The Mystery of the Split Rock

How could the Children of Israel lose faith so quickly after witnessing the splitting of the sea?

Rabbi Avraham Gordimer,

Judaism Rabbi Avraham Gordimer
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer

And the nation became thirsty for water there, and the nation complained to Moshe, and it said: "Why have you done this, to take us forth from Egypt to kill us and our The Children and our flocks with thirst?"...And God said to Moshe, "Pass before the nation and take with you of the Elders of Israel, and your staff with which you smote the river shall you take in your hand and go. And behold I will be standing before you there upon the rock at Chorev, and you shall smite the rock, and water shall flow forth from it and the nation shall drink." And He designated the name of the place Massah U'Merivah, due to the arguing ("Riv") of The Children of Israel and their testing ("Nas") of God, saying, "Is God in our midst or is He not?" (Shemot 17:3-6)

This striking narrative occurred less than two months after Keri'at Yam Suf, the Splitting of the Sea, presented in the same parshah. It is jarring to read how people who beheld the Shechinah (Divine Presence) and experienced unprecedented miracles at the Sea could lose faith, as depicted above. (Targum Yonatan ben Uziel states that it was only the wicked members of The Children of Israel who were involved.)

In order to better understand this all, let’s turn to the words of Chazal (the Sages of the Talmud), as invoked and elucidated by the Meforshim (Commentators).

Rashi, quoting the Mechilta on the phrase, “your staff with which you smote the river”, explains that the people had the impression that Moshe’s staff was exclusively a vehicle for punishment, as it was used to plague the Nile and to punish the Egyptians at the Sea; hence was Moshe commanded to demonstrate that his staff was also a vehicle for blessing, to provide water to the thirsty nation.

The Ramban further expounds the wondrous nature of this event: Moshe’s staff, which had transformed the water of the Nile into blood, was now to be used to bring forth water from a rock, thereby demonstrating that the same staff which transformed water into a different substance would now in reverse bring forth water from that which was not water.

What is the underlying message here?

The Children of Israel, despite the supernatural and metaphysical experiences they had undergone, were in a reactionary mode; they reacted to miraculous stimuli, and they reacted to the absence of such stimuli. The people who complained for water in the context of a loss of faith had failed to try to understand the miraculous experiences and stimuli and to learn that God sought to establish a relationship with His people. Thus was Moshe commanded to demonstrate that his staff, which was the primary article used to trigger the miracles that The Children of Israel had experienced, was not some sort of bad luck talisman or magic wand, but that it was merely a vehicle to signal that God was about to overtly and sensationally manipulate nature.

The miracles were not caused by the staff, but by God. The staff was shown to manifest totally contradictory qualities, indicating that it was a mere symbolic tool at the hands of God. It is God to Whom the people must look and relate, rather than to His “tools”.

This was the lesson for The Children of Israel; they needed to think and understand and not merely react. They needed to realize that God sought to interact with them. His miracles reflected a relationship with the people and did not occur in a vacuum, nor were they the product of inanimate instruments.

It is extremely noteworthy that Moshe was told to smite the rock at Chorev, even though The Children of Israel complained for water at Rephidim. (v. 1-2) Why did Moshe apparently have to lead the people to another location, to Chorev, and smite the rock there? Were there not rocks at Rehpidim?

Chorev is the site where God first appeared to Moshe, and it was the locus of Mattan Torah, the Giving of the Torah. Chorev represents God communicating with us and providing us with an understanding of His ways. It is where God established his direct relationship with us.

This is why Moshe had to smite the rock at Chorev, as the purpose of smiting the rock was not to provide one more miracle, but rather it was to imbue the people with an understanding of God and an appreciation for His relationship with The Children of Israel. This understanding and appreciation were lacking; people were reacting to stimuli and the absence of stimuli, neglecting to think and internalize what it all meant. The requisite understanding of what was happening and appreciation of God’s relationship with His people are what Chorev was all about.  

Rashi further cites the Mechilta, this time regarding the texture of Moshe’s staff: The Torah writes, “v’hikita va-tzur” – “and you shall smite in the rock”. This indicates that Moshe’s staff was made from S’napaninun, an extremely strong substance, such that the rock split when smitten by the staff.

What is the message of this description of the staff splitting the rock?

Perhaps the splitting of the rock evoked the imagery of the Splitting of the Sea, a relatively recent yet unforgettable event for The Children of Israel. In experiencing the splitting of the rock, the people were being instructed that just as the rock was split at Chorev, the locus of understanding God’s interaction and appreciating His relationship with us, so too must the people perceive and interpret the miraculous events at the Sea as reflective of God’s interaction with us and not as mere supernatural stimuli.

The name “Rephidim” in Talmudic exegesis signifies a lapse of engagement in Torah. This fits well into our explanation of the people failing to appreciate and understand God’s miracles and interactions.  

The foundation of Judaism is our cognizance and relationship with God. This value was shown lacking at Rephidim, and it was cultivated and eventually internalized at Chorev.

This d'var Torah is for the merit of my dear grandmother, ראשא בת דוד/Mrs. Irena Cabot ע"ה, whose Shloshim (30th day of mourning ) took place this month.