Wednesday, July 06, 2011

The Waters of Merivah - Punishment Commensurate With The Sin - What Sin?

Last week’s Parsha we read about the waters of Merivah where the people found themselves without water and clamored for Moshe and Aharon to provide it for them. Moshe eventually took care of the problem but his reaction was deemed inappropriate and was the cause for him and Aharon not entering Israel later. The Midrashim followed by the Rishonim discuss at length what exactly the sin that produced such a harsh punishment was and the reasons cover a wide range which I do not want to get into here. Rambam in Shemona Perakim (introduction to Massechet Avot) chapter 4 has a very unique approach which is strongly rejected by Ramban in his Pirush on the Torah. Although this exchange is quite well known I would like to focus on a detail that I have not seen discussed and I believe is a very important point that needs to be fleshed out.  

Here is how to Rambam presents his position:

ואתה יודע, שאדון הראשונים והאחרונים, משה רבנו, כבר אמר עליו השם יתברך:
יען לא האמנתם בי להקדישני לעיני בני ישראל (במדבר כ', י"ב
על אשר מריתם את פי למי מריבה (שם, כ"ד
על אשר לא קדשתם אותי (דברים ל"ב, נ"א
כל זה! וחטאו, עליו השלום, הוא שנטה לצד אחד הקצוות במעלה אחת שבמעלות המידות, והיא הסבלנות!
כאשר נטה לצד הרגזנות, באומרו: שמעו נא המורים (במדבר כ', י'). דקדק עמו הקדוש ברוך הוא: שיהיה אדם כמוהו מתרגז לעיני עדת ישראל, במקום שאין הרגזנות ראויה
וכגון זה באדם שכמותו חילול השם הוא, שכן תנועותיו כולן ודיברותיו, הכל למדים מהם וחומדים בהם האושר בעולם הזה ובעולם הבא. ואיך ייראו בו הרגזנות, והיא ממעשי הרעים כמו שבארנו, ואינה נובעת אלא מתכונה רעה שבנפש.
אבל אמרו בעניין הזה: "מריתם את פי" אינו אלא כמו שאבאר. וזה, שלא היה מדבר עם עמי הארץ, ולא עם מי שאין להם מעלה, אבל עם קהל שהקטנה שבנשיהם הייתה כיחזקאל בן בוזי, כמו שזכרו החכמים. וכל מה שיאמר או יעשה, יבחנוהו. וכאשר ראוהו שהתרגז, אמרו:
ודאי אין הוא, עליו השלום, מאלה שיש להם פחיתות מידה! ולולא ידע שהאלוהים התאנף בנו על דרישת המים, ושאנחנו הכעסנוהו, יתברך, לא היה מתרגז”.
ואנו לא מצאנו לשם יתברך שהתרגז או שכעס בדברו אליו בעניין הזה; אלא אמר: קח את המטה והקהל את העדה, וגומר (במדבר כ', ח’).

This comes in a discussion of the importance of self-control in the perfection of an individual. Rambam points out that Moshe, the master of all prophets (considered perfected individuals having attained prophecy) was punished, as the quoted verses make clear, in the harshest tone. Moshe and Aharon are accused of (i) not having enough faith which would have sanctified God in the eyes of the people; (ii) to have rebelled against His word; (iii) for not having sanctified Me. Rambam exclaims:

So much [punishment]?! Moshe’s sin was for having strayed to one of the extremes of a [human] trait namely equanimity, straying toward anger by saying “listen O rebels!” HKBH took issue with him that a man of his caliber should become angry in front of all the people when anger had no place under the circumstances. Such a behavior for a person of his caliber is a Chilul Hashem (desecration of God’s name) for every move and word of his is watched carefully [by the people] so that they can learn from his actions in their desire for happiness in this world and in the world to come. How can they countenance in him anger which is one of the negative [human] traits that stem from an unperfected personality?  I will now explain the meaning of [the accusation] “for you have rebelled against My word”. He [Moshe] was not talking to Amei Ha’aretz [ignoramuses] neither was he talking to persons who did not have a certain level of perfection; he was talking to a crowd where the lowliest amongst its women was at the level of [the prophet] Yechezkel ben Buzi[1].  Everything that Moshe said or did was analyzed [tested]. When they saw his anger they assumed that a perfect person like Moshe would not become angry unless God was angry about our actions too. However we do not find any hint that God was agitated or angry when He spoke with Moshe on this matter; all He told him to do was to take the staff and gather up the people.”  

This last sentence is of utmost importance. When we read the story in the Chumash, our first impression is that the anxiety and fear induced agitation that comes across from the way the people spoke to Moshe is misplaced and wrong. The impression one gets from the way the text reports the reaction of the people is that it is critical of them. Indeed, Moshe and Aharon felt attacked and it would seem almost fled to the tent of gathering from their wrath. However, according to Rambam’s understanding, that was not correct. The people had every right to be angry at Moshe for having brought them to a place without water and without adequate preparation to deal with that shortage. The Rabbis confirm this way of thinking. Several Midrashim (see Yalkut Shimoni ad locum) point out that God criticized Moshe and Aharon for sitting Shiva for the death of Miriam while the people are dying of thirst urging them to do something about it! When a problem faces people they are expected to act to resolve the problem and not turn to what I term misguided “Bitachon”.  The Midah of Bitachon is to have self-confidence and act after having become convinced that the action about to be undertaken is in concord with HKBH’s will and not refraining from acting relying that God will take care of things. Moshe with his reaction misinformed the Jewish people. He taught them an erroneous hashkafah - theology. That is the greatest sin that warrants the harsh punishment - loss of leadership after the goal was reached!

Ramban in his analysis picks up on this idea and seems to agree that in general there is no criticism of the people for acting anxiously when it is warranted. He however reads in between the lines that God was not very pleased with the people and also points to a verse in Tehillim 106:32 that clearly say that the people angered God during this episode. However a careful read of that verse in its context lessens the problem. The important thing about Ramban is that he does not disagree with the premise that it is appropriate for people to be anxious when they are confronted with a situation such as this and that it is required of the leaders to prepare for such eventualities. Even in the desert where the impression we get is that God led them and micromanaged them, ultimately the responsibility fell on the people and their leaders to provide for themselves.

I believe this is an important point that needs to be made in our contemporary society where the mainstream thinking is that frumkeit requires what I term misguided Bitachon. 

[1] Rambam refers to Chazal who say the vision seen by a woman slave at the Red Sea, was not seen by Yechezkel ben Buzi (at the vision of the chariots).  According to Rambam’s understanding of prophetic visions, these do not appear to unworthy people. A prophetic vision is the result of a person intellectually advanced and with a developed personality. 


  1. While I agree with your clarified explanation of "Bitachon", I find your explanation of this episode of Mey Meriva incomplete.

    You treat the episode as a generic instance of "needing to find appropriate means" to solve a crisis. This generic treatment seems ill founded.

    When crisis occurs under current circumstances, there is a reasonable expectation that the Jewish nation act wisely. "Acting wisely" implies an assessment of the crisis circumstance seeking a resolution within our understanding of the causal factors involved.

    Mordechai is a good example of this. When confronted with the existential threat of Haman, Mordechai considered the possible responses and worked through Esther for regime change.

    How is this comparable to the situation in the desert? What factors were the Jews to assess? The Prophetic workings of Hashem's divine providence?
    Were they to calculate the need for a miracle such as water coming from a rock? Such calculations are the province of Moshe alone.

    What basis then is there to compare the error of that generation with the erroneous notion of Bitachon today?

  2. RJS, we finally agree about something - Bitachon LOL

    You misunderstood what I was saying. The implied criticism is that Moshe failed in hios leadership by bringing them to a place without water and not preparing for it. that is how I understand the Midrash that God castigates him and tells him to stop mourning for Miriam while the people are thirsty. The people's anger at Moshe was not misplaced and his reaction made them feel guilty about it. That is the point here, I believe.

  3. I understand that Moshe should have prepared them. I do not see how this preparation would have been an instance of proper bitachon though. Bitachon is confidence that it is in the nature of His Creation, for a good human plan to succeed.

    Proper bitachon, by definition, requires a situation of crisis that one is expected to respond to in accordance with an understanding of material causes, as Mordechai did.

    Why do you apply the notion of bitachon to this case?

  4. PS

    I have Bitachon that we will agree about much more as time goes on.

  5. RJS -

    I was referring to the traditional explanation that the people sinned by not relying on Moshe and God.