No leader lasts forever. At some point—when the mission is completed, or when the leader is no longer capable—leadership must be placed in new hands.
Moses, in this week’s Torah portion (Chukat), becomes so angered by the Israelites complaints of thirst that he calls them “rebels.” He then miraculously provides water for them by striking a rock. It seems, however, that he has done something wrong. God punishes Moses and says that his term as leader will come to an end. He will not be able to enter the Land of Israel because of his “sin.”
Yet, what was his sin? To understand what's going on here, let's look at the passage.
Yet, the people complained to Moses even at this low-point in his life. They told him:
If only we had died when our fellows died before Adonai! Why did you bring the community of Adonai to this wilderness for us and our animals to die here? Why did you take us up out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place? This is no place of grain, figs, vines or pomegranates! There is no water to drink! (Numbers 20:3-5)
It sounds very much like the complaints Moses had heard before from the Israelites (Exodus 16:3; 17:3; Numbers 11:4-6; 14:2-4). By now, Moses was probably used to listening to them say that they longed for the days when they were slaves in Egypt. This time, though, the people went further. They said they wished they had died along with the followers of Korach. They identified with the people who were swallowed up by the earth as punishment for rebellion.
Moses' life work had been to rescue these people from slavery in Egypt and to bring them back to the God of their ancestors. Despite the miracles they had witnessed and despite the horrible punishments they had seen for those who went against God, the people still rebelled and still wished to go back. Who could blame Moses for being angry with them?
God instructed Moses to take his staff and gather the people. He was told to speak to "the rock," which would then give its water to satisfy the people's thirst.
We imagine that this rock must be the same one from which Moses drew water in the past, the one mentioned in Exodus, chapter 17. At that time, God had instructed Moses, "Take…your staff with which you struck the Nile…and strike the rock and water will come out of it and the people shall drink" (Exodus 17:5-6). It should be no great surprise, then, that on this second occasion, Moses again struck the rock with his staff to produce the water.
Moses gathered the people, as God had asked:
Moses then took the staff from before Adonai, as God had commanded him. He and Aaron gathered the community to the face of the rock and said to them, "Listen, please, you rebels! Shall we bring out water for you from this rock?" Moses raised his arm and struck the rock with his staff twice and abundant water came out and the community and their animals drank. (Numbers 20:9-11).
Sounds great, right? Sounds like Moses, once again, had saved the day. Not so fast. Immediately after the people drank, Moses got the bad news. God told him, "You did not have faith in Me to sanctify Me in the sight of the Israelites. Therefore, you shall not bring this community to the land that I have given them” (Numbers 20:13). Ouch. For what? That's heavy punishment for hitting a rock.
There is disagreement among traditional commentators about the reason for Moses' punishment. Rashi says that Moses sinned by striking the rock instead of speaking to it, as God had asked. Rambam (Maimonides) says that Moses sinned by becoming angry with the Israelites, calling them "rebels." Ramban (Nachmanides) thinks Moses sinned by asking, "Shall we bring water for you from this rock?" Moses, says the Ramban, failed to acknowledge that it was God, not he and Aaron, who produced the miracle.
Just to make the story even more baffling, it ends with a mysterious verse: "These were the waters of Merivah (strife), for the Israelites quarreled with Adonai, and God was sanctified by them." (Numbers 20:13) What does that mean? How is God sanctified by these bitter waters?
No matter what interpretation one brings to the story, one thing is clear—the story shifts the focus of leadership away from Moses and toward God. Following this story, in the second half of the book of Numbers, Moses never again appears to be a great leader. He becomes just a spokesperson for God—never again performing a miracle or rendering a judgment.
Human leadership eventually fails. Every leader eventually comes to a time when he or she has served his or her purpose and must fade into the background. The Israelites needed Moses to get them out of Egypt, to give them the Torah, and to create order out of the rabble in the wilderness. Now that all this has been accomplished, Moses is just an old man, bitter from the disappointments life has dealt him, who lacks the energy take the people into the Promised Land. He has relied for too long on the same old bag of tricks and they just don't work the way they used to work. His time has come and gone.
Maybe Moses did not sin at all. Maybe, his punishment is not a punishment. It is, rather, just the way of all human beings. We grow older. We become set in our ways. We become unwilling to or incapable of adapting to new situations. We grow so accustomed to doing things in the ways that have worked in the past that we fail to notice new challenges or fail to rise to meet them. There is a sadness and a tragedy to that, but it also has a bright side.
Each generation has the ability to create its own models for leadership. The way things have been done in the past does not have to be the way they are done forever. Human mortality is also the key to human resilience and adaptability. Yesterday's leaders give way to tomorrow's leaders and, with each generation, we can look at the world with new eyes and to innovate new approaches.
The passing of leadership from one generation to the next might be seen as a tragedy for an individual, but it is not a tragedy for society as a whole. We are sanctified in moments of transition just as God and Israel were sanctified by the waters of Merivah.
Other Posts on This Topic:
Chukat: The Reason for the Red Cow
Ki Tisa: Moses, Anger and Parenting
Steve Jobs and Yom Kippur