After nearly 40 years of leading the people through the wilderness, Moses engages in entirely unexpected behavior on the occasion of a lack of water at Kadesh.
God tells him and Aaron to take a rod, assemble the people, order a rock to yield water to the people before their very eyes, and the water would flow.
Instead, Moses challenges the people, “listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” He then raises his hand, strikes the rock twice, and out comes water.
For this apparent failure to affirm Divine sanctity, God decrees that Moses would not lead the people into the promised land.
Sages throughout time have offered explanations for this seemingly harsh penalty.
Some say that Moses had consistently been a model for the people as one who led in faith and duty to God, but, for some reason, he did not do so here.
Others go to the details of the story to see how Moses broke with God’s word – whether because of habit or anger. Moses strikes, rather than speaks to, the rock – thus, acting explicitly in a manner contrary to God’s intent.
Yet others look beneath the literal surface of the story to find deeper truth. For them, the water is symbolic of that which sustains spiritually. Moses, in this view, was no longer able to sustain the people spiritually in the manner that was required.
Whatever the explanation, we are left with the idea that Moses can no longer lead the people into the land with the duty and force and faith and mercy required of the leader.
Yet, after all this drama and what must have been great pain in the consequence for Moses personally, what strikes me most is how Moses reacts to the judgment.
In the very next verse after God issues the decree, “Moses dispatched messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom,” to move the people forward on their journey.
In other words, the Bible teaches us that there isn’t an event, even a moment, that separates God’s judgment and Moses’ fulfilling the next duty he owes God and the people.
Whatever our fate, we continue in all moments of life to owe the duty of our service to God and our community. Even after slipping and experiencing the consequence, Moses returns instantly to his post, to undertake the very next action that duty requires. For this lesson, surely God is grateful, as are we.