Sunday, July 17, 2016

What did Aaron do wrong at the Mei Merivah?

Moses Strikes the Rock, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French, 1836-1902), gouache on board. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Much ink is spilled concerning the sin of Moshe at the Mei Merivah which resulted in his losing the opportunity to enter the Promised Land. But what was the sin of Aaron? 

As enigmatic as Moshe's sin seems to be, Aaron appears to do much less. He actually does nothing. So why does God group him together with Moshe for the same punishment?

במדבר כ 
(יב) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יקוק אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֣ה וְאֶֽל־אַהֲרֹן֒ יַ֚עַן לֹא־הֶאֱמַנְתֶּ֣ם בִּ֔י לְהַ֨קְדִּישֵׁ֔נִי לְעֵינֵ֖י בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל לָכֵ֗ן לֹ֤א תָבִ֙יאוּ֙ אֶת־הַקָּהָ֣ל הַזֶּ֔ה אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־נָתַ֥תִּי לָהֶֽם׃ 
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.”

I am not the first to ask this question. In Parshat V'Zot HaBerachah, Rashi brings down a grievance by the Tribe of Levi who question why Miriam and Aaron were not allowed to enter the Land of Israel.

רש״י על דברים לג:ח 
(ח) תריבהו וגו' ... תריבהו על מי מריבה, נסתקפת לו לבוא בעלילה, אם משה אמר (במדבר כ:י) שמעו נא המורים, אהרן ומרים מה עשו:
(8) תריבהו וגו׳ THOU DIDST STRIVE WITH HIM [AT THE WATERS OF MERIBAH]... Thou didst seek an occasion against him to come with a pretext, for if Moses said, “Hear now, ye rebels”, what sin did Aaron and Miriam commit? (why were they not allowed to enter the land?).
The sin of Miriam is beyond the scope of this piece since she dies before the incident of Merivah. But what of the sin of Aaron? Unfortunately, Rashi brings down Shevet Levi's question without citing any answer so we are still left to wonder.

Perhaps, one can discover an approach to what Aaron did wrong at Merivah by revisiting the sin of Moshe.

To summarize the story:

The people arrive in the desert of Zin after the death of Miriam and have no water. They complain to Moshe and Aaron. Moshe and Aaron go the the Tent of Meeting and fall on their faces until God appears to them. God tells Moshe and Aaron to take the staff, gather the people, speak to the rock, and bring forth water from the rock. Moshe takes the staff from before God. Aaron's staff which was kept in the Mishkan after Korach's rebellion. Moshe and Aaron gather the people, Moshe tells them that they are rebellious and he will bring forth water from the rock. Moshe hits the rock twice bringing forth water. God then tells Moshe and Aaron that since they did not properly sanctify him, neither of them will lead the people into the Promised Land.

Despite the myriad of approaches to Moshe's sin, Abravanel lists eleven possibilities, nothing seems to stick. God tells Moshe to take the staff. Moshe takes the staff. God tells Moshe and Aaron to gather the people. Moshe and Aaron gather the people. God tells Moshe to speak to the rock. Moshe speaks in front of the rock. God tells Moshe to bring water from the rock. Moshe hits the rock (twice) and water comes out. One could quibble with details which many commentaries do but fundamentally, Moshe appears to follow God's command exactly.

But perhaps this is the exact problem. Maybe Moshe should not have even been seeking God's command. With the Children of Israel in dire need of help, with no water source in a desert, perhaps Moshe should have been acting first and consulting with God later.

This approach is brought down by Rav Yosef Albo in Rabbi Meir Simcha's Meshech Chochmah1. He explains that Moshe's sin wasn't an act of commission but of omission. It is not what Moshe did that was the problem but what Moshe did not do. Moshe should have acted on his own to solve the problem and only then turned to God.

The Meshech Chochmah elaborates that this perceived fault of Moshe becomes even more glaring to the people when compared with the story immediately preceding this in the Chumash, the rebellion of Korach. During Korach's rebellion, for the very first time, Moshe acted first before receiving a command from God. When Korach challenged the leadership of Moshe and his brother Aaron, Moshe does not fall on his face waiting for the glory of God to appear. Rather Moshe issues a challenge to Korach and his men saying that God should make a new creation, causing the ground to open up and swallow the rebels. He "challenged" God to make a miracle, one God did not command. And God accepts Moshe's challenge, the ground opens up swallow up Korach and his crew and fire comes forth before God to consume the 250 men who were bringing an unauthorized incense offering.

According to the Meshech Chochmah, this opens up Moshe to a serious critique from the people. If Moshe was willing to act on his own to protect HIS honor, then why is Moshe not acting on his own at Merivah to provide life-giving water for his people. He should have taken the stick of Aaron which was placed in the Mishkan as a symbol for all future rebellions and acted on his own to bring forth water for his people. God would have surely responded to this challenge. The fact that Moshe did not and rather waited for God to appear to him and tell him what to do is a small lapse in leadership which results in Moshe's losing the privilege to lead the people into the Land of Israel.

I believe that perhaps one can answer similarly regarding Aaron. Aaron did nothing wrong in the incident of Merivah. But this was the problem. He did nothing wrong but nothing right either. 

When Moshe hesitated, responding with inaction when action was called for, Aaron should have acted in his stead. The fact that Aaron did nothing to help quench the people's thirst and instead fell on his face before God with his brother Moshe puts Aaron in the same category as Moshe.

This can be an important lesson for us. There are times when prayer is called for. But there are other times when one must first take action and then pray to God that he will follow. 

As God tells Moshe at the Yam Suf as the Egyptian army is bearing down on the Israelites.

שמות פרק יד
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְקוָק אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה מַה־תִּצְעַ֖ק אֵלָ֑י דַּבֵּ֥ר אֶל־בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל וְיִסָּֽעוּ׃
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.

It is this perception of a lack of taking action on behalf of the people, when earlier Moshe and Aaron had acted so decisively to protect their own standing as the leaders during the Korach rebellion, that leads God to choose a new generation of leadership who will finish their mission and lead the Children of Israel into the Promised Land.

1. I am beholden to Rabbi Shalom Carmy who quotes this Meshech Chochmah in his monograph in the Spring 2016 issue of Tradition. "The Sons of Korah, Who Did Not Die." Tradition 49.1 (2016): 5. Print.

You can view the source sheet for this shiur below. I welcome your questions, comments, and constructive critique of this approach.

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