In June of 1980, after a year of learning at Machon Gruss in Jerusalem, I returned to the United States. A few days after unpacking, I flew off to Venice, California to help run a Shabbaton for the Flame, a campus outreach organization.
We were spending Shabbat at a very funky synagogue whose entrance led right out onto the famous Venice beach. A number of us slept in the shul that night on its’ old wooden pews.
That Shabbat was parshat Chukat, and I laid down to try and fall asleep wondering about what I might speak about the following day. I had been thinking about the story of Moshe hitting the rock to produce water for the thirsty nation and being severely punished by God for his action.
Rashi explained that Moshe was commanded to speak to the rock and was punished for disobeying God’s instructions and striking it instead. This failure squandered an opportunity to sanctify God’s Name. The people could have thought,
“If a rock, that does not speak or hear, and that does not need to be sustained fulfills the words of God – then certainly we should do so.”(Rashi to Numbers 20:11-12)
Ramban disagrees and notes that since God had commanded Moshe to take his staff (verse 8) there was an implicit instruction to strike the rock with it. He compares this story of producing water from the rock to the plagues in Egypt and asserts that whenever Moshe took his staff then, it was in order to strike with it. (See Ramban’s extensive discussion on this passage in his notes to Numbers 20:1).
Sleep finally overtook me, but the story continued to occupy my mind while dreaming. (I should note this is the only time I’ve experienced something like this). Was it true that Moshe always smote with his rod in Egypt? I saw that this was not actually the case.
There were three occasions where Moses’ staff was taken to strike something, but three where he simply held it in his hand. Moshe’s staff was cast to the ground by Aaron to transform into a snake (Exodus 7:10). Later, Aaron struck the Nile with the staff to produce the first plague of blood (7:20) and later smote the earth with the staff to produce lice in the third plague (8:13).
However, to produce the plague of frogs, Aaron merely stretched the staff over the waters of Egypt (7:1-2). Likewise, for the plague of hail, Moshe just stretched his staff towards the heavens (9:22-23) and to bring the plague of locusts, he stretched his staff over the land of Egypt (9:13).
When I awoke early in the morning, my body felt stiff getting up from the wooden bench but I was eager to check the accuracy of what I had dreamt about. Sure enough, Moshe’s rod was not always used for striking. I sat for a while thinking about the different stories and realized there was a pattern.
Whenever the miracle was one where something that did not ordinarily exist in nature had to be materialized (staffs turning into snakes, water turning to blood and sand turning to lice), then just holding the staff was not enough – it had to strike something. However, when whatever was going to be produced did exist (at least potentially) such as frogs in the Nile, locusts and hail from the sky – the staff merely had to be held aloft.
I wondered if this distinction might explain the disagreement between Rashi and Ramban and perhaps at issue was what kind of rock it was. If there were a reservoir of water beneath the rock in the desert, there would have been no reason to strike the rock according to Ramban. However, according to Rashi, this might have been a rock with no natural water under or within it, so it would need to be struck to produce water.
Bringing this reflection closer to home, we can think about our own spiritual nature. What is at the core of who we are? Rabbenu Bachya Ibn Pakuda, in the Introduction to his classic Chovot Halevavot wants us to know that
“Wisdom is imbedded in and is part of our nature and mind like water hidden in the depths of the earth. The man of understanding will always search for it to the best of his abilities until he uncovers it, reveals it and draws it out of his heart, like one would to get at water hidden in the depths of the earth.”
In our own spiritual growth, it is important to remember that we are, by nature, spiritual – it is who we are deep down inside. Rav Tzadok HaCohen of Lublin famously taught that not only do we have to believe in God – we must believe in ourselves as well. We must realize that as people created in the image of God, we are innately spiritual and have tremendous spiritual potential (Tzidkat HaTzadik 154).