• Light of Torah

Stepping down. Moving Aside. Moses' Leadership Struggles

In Numbers 27, the Israelites are close to entering the promised land. God prepares Moses for his death, reminding him that he is not to enter the land, with reference to an upsetting incident that occurred at the waters of Meribath-kadesh (see Num. 20:1-13). Here, with the help of Jewish interpreters, we explore the question of why Moses was excluded from the promised land.

The Lord said to Moses, “Go up this mountain of the Abarim range, and see the land that I have given to the Israelites. When you have seen it, you shall be gathered to your people as your brother Aaron was [i.e., you shall die], because you rebelled against my word in the wilderness of Zin when the congregation quarrelled with me. You did not show my holiness before their eyes at the waters. (Numbers 27:12-14)

Was Moses’ sin at the waters of Meribath-kadesh really so bad? Yes, we know that he lost patience with the people and struck the rock twice instead of once... but does the punishment really fit the crime? Over centuries of reflection, Torah commentators have offered diverse explanations. Review this incident in 20:1-13. Ponder the character of Moses, his past track record of leadership (e.g., at the Red Sea), the expectations of the people and the desperation of their drought-stricken situation. Then, let’s follow the lead of a contemporary commentator, Mosheh Lichtenstein. [1]

Lichtenstein directs our attention to three Torah verses (Num.20:12; 27:14; Deut. 32:51). Each makes an association between the events at Meribath-kadesh and Moses’ inability to bring about a Kiddush Hashem, i.e., a sanctification of God’s name.

  • "Because you did my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites.” (Num. 20:12)

  • "You did not show my holiness before their eyes at the waters.” (Num. 27:14)