Chukas – Frustration: OK, Anger: Not

The passing of Miriam in this week’s Torah portion of Chukas was the catalyst for Moshe’s notorious sin of hitting the rock. As the Torah says, “The entire congregation of the Children of Israel arrived at the desert of Zin in the first month, and the people settled in Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there. The congregation had no water; so they assembled against Moshe and Aharon. The people quarreled with Moshe, and they said, ‘If only we had died with the death of our brothers before Hashem…’Moshe and Aharon moved away from the assembly to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they fell on their faces. [Then] the Glory of Hashem appeared to them. Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: ‘Take the staff and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aharon, and speak to the rock in their presence so that it will give forth its water. You shall bring forth water for them from the rock and give the congregation and their livestock to drink.’ Moshe took the staff from before Hashem as He had commanded him…Moshe raised his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, when an abundance of water gushed forth, and the congregation and their livestock drank. Hashem said to Moshe and Aharon, ‘Since you did not imbue faith in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the Land which I have given them’” (Bamidbar 20:1-12).
There are many lessons the Ralbag learns from this episode in the desert and by putting it all together we will, b’ezras Hashem [with G-D’s help], learn an important lesson. When Miriam passed away the Ralbag says that when one person from a group dies the whole group should be worried. For we see that when Miriam died, immediately the [potential] for death was decreed on her brothers even though they were of such great stature, to the extent that they both died within a month of each other. As was explained in the Torah and in the Prophet Yehoshua, that Moshe didn’t live more than a month after Aharon passed away. Aharon died on the first of the month of Shevat in the 40th year of traveling in the desert as explicitly stated in parshas Massei (33:38), and Moshe died on the first of the month of Adar as stated in the Torah (Devarim 34:5-8) and in the Prophet Yehoshua, as Chazal explain. (There is an argument between the Medrish Rabba Esther 7:11 who says Moshe was born and died on the first of Adar and the Gemara in Megilla 13b who says that Moshe was born and died on the seventh of Adar. The Ralbag seems to be siding with the Medrish, but either way they all died in close proximity to each other.)
The Ralbag learns another lesson; that one should feel distressed over the death of the righteous because their passing makes an impact. We saw that when Miriam died the water from the rock, known as the Well of Miriam, which previously delivered water to the entire nation, stopped doing so. A similar thing happened when Aharon passed away; in whose merit there were the Clouds of Glory. This impacted the lives of all the Jews, even though Moshe Rabbeinu, the master of all the prophets, was still alive at the time!
This being the case, after Miriam passed away, the water ceased coming forth from “the well,” and the Jewish people began to complain of terrible thirst. Hashem was not upset at them over a lack of faith in Him and in fact the lesson the Ralbag learns from here is that “it’s unfitting to denigrate a person very much for blurting out inappropriate words in times of pain, loss, and injury. For when the Jews were experiencing great suffering due to thirst and were afraid of dying, they lashed out with very harsh words against Moshe, and we don’t find that they were punished for this. On the contrary, Hashem wanted to give them water in the fashion explicitly mentioned in the pesukim above.”
Yet when it comes to Moshe Rabbeinu hitting the rock, the Torah states that before doing so Moshe told the Jewish people, “Now listen, you rebels, can we draw water for you from this rock” (Bamidbar 20:10)? Moshe was punished and lost his right to live and lead the Jewish People into the Land of Israel. And the Ralbag learns from here that “a person should distance himself from the attribute of anger, as anger was the reason why Moshe didn’t execute Hashem’s intentions perfectly, as commanded. Even though he was of such a great height, and reached such greatness in perfection of his character. Hashem had said to speak to the rock and it would bring forth water. As a result of his action, bad things continued for the Jews with the fact that harm came to their prophet.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
We have to put into perspective what took place. Everything started with Miriam’s passing, which left a void on the Jews, who in her merit had been given water.  For this reason, Hashem overlooked any offensive rhetoric that was inappropriately lashed out at His prophet Moshe Rabbeinu, and even planned a great miracle for the water to return. However, what must also be taken into account is that Moshe was in the same plight, and he felt even more pressure knowing the concept that he should be worried once someone in his group, one of his sibling in this case, had passed on. It seems in fact that the mazel of Moshe and Aharon was susceptible, and they were tested to see if they would be deserving of severe punishment. That was probably troubling and on the forefront of Moshe’s mind, in addition to mourning the great loss of his sister. That being the case, then wasn’t Moshe in the same position as the rest of the Jewish people, in a state of agony and pain? So he also should have been exempt from any punishment for acting and speaking rashly?
Yet he was punished, and the Ralbag does not say it was because on his level Hashem judges stricter; rather the Ralbag says it was due to his anger. It must have been that on some miniscule level, Moshe let anger enter his heart, which allowed him to speak and act as he did, which minimized the miracle that could have taken place, which “impacted” Hashem’s goal.
We see from here that there is a difference between being angry and being agitated. Moshe slightly crossed the line into feeling anger and that caused him not to fulfill Hashem’s will with exactitude. (It must also be that because Aharon was standing right there at the time, next to Moshe, and didn’t make sure that Moshe executed Hashem’s instructions perfectly, so he was also punished with Moshe. We see this in the Ralbag, lesson 9, later on).
Good Shabbos,
Rabbi Dovid Shmuel Milder