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Understanding the Generation: Why Was Moses Denied The Promised Land?

Slaves Respond to a Stick; Free People Need Inspiration

    Rabbi YY Jacobson

  • June 29, 2023
  • |
  • 10 Tamuz 5783
  • Comment

Class Summary:

It is one of the most perplexing stories in the Torah. Moses the faithful shepherd, who has led the Jews for forty years, is told that he will not live to cross the Jordan and enter the promised land.

But why? Because he was told to speak to the rock, and instead he struck the rock. How can we make sense of this story? And how does it teach us about our role today?

Join Rabbi YY on a fascinating journey exploring two distinct models of influence and education, with timely relevance to our generation.

Dedicated by David and Eda Schottenstein

From Abstract to Concrete

There was a rabbi known for his constant preaching about the need to nurture children with warmth and love. One time he noticed some children who were playing in the freshly laid concrete outside his newly renovated home, their little feet leaving lasting impressions. He became irritated and started chastising the children.

A congregant asked, "How can you, a person who devoted his entire life to teaching warmth to children, speak this way?" To which the rabbi replied: "You must understand. I love children in the abstract, not the concrete."

Speak to the Rock

At last, the moment had arrived. For 40 years they had wandered together in a wilderness. Most of the older generation had already passed on. Even the beloved Miriam was no more. By now, the young nation of Israel was finally ready to enter the Promised Land, under the leadership of Moses. But an incident occurred that would transform the nation's destiny.

"The congregation had no water," the weekly Torah portion Chukas relates[1], "so they assembled against Moses and Aaron. The people quarreled with Moses, saying, 'If only we had died with the death of our brothers before the Lord. Why have you brought the congregation of the Lord to this desert so that we and our livestock should die there? Why have you taken us out of Egypt to bring us to this bad place; it is not a place for seeds, or for fig trees, grapevines, or pomegranate trees, and there is no water to drink'…

"G-d spoke to Moses, saying, 'Take the staff and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, 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.'

"Moses took the staff from before the Lord as He had commanded him. Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock, and he said to them, 'Now listen, you rebels, can we draw water for you from this rock?'

"Moses 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.

"G-d said to Moses and Aaron, 'Since you did not have 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.'"

The Questions

What exactly was Moses' and Aaron's sin? What did they do wrong? G-d instructed them to produce water from a rock and quench the thirst of the people. This they did. Why were they penalized?

The most famous answer is presented by Rashi. A subtle examination of the text reveals the nature of Moses' and Aaron's transgression. G-d told Moses to speak to the rock. Instead, Moses struck the rock (his brother Aaron complied). It was this error of Moses that prevented him from entering the Holy Land.

Yet, this explanation leaves us with many questions. Here are a few of them.

1) What compelled Moses to sin? If G-d instructed him to speak to the rock, why did he strike it? 

2) Does it really make a difference whether you communicate to a rock verbally or by force? The miracle is the same if you get the water through your mouth or through your staff!

3) Why was Moses punished so severely for this sin, as to be denied his dream to enter the Promised Land? A penalty ought to be commensurate with the sin!

4) G-d claimed that by striking the rock, Moses and Aaron failed to sanctify His name. How so?

5) Why did Moses need to strike the rock twice before it would emit abundant water? If G-d did not allow the water to come out after the first blow because it was contrary to His will, why did He allow the water to flow after the second blow?

Forty Years Earlier

Forty years earlier, shortly after the Egyptian exodus, a similar incident occurred. But in that instance, G-d told Moses to actually strike the rock[2].

Here is the story in Exodus: "There was no water for the people to drink. So the people quarreled with Moses, saying, 'Give us water that we may drink!' Moses said to them, 'Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test G-d?'

"The people thirsted there for water, and complained against Moses, saying, 'Why have you brought us up from Egypt to make me and my children and my livestock die of thirst?' "Moses cried out to G-d, saying, 'What shall I do for this people? Just a little longer and they will stone me!'

"G-d said to Moses... 'take into your hand your staff, with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold, I shall stand there before you on the rock in Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it, and the people will drink.'

"Moses did so before the eyes of the elders of Israel. He named the place Massah [testing] and Meribah [quarreling] because of the quarrel of the children of Israel and because of their testing G-d, saying, 'Is the Lord in our midst or not?'"

This episode might explain why 40 years later Moses was under the impression that striking the rock was the way to go. After all, G-d Himself commanded him once before to smite the rock in order to produce its waters.

But why did G-d indeed change His position? What is the reason that in the first incident, G-d instructed Moses to strike the rock, while in the second incident, He insisted on verbal communication? And the difference must have been so colossal -- as to jeopardize Moses' entry into the Land!

A Process of Education

It wouldn't be an exaggeration to state that over the centuries, more than one hundred different interpretations have been offered to explain this disturbing episode. Today, I wish to present only one, based on a Midrashic tradition.

This particular Midrash, known as Yalkut Shimoni, makes the following comment[3]: "Speak to the rock, do not strike it. G-d told Moses, 'When a child is young, the educator may [at times] hit the lad in order teach it. When the child grows into adulthood, however, the educator must rebuke him only verbally. Similarly, when the rock was but a 'small child,' I instructed you to strike it; but now [after 40 years when it has grown larger] you must only speak to it. Teach it a chapter of Torah and it will produce water."

This is a strange Midrash. What is the comparison between a rock and a child? And how are you supposed to teach a rock a chapter of the Torah? Obviously, according to the Midrash, the story with the rock was more than a physical event concerning an attempt to draw water from a hard inanimate object. It was also a psychological and moral tale about how to educate and refine human "rocks" so that they can produce water.

"A Rock Feels No Pain"

"I am a rock," goes the famous ballad. "A rock feels no pain, and an island never cries." So here is the question: How do you impact a rock? How do you transform a crude, coarse, and stone-like mind and heart to become sources of water, wisdom, and inspiration that could quench the thirst of parched souls? How do you open a sealed heart? Do you smite it or do you speak to it? Do you impact the rock by force or do you negotiate with it verbally, attempting to explain, persuade and enlighten? 

On one side are those committed to the path of discipline through force. They believe that the "rock" must be struck in order to give water. On the other side are those who embrace the opposite approach of empathy, love, and compassion. They choose the path of enlightenment and persuasion.

A Developing Nation

When the Jewish people departed from Egypt after decades of physical and psychological oppression, they were beaten emotionally and physically. Steeped for two centuries in the immoral culture of Egyptian pagan society and stripped of their human dignity, they were rough and tough. Recall Moses' cry to G-d shortly after the Exodus[4], "What shall I do for this people? Just a little longer and they will stone me!'"

There is a critical difference between slaves and free human beings. Slaves respond to orders. Free people do not. They must be educated, informed, instructed, and inspired – for if not, they will not internalize the message and will never make it their own. Slave masters compel obedience through the stick, either literally or figuratively.

Free human beings must not be struck. They respond, not to power but to persuasion. They need to be spoken to. The difference between G-d’s command then and now (“strike the rock” vs. “speak to the rock”) represented the souls of two different generations: Jews who grew up in slavery and Jews who grew up in freedom. You strike a slave but speak to a free person.

That is why the generation that emerged from Egyptian bondage was constantly rebelling, hollering, fighting, and arguing. They had simply been through too much trauma to develop a sense of loyalty, confidence, optimism, hope, and an attitude of trust. They had been beaten for too long. The first time Moses encounters a Jew in Egypt he is being beaten by an Egyptian officer. Ultimately, this generation was emotionally unequipped to conquer and settle the Holy Land. They died in the desert. 

According to the Midrash, the generation that departed Egypt possessed extraordinarily lofty souls, never to be repeated in our history. They are the founders of Jewish nationhood, the only generation to experience G-d face-to-face and enjoy His miracles for forty years. Their inner light was infinite, but the outer "rock" needed to be cracked. The "hard skin" they developed over 210 years in exile, needed to be penetrated before its inner vibrant and fresh waters could be discovered. That is why, immediately after the Exodus, G-d instructed Moses to strike the rock. At this point in Jewish history, smiting the "rock" was appropriate, indeed critical. 

A New Generation

Forty years later, their children and grandchildren, born and raised in liberty and in a highly spiritual environment, developed a sense of self quite different from their parents and grandparents. Forty years in the wilderness, in the presence of Moses, Aaron, and divine miracles, the nation had spiritually matured.

But suddenly, they, too, began to lament and kvetch about a lack of water. Yet a subtle reading of the text exposes us to a tune quite different from the tune present in their parents' cry 40 years earlier. This new generation of Jews asks only for water, not for meat or other delicacies. They do not express their craving to return to Egypt. Nor do they wish to stone Moses. They are simply terrified of the prospect of death by thirst. G-d was sensitive to the nuanced distinctions. He commanded Moses to speak to the rock, rather than strike it. "Now you must speak to it, teach it a chapter of Torah and it will produce water," in the above-recorded words of the Midrash. The Jews have come a long way.

The model of smiting must be replaced with the model of teaching and inspiring. At that critical juncture, Moses was unable to metamorphose himself. Moses, who came to identify so deeply with the generation he painstakingly liberated from Egyptian genocide and slavery and worked incessantly for their development as a free and holy people, could not assume a new model of leadership. Moses, calling the people "rebels," struck the rock. He continued to employ the former method. And he struck it twice because when you attempt to change things through pressure, rather than by persuasion, you must always do it more than once.

Because of Moses' profound love and attachment to that generation — about whom he told G-d, that should He not forgive them, He could erase Moses' name from the Torah[5] — Moses did not abandon his connection to them even at this moment.

That is why G-d told Moses, "You did not have faith in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel." Instead of trusting G-d's assessment of the new generation, and exposing their elevated spiritual status, Moses diminished their state of consciousness. Moses' place, it turned out, was in the desert with his beloved people, these heroic souls who began the march from slavery to freedom.

The fact that Moses was not destined to enter the promised land was not a punishment, but the result of his loyalty to his generation; he belonged to the generation that left Egypt.

Two Types of Stones

The above explanation will explain another curious anomaly in the biblical description of the two incidents with the water. The description for the "rock" in the first incident is the Hebrew term "tzur." The description for the rock in the second incident is the Hebrew term "selah." Why? In English, we translate both Hebrew words — tzur and selah — to mean a rock.

But in Hebrew, there is a significant difference between the two terms. A tzur is a rock that is hard and solid both in its exterior and interior parts. It is all rock. A selah, on the other hand, is a rock that is hard and rocky on its outside, but its interior contains water or moisture[6].

When you are dealing with a "rock" that has no moisture stored in it, you have no choice but to smite it. However, when you are confronted with a rock that is merely rocky on the outside but soft on the inside, you have no right to smite it. Now, you must speak to it and inspire it to reveal its internal waters of wisdom, love, and inspiration.

Understanding the Generation

Leaders, parents, and educators must always understand and feel the zeitgeist of their generation. There is a time when you can strike the rock, and there is a time when you must talk to the rock. 

To be sure, discipline is important and vital. It fosters self-confidence and responsibility, but only when it follows genuine love, safety, and attachment. If my child and student do not feel understood, celebrated, cherished, and safe, all forms of emotional striking might cause the rock to retreat behind heavier layers of rockness. You defeat your objective. 

In the wise words of King Solomon[7]: "There is a time for everything under the heaven… A time to kill and a time to heal; a time to wreck and a time to build… A time to embrace and a time to shun embrace… A time to love and a time to loathe; a time for war and a time for peace." May we add: A time for smiting a rock and a time for speaking to a rock. We must always be ready to change our vision and mentality based on the reality confronting us.

When the opportunity is ripe for love and respect, when you see that you can change reality through education, enlightenment, and words, you must employ this path with the same vigor and passion that you employed previously the method of coercion. Only then can you mold a generation that is ready to change the world and enter their Promised Land. 

(This essay is based on a discourse by the Tzemach Tzedek, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of Lubavitch, the third Chabad Rebbe (1789-1866); and on a discourse of the year 1872 by his youngest son, Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch, the fourth Lubavitcher Rebbe (1834-1882); and on a discourse of 1909 by his son, the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Dovber of Lubavitch (1860-1920) [8]). 


[1] Numbers 20 2:12.
[2] Exodus 17:2-7.
[3] Yalkut Shimoni Chukas Remez 763 toward the end. This book is one of the most popular early Midrashic collections on the Bible, compiled by Rabbi Shimon Ashkenazi HaDarshan of Frankfurt (circa 1260). Many Midrashim are known only because they are cited in this work.
[4] Exodus 17:2-7.
[5] Exodus 32:32.
[6] An interesting observation only demonstrates the extraordinary meticulousness of the Hebrew tongue. The word selah is comprised of three Hebrew letters, samach, lamed and ayin. Now, when you spell out the letter samach fully, the middle letter will be mem. When you spell out the letter lamed, the middle letter is mem. Finally, when you spell out ayin, the middle letter is yud. Together they make up the word mayim, which means water. This represents the fact that the selah is only rock on its outside. But if you probe its strata, and you reach its most inner point, you will encounter water. (Beer Mayim Chaim Chukas).
[7] Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.
[8] These discourses are published in Or HaTorah Chukas; Sefer Hamaamarim 5632 vol. 2 Parshas Chukas; Sefer Hamaamarim 5669 Parshas Chukas. Some of their ideas may be based on Klei Yakar's final explanation of this episode (Klei Yakar to Numbers Ibid.).

Please leave your comment below!

  • S

    Sasha -7 years ago

    there's a famous book called "The Fourth Turning" it talks about a cycle of 4 different generations in American history: "Hero", "Artist", "Prophet" and "Nomad". Each generation takes about 20 years. I believe the authors place Moses in the generation of "Prophets" and Joshua in the generation of "Heroes": https://books.google.com/bo...

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

Essay Parshas Chukas

Rabbi YY Jacobson
  • June 29, 2023
  • |
  • 10 Tamuz 5783
  • |
  • Comment

Dedicated by David and Eda Schottenstein

Class Summary:

It is one of the most perplexing stories in the Torah. Moses the faithful shepherd, who has led the Jews for forty years, is told that he will not live to cross the Jordan and enter the promised land.

But why? Because he was told to speak to the rock, and instead he struck the rock. How can we make sense of this story? And how does it teach us about our role today?

Join Rabbi YY on a fascinating journey exploring two distinct models of influence and education, with timely relevance to our generation.

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