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Talking to Stones or Hitting Stones: A Lesson for the People of Israel

mascettiBy Yaakov Mascetti*

The wanderings of the people of Israel in the desert should not be considered as a mere stage in a long process that ends with the arrival in the Promised Land and the conquest thereof: the desert is, or should be considered as, the manifestation of an unattainable objective, and a critically important element in the process of redemption and cleansing of the people from the yoke of slavery and paganism. While the Promised Land is certainly the ultimate objective of the exodus, it appears to me that we may want to carve out of the biblical ethos (and maybe also out of the modern Zionist one too) a small, humble place for the desert as a process, as the expression of a yearning, of a desire for the ultimate and unreachable telos: we need to focus, in other words, on the sense of extraneity, an unending sense of foreignness which prevents the individual from ever touching the endpoint of the process. The Divine commandment to love the stranger derives from the fact that, in God’s own words, “you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19), and is imparted on the people of Israel just before it crosses the Jordan into the Promised Land. We may thus speculate that for God the above-mentioned feeling of extraneity, of being a foreign all the time even when at home, is the proper state of mind for the Jew to have upon entering into the land promised to his forefathers. Within the security of well-guarded borders, both geopolitical and cultural, whether defined in a healthy way as in a culture that knows its own identity and respects difference, or defined in an unhealthy way as in a xenophobic culture focused upon itself, the Jew in the Promised Land is ordered by God that he or she was and is a stranger, and that whoever lives in the Land of Israel is, fundamentally, a stranger, a “ger,” and is thus called to love those who are aliens in his land like he was in Egypt.

The entrance into the Land of Israel is forbidden to Moses and Aaron from a specific moment on – in line with my introductory comments on the extraneity of the Jew is the Land of Israel, I would like to argue that there is something fundamentally wrong with Moses’ actions in Numbers 20, which God seems to be unwilling to introduce into the Land:

(Num. 20:1-12) The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there. The community was without water, and they joined against Moses and Aaron. The people quarreled with Moses, saying, “If only we had perished when our brothers perished at the instance of the LORD! Why have you brought the LORD’s congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there? Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink!” Moses and Aaron came away from the congregation to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and fell on their faces. The Presence of the LORD appeared to them, and the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts.” Moses took the rod 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, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank. But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.”

There seems to be a clear distinction between two possible approaches to the rock – there is on the one hand God’s commandment to Moses and Aaron, to speak to the rock, and then there is Moses’ actual behavior, ruled by a sense of anger for the rebellious Israelites, as he hits the rock twice with his rod. As opposed to the Divinely ordained use of a performative string of words (“order the rock to yield its water”), what Moses does is to interact physically with the inertness of the rock, and thus does not give space to the God-given speech-act.

Once Miriam dies, the people of Israel lose their fixed source of water, and in the middle of the desert this causes them to lose faith in the process. Instead of looking beyond the present state of affairs, beyond the hic et nunc of the desert, all they are able to perceive is the fact that Moses has not led them to a place with “grain or figs or vines or pomegranates,” but rather has brought them to “this wretched place”: what matters, in their distressed state of consciousness, is not the objective of the process, the telos, but rather the unbearable difficulty of the present. The contrast between the addictive stability of the Egyptian slavery and the uncompromising nothingness of the desert makes, in my opinion, the turmoil quite understandable. And yet I cannot ignore the fact that the yearning for stability, security, food, water, and fixed borders, is in a sense part of the impurities the Israelites carry with them out of Egypt, and which the desert and its arduous conditions are supposed to undermine and refine into an impossible and quasi-utopian dependency on Divine help. Instead of the Promised Land as a “place” characterized by the fertility and abundance of the grain, figs, vines and pomegranates, which is basically a substitute for the fleshly abundance of the Egyptian slavery, the Israelites are required to attain a different state of mind, in which uncertainty is the ruling core of the people’s daily life, in which questions (and not answers) motivate individuals to live their daily lives – in other words, it is not the commodity of the telos that should motivate one to move on in the exodus, but the exodus itself should motivate the movement. To quote Alejandro Jodorowsky, the question is the answer.

And yet, when the people protests and quarrel with Moses and Aaron, the latter fall on their faces and pray to God for answers – and God appears to them, and tells them to order the rock to give water, and thus to quench the thirst and fears of the Israelites. As seen above, Moses does not talk to the rock, but actually verbally attacks the people, calling them “rebellious mob” and presents himself and Aaron as those who have the power to “get water for you out of this rock.” Words are not what brings the rock to give of its water – the rod Moses holds in his hand, which is a sign, a token of Divine action and not an instrument of Divine will (there is much to be said on the snakes and the copper snake-form sign the Israelites are ordered to make to cure the snake bites, later on in the same parasha), is used to hit the rock, twice. The waters come out abundantly, but not as a consequence of Divine commandment, but because of the use of human force.

The Divine punishment comes immediately after the event.

“Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.”

In order to understand the apparently inexplicable connection of the incident of the rock and the entrance into the Land, I would like to refer the reader to the Maharal in his commentary Gur Aryeh, and in his Gevurot Israel, where he tackles this question in an very unique way. The Maharal sees in Moses’ hitting of the rock a moment in which the latter “abandons his faith,” for hitting the rock twice with a rod is an action performed with anger, and whoever acts out of anger “does not believe.” Following Rashi’s reading of the incident, the Maharal further argues that talking to the rock was meant to bring the Israelites to think on the power of Divinely ordained words, and to understand that if these words have that kind of power on rocks, then all the more on human beings. So the example of the rock would have brought the Israelites to accept Divine authority out of their own will, and not because forced by some smiting rod or by an angry leader. The acceptance of a Divine commandment is, in other words, the direct consequence of free choice, which comes with space, absence of force, and a verbal interaction out of which the individual is allowed to be who and what he is, and to choose, out of faith and freedom, the way and moment to comply with Divine orders.

The latter is, therefore, the reason for Moses’ and Aaron’s exclusion from the Land – there should be no space in the relationship between the People and the Land, for smiting rods, anger and forced resolutions of crises. Within the apparent stability of the Promised Land, the Israelite is called to live the word, to use it in order to elicit from the context a refreshing flow of dialogue, of change, and of questioning. For, to use John Milton’s words in his 1644 Areopagitica:

“Truth is compar’d in Scripture to a streaming fountain; if her waters flow not in a perpetuall progression, they sick’n into a muddy pool of conformity and tradition.”

Let us not forget to talk and not hit, to flow and not remain stagnant, and to give space rather than enforce what we consider to be the Divine authority, but really is the human reiteration or form of the Divine words.

(The Hebrew version of this piece will be printed in “Shabat Shalom”, edited and directed by Pinchas Leiser – for more information go to

*Yaakov Mascetti holds a Ph.D. and teaches at the Department of Comparative Literature, Bar Ilan University.