1.6. Moses’ Alienation from the “Wilderness Generation”

We now have sufficient background to solve the final problem of Moses’ life story – the reason that the Almighty would not allow him to enter the Promised Land. As already noted, the book of Numbers explains this as the consequence of Moses’ disobedience: he struck the rock, rather than speaking to it, as God had instructed him to do[1]. But if we consider that incident and its consequences within the full context of Moses’ life story, we will see that his blow to the rock was only a pretext for God’s decision. The real reason for that decision actually lies much deeper.

Moses, in the course of the Exodus, lives in close contact with the Jewish nation whom he leads out of Egypt, and this culminates in his refraining from creating from himself a new nation. However, when the situation stabilizes and the Jews journey through the wilderness for forty years, Moses lives separately from the people, apart even from his own family.

After descending from the Mount Sinai, Moses’ face is radiant, and he covers it with a veil (34:33). He removes the veil when he goes to the Tabernacle to speak “face to face” with God, and also when he teaches Torah to the Jews, so that they can learn “face to face” with him how he himself communicates with God.

But when he finishes teaching, Moses again covers his face with a veil. Thus, Moses sees the people only during their study sessions, but he does not observe them in their day-to-day lives, for his face is then concealed. During all the years of wanderings through the wilderness, Moses taught the people Torah, but he had no actual communication with the people, even at a rudimentary level. He was unfamiliar with the new generation who grew up in the wilderness and had no knowledge of their challenges and aspirations. Another crisis[2] arises in the fortieth year, when after Miriam’s death, the water supply runs dry and the people again begin to murmur, but Moses incorrectly interprets their discontent.

When Moses hears the people say, “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!” (Num. 20:5), Moses is accustomed to thinking that the people want to return to Egypt. But in fact, the generation that grew up in the wilderness neither knows Egypt nor has any interest in returning there – on the contrary, it wants to enter the Land of Israel, having heard so much about it. Weary of their trek through the desert, they want, at last, to reach their final destination. Their description of the place where they hope to live – a place of figs, vines, and pomegranates – has nothing in common with Egypt, the land of vegetables and fish (Num. 11:5).

But Moses misunderstands the problems of the new generation and therefore improperly responds to them. When God says to Moses, “You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water” (Num. 20:8), the meaning of this instruction is: “Take your rod and speak to the rock; you will see that it will give water. Let this be a lesson to you, that you must learn to talk with the new generation of Jews who grew up in the Wilderness. The era of coercion has now ended. Just as you must not smite the rock, you must not smite the people.”

When the nation consisted of slaves who just had left Egypt, they had to be “beaten” – not in the physical sense, but managerially speaking. Giving orders to the Jews at that time was proper and necessary. They responded appropriately by obeying. But now a new generation has grown up, having different aspirations, and with whom one needs to talk – they must be heard and understood. God therefore sends Moses to speak to the rock, as a demonstration to Moses that even a rock can respond to instructions and give water. And by virtue of that lesson, Moses was supposed to learn how to talk with the people as well.

But Moses follows the usual pattern, just as he did immediately after the Exodus (17:6). He believes that there is no need to talk, only to smite. There is no sense in trying to understand people, because their thinking is wrong in any case. You just need to state your instructions explicitly. And so, Moses smites the rock.

The people do get their water, but Moses has demonstrated that he is incapable of managing the new generation, and that he can no longer be their leader. Upon hearing nothing more than an indistinct murmur from his people, an astute leader can correctly assess what is happening[3]. He understands the people’s problems, and does more than just give orders. Moses was just this kind of leader for the generation of the Exodus, but for the wilderness generation, who must conquer the Land, his approach is no longer adequate. And that is why God removes Moses from the helm of leadership, and not merely because he smote the rock. Moses has by now become “professionally unfit” to lead.

According to the Midrash, Moses asked God to be allowed, at very least, to enter the Land of Israel as just an ordinary citizen, and not a leader. But this too turned out to be impossible. Moses’ personality so dominated that neither Joshua nor anyone else could have led the people effectively while Moses was still alive. A new and different life requires a new style and form of leadership. Moses must therefore leave the stage.

[1] The reason given in the book of Deuteronomy (1:37) is quite different, namely, the people’s refusal to proceed to the Promised Land following the incident of the report of the spies (Num. 13 ff.). We will discuss this discrepancy in our commentary to Deuteronomy.

[2] It should be noted that the Torah has almost nothing to say about the thirty-eight years of wanderings. After the second year following the Exodus, the Torah’s story immediately cuts to the fortieth year (at the beginning of weekly portion Chukkat, Num. Ch. 20).

[3] For example, in the incident of the golden calf, when Moses and his disciple Joshua hear cries coming from the camp (Exod. 32:17-18), Moses immediately grasps what is happening there. But Joshua, still young and inexperienced, understands the situation incorrectly.


Bible Dynamics, VOL. 2. EXODUS Copyright © by Orot Yerushalaim / P. Polonsky / English translation of the Torah by the Jewish Publication Society, New JPS Translation, 1985. With sincere gratitude for the permission to use. All Rights Reserved.

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