Towards the final stage of the journey in the desert, after Miriam’s wellspring dried up upon her death, Moshe is instructed to provide a new source of water for Jews:
קַח אֶת-הַמַּטֶּה, וְהַקְהֵל אֶת-הָעֵדָה אַתָּה וְאַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ, וְדִבַּרְתֶּם אֶל-הַסֶּלַע לְעֵינֵיהֶם, וְנָתַן מֵימָיו; וְהוֹצֵאתָ לָהֶם מַיִם מִן-הַסֶּלַע, וְהִשְׁקִיתָ אֶת-הָעֵדָה וְאֶת-בְּעִירָם – Take your staff, gather your brother Ahron, and the entire nation, and you should speak to the rock before their very eyes, and it will provide its water. Extract water from the rock for them, and make them drink, and their animals too. (20:8)
But Moshe did not do this:
וַיָּרֶם מֹשֶׁה אֶת-יָדוֹ, וַיַּךְ אֶת-הַסֶּלַע בְּמַטֵּהוּ–פַּעֲמָיִם; וַיֵּצְאוּ מַיִם רַבִּים, וַתֵּשְׁתְּ הָעֵדָה וּבְעִירָם – Moshe raised his hand, and struck the rock with his staff, twice. Water gushed out, and the people and their animals drank. (20:11)
Immediately after this, Hashem berates Moshe, and informs him that he will not be permitted to enter the land of Israel.
R’ Shimon Schwab notes that the Mishna in Avos assures that someone who causes the public to improve and better themselves is saved from sin. Why was Moshe – “Rabbeinu”, ultimate teacher extraordinaire – not saved from stumbling?
R’ Schwab explains that it was no mistake. It was a calculated decision.
There is something in Hashem’s command that doesn’t seem to fit – וְהִשְׁקִיתָ אֶת-הָעֵדָה – making them drink. If there was water, they would drink of their own accord; what was the role Moshe and Ahron played in “making them” drink?
Perhaps Moshe made an alarming connection between what he was told, and what he’d experienced earlier in their travels. Moshe knew had heard this sort of instruction before:
וְהִשְׁקָה, אֶת-הָאִשָּׁה, אֶת-מֵי הַמָּרִים, הַמְאָרְרִים – The woman is made to drink the bitter water… (5:24)
וַיִּקַּח אֶת-הָעֵגֶל אֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ, וַיִּשְׂרֹף בָּאֵשׁ, וַיִּטְחַן, עַד אֲשֶׁר-דָּק; וַיִּזֶר עַל-פְּנֵי הַמַּיִם, וַיַּשְׁקְ אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל – He took the Golden Calf they had made, burnt it, ground it finely. He scattered it in water, and made them drink (32:20)
The sota – a woman suspected of adultery – is made to drink a concoction that would identify if she were guilty or not, resulting in her gruesome death if guilty. The Golden Calf water similarly clarified allegiance, causing a plague that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths too, as per the Gemara in Avoda Zara.
Moshe made a decision here. He identified what would happen if וְהִשְׁקִיתָ אֶת-הָעֵדָה were to take place, and wanted no part in it. They were on the cusp of entering Israel, and he did not want to see another plague take place. Another generation ripped apart! So he took the initiative, and engineered a way around וְהִשְׁקִיתָ אֶת-הָעֵדָה – which was וַיַּךְ אֶת-הַסֶּלַע בְּמַטֵּהוּ–פַּעֲמָיִם; וַיֵּצְאוּ מַיִם רַבִּים, וַתֵּשְׁתְּ הָעֵדָה. There was no making them drink, because וַתֵּשְׁתְּ הָעֵדָה. He had saved them.
In his farewell speech, he reminds them of the terrible price he paid for them:
גַּם-בִּי הִתְאַנַּף יְהוָה, בִּגְלַלְכֶם לֵאמֹר: גַּם-אַתָּה, לֹא-תָבֹא שָׁם – Hashem was also furious with me, for you! He said, “Neither will you enter”. (1:37)
Moshe did it בִּגְלַלְכֶם – for you! – he did what he felt to be right for the greater good, even though it violated what he was told, and bore a terrible price for it.
It takes a lot of knowledge to be able to weigh up the data to make this kind of decision, and should not be made lightly. The decision would still be legally wrong, and the perpetrator would be hounded and vilified; a vigilante. And the critics would be correct – the decision should not really have been made.
But a hero sacrifices himself to save everyone else. That’s what a hero is.