rock caused the Torah’s light to become concealed, making it difficult to connect with God. Had Moshe spoken to the rock, the waters of Torah would come out freely and flowing. One would not need to struggle to understand the Torah, for its light would shine openly and simply.
God wanted Moshe to speak to the rock so that God and the Torah would be easily accessible. Moshe, whose entire existence was about connecting Jews with God, knew that we must toil to connect, so he struck the rock.
Moshe and Aharon had to die before they could enter the Land of Israel. This was not a punishment, but the first step in the fulfilment of Moshe’s goal. Moshe and Aharonrepresented Godly revelation and this inspired people to serve Him. Living in their presence made it easy to connect with God. Moshe and Aharon could not enter the Land, so that their own plan to create a strong bond between God and the Jewish people could come to fruition.
Moshe sinned against God for God’s sake as he knew that in the long run the unity between the Jews and God would be more real. God would be glorified and served in an infinitely greater manner. In striking the rock Moshe made a conscious decision that, for the sake of genuine connection, he must disobey God.
By Anthony Warshaw