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Beshalach: Strike the Rock

Beshalach: Strike the Rock

Nechama Leibowitz
reprinted courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel Education Department


Rephidim was the last in the series of murmurings reported in this sidra. In the first one we heard the Israelites bemoaning their fate when they caught sight of the Egyptians pursuing them (14:10-12). The second occasion was when they arrived at Marah (15:22-24); “they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter”. On the third occasion, when they entered the wilderness of Zin, they gave vent to their nostalgia for the fleshpots of Egypt. Here we have a fourth occasion where the people rose up against the Lord and Moses.

All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Zin by stages, according to the commandment of the Lord and camped at Rephidim; but there was no water for the people to drink
Therefore the people found fault with Moses and said, give us water to drink. And Moses said to them, Why do you find fault with me? Why do you put the Lord to the proof?
But the people thirsted there for water and the people murmured against Moses and said why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill me and my cattle with thirst?
So Moses cried to the Lord saying: What shall I do with this people? A little more and they will stone me. (17:1-4)

The above verses prompt a question. This is how it is formulated by Abarbanel: Why the duplication of “the people thirsted for water and murmured”, when the text has already alluded earlier to the lack of water and the grumblings of the people (5:2)?

Do verses 2 and 3 describe a gradually increasing sense of bitterness? Was their sense of grievance soundly based? Cassuto maintains in his Commentary to Shemot that the Israelites here faced the greatest misfortune:

“There was no water for the people to drink.” This time the situation was much more serious than that described in the two previous accounts. At Marah they found bitter waters, and later in the wilderness, suffered from a rationing in their diet but now they were faced by the greatest misfortune of desert travelers: water was completely unobtainable.

“But the people thirsted there for water”: this tells us nothing new but gives, according to the conventional narrative technique, a detailed account of what was generally stated in verse 2, explaining what the murmurings that the people directed at Moses consisted of.

According to this interpretation, the thirst alluded to in verse 2, is not to be regarded as a further stage in the aggravation of their feeling of thirst. They had already suffered from lack of water before coming to Rephidim, and there were therefore objective grounds for their bitterness, as Abraham, Rambam’s son has suggested:

Here their ferment was more intense than at Marah , because their thirst had become more aggravated, as the text bears witness: “But the people thirsted there for water “. Also at Marah they did find water, but it was bitter and they were, placated because Moses sweetened it. The very sight of water even if unfit for drinking is sufficient to relieve the parched; here however water was entirely non-existent.

But most commentators differ, regarding the dissention as an inevitable consequence of objective conditions of lack of water. Thus R. Eliezer Ashkenazi, in his work Ma’saei Ha-shem, understands their complaints to have been prompted not by actual scarcity but by the impossibility of storing it.

Evidently at Rephidim they had not enough water in their vessels. Their complaint was not just that they had not enough water to drink but that they always wanted to have enough in their vessels as standby. For this reason they had wanted to go easy with the water, not to drink all the water in their vessels. So it is stated: “They encamped in Rephidim but there was not water for the people to drink”.

The dissatisfaction of man with what he has, with what he is provided daily, his desire for an illusory security in the stores he has stocked up was reflected, as we have seen, in the Israelites’ attitude to the manna granted to them daily and only for the day, and in particular in the reaction of those who left some over for the morrow.

The reasons then for the people finding fault was not, as Cassuto makes out, the actual lack of water, which is, indeed, the greatest of misfortunes, but illusory need. This is how Ha-ketav Veha-kabbalah explains it, finding support for this interpretation in the actual wording of the text, in the anomalous Hebrew phrasing be mayim lishtot ha’am (“no water for the people to drink”). He comes to the conclusion from a comparison of texts (Numbers 25:17: zaroring”), that the Hebrew infinitive root form used here: lishtot has the implication of continuous action, in contradistinction to the gerund noun formation shetiya, “the drinking”:

Had it said there is no water lishtiyat – “for the drinking of” the people, it would have meant they had no water at all, not even in their vessels.

But since the text states “there was no water for the people lishtot – “to drink,” i.e. to keep on drinking from, the implication is that they had not enough for a continuous supply, but if they had wanted to ration their requirements, they would have had enough.

Both according to Ma’saei Ha-shem and Ha-ketav Veha-kabbalah the objective conditions were arduous, but not sufficiently serious to justify their outburst. Had they been willing to ration themselves, they would have had enough. But a more extreme attitude is taken up by Ha’amek Davar, who attributes their grumblings entirely to subjective factors, to the people’s lack of faith.

The text should have read simply “there was no water for the people” or “there was no water for the drinking of the people”. But the actual wording of the text implies that they were not thirsty at all, but the people said there was no water to drink, and Moses divined this and therefore reprimanded them saying: Why do you find fault with me, when you know I cannot do anything without God. If you wish, submit your complaint to God. “Why do you put the Lord to the proof”: Surely he knows that you are not really thirsty but that you only wish to put him to the proof.

We may now understand why their thirst is not indicated till verse 3 after they had already quarreled with Moses in verse 2, because earlier on, when the quarrel broke out with Moses “they were not thirsty at all but the people said that there was no water to drink”. According to Cassuto, verse 3 contains no more than particulars of what is referred to in a general way in verse 2. According to the Ha’amek Davar, verse 3 introduces a new stage not alluded to in verse 2. This is how Ha’amek Davar explains the connection:

“The people thirsted there for water”: the punishment of those who put the Lord to the proof overtook them, that they suffered real thirst, as alluded to in the Mishnah Peah (8, 9): “he who is in no need of charity yet takes, will not depart this world before he is reduced to the need of asking for it… and whoever is neither lame nor blind, yet makes himself like one of them shall not die of old age until he becomes one of them, as it is stated (Prov. 11, 27): “He that seeks evil shall get it”. In the same way those who grumbled of thirst without cause, gratuitously, were eventually reduced to it. With other generations the punishment does not come at once, but only in old age, whereas in the wilderness, the place of the manifestation of the Divine Presence, retribution overtook them immediately.

Only against such a background can we understand Moses’ reaction:

Why do you find fault with me?
Why do you put the Lord to proof?

If we accept the interpretation of Rambam’s son and Casuuto that their grumbles were objectively justified, or even if we accept that of Ma’saei Ha-shem and Ha-ketav Veha-kabbalah that there was at least, some justification, it is impossible to understand why their plea for water should have been called “putting the Lord to the proof”, According to the Ha’amek Davar, however, their murmurings were completely unjustified. Their demands involved the assumption that God was unaware of their real situation. According to this explanation we may readily understand Moses’ statement in verse 4, where he does not ask for water for them, but gives vent to the angry outburst: “What shall I do to this people? A little more and they will stone me?”

Moses did not use the affectionate term “my people”, as he did when he interceded for them after the sin of the golden calf, but the distant one of “this people”. The Almighty, on the other hand, understands the feelings of His people. They had still not shaken off the dust and mortar of Egypt; the taskmaker’s shout was still ringing in their ears and the swish of his whip was still not forgotten. His answer was full of compassion and understanding:

Pass on before the people and take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the rod with which you struck the Nile and go. And strike the rock and water shall come out of it that the people may drink. (17:5-6)

Two apparently unnecessary phrases in the above passage have preoccupied our commentators. What purpose is served by the phrase, “pass on before the people”? Two different views are represented in our commentators. The Midrash regards it as a rebuke to Moses for his impatience:

“What shall I do with this people? A little more and they will stone me”. Moses thus addressed the Holy One blessed be He: Lord of the universe! Whatever I do I shall be killed. You tell me not to order them about, but to “carry them in your lap as a nurse carries a suckling child” (Numbers 11:12), while they seek to stone me? The Holy One blessed be He answered Moses: Is that the way you talk? Pass on before the people and we shall see who will stone you! He began to pass before them. All the Israelites stood up as he passed by and behaved with the greatest respect and reverence. The Holy One blessed be He said to Moses: How often have I told you not to order them about, but to lead them like a shepherd his flock; remember it was for their sake that I brought you out of Egypt and on account of them will you find favour, grace, life and honour before Me. (Midrash Tanhumah Beshallah 22)

Rashi, with his customary pithiness, condenses this same idea into his comments on: “Pass on before the people”:

And see if they stone you. Why have you slandered My children?

The Zohar is even more explicit in its account of God’s defense of Israel against Moses’ accusation:

So it is always the case that the Holy One blessed be He stands up for the rights of the righteous more than his own. Here Moses complained: “Soon they will stone me”. God replied: Now is not the time to stand up for your rights but pass over before the people and we shall see who will dare to raise his hand against you. Are you in their power or in Mine?

But or Ha-hayyim regards this phrase not as a rebuke to Moses for his outburst, but as indicating the Almighty’s fatherly concern for Israel:

The Lord told him to pass before the people out of concern for the safety of the people, knowing that they were suffering from thirst and their lives might be endangered if they waited much longer. Pass on before the people so that they should thereby know that you are going to find water, in order to allay their burning thirst in the meantime.

The second apparently unnecessary phrase “with which you struck the Nile” has been the subject of comment by our sages in Mekhilta. Here it is as formulated by Rashi ad loc:

“The rod with which you struck the Nile” – What is the point of this phrase? But the Israelites used to say that the rod was only designed for inflicting punishment – it inflicted the plagues on Pharaoh in Egypt. For this reason the text states: “with which you struck the Nile” – let them now see that it is designed also for bringing good fortune.

The lesson of this is clear: Objects have no independently good or bad uses, neither have the forces of nature; it is God who uses them for His own needs, and man has only to fear God.