One of the most tragic incidents in the Torah is when the Jewish people complain one too many times for Moshe:
וְלֹא-הָיָה מַיִם, לָעֵדָה; וַיִּקָּהֲלוּ, עַל-מֹשֶׁה וְעַל-אַהֲרֹן – There was no water for the people, and they assembled against Moshe and Ahron. (20:2)
In his anger and frustration, he berates the Jewish people, and hits a rock he was supposed to speak to:
וַיַּקְהִלוּ מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן, אֶת-הַקָּהָל–אֶל-פְּנֵי הַסָּלַע; וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם, שִׁמְעוּ-נָא הַמֹּרִים–הֲמִן-הַסֶּלַע הַזֶּה, נוֹצִיא לָכֶם מָיִם – Moshe and Ahron gathered the people together before the rock, and Moshe said to them: “Listen you rebels! Shall we bring you water from this rock?’ (20:10)
In the aftermath, he is denied the ability to complete his life’s purpose of saving and resettling the Jewish people.
The Jewish People had complained many times during their existence in the desert, subsisting on miracle clouds, miracle food, and miracle water. Each time, they were made to suffer tremendously, through one plague and another. Whatever they’d experienced, they just wanted to get back to normal, to Moshe’s irritation.
Why was this time so different, that Moshe could not see his purpose through to the end?
It’s possible that it had something to do with Moshe hitting the rock he was supposed to speak to, but that doesn’t seem so egregious that he couldn’t enter the Land of Israel.
R Shai Held contends that it is possible that when Moshe saw the people gathering and complaining, he assumed that history was repeating itself, and calls them rebels. But perhaps there was actual merit to what they were complaining about this time.
The Jewish People were traveling through the desert, and the water had run out. They were thirsty. What were they supposed to do?
Moshe wrote them off and thought this was just like all the other times. But what’s interesting is that while Moshe grew furious, Hashem did not:
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 the rod, and assemble the people, you and Ahron your brother, and speak to the rock before their eyes, that it will produce water. Bring water out of the rock so you can give the people and their cattle their drink.” (20:8)
Being thirsty in the desert is eminently reasonable. It is arguable that Moshe was so disillusioned and frustrated with the people he had led for so many years that he couldn’t hear them properly anymore.
If that’s a fair reading of the story, then the story does not teach us that hitting the rock was such a terrible thing to do; it shows us that when a leader stops believing in his people, what mandate does he have to lead them a moment longer?
There are leadership moments in our lives every day. It is crucial that we nurture those moments by tuning in with sensitivity to the people looking to us for guidance.