“Everybody hurts sometimes. Everybody cries.” – R.E.M.
The Israelites cry because they have no water. Their well dried up and they are very thirsty. “We are going to die here without water! And so will our cattle!”
Moses and Aaron fall on their faces (again) and beseech God’s intervention.
God promises that Moses can draw water from a stone if he talks to the stone in front of the congregation. Moses and Aaron assemble the people and Moses exclaims “Listen, you rebels! Who thinks we can get water from this rock?” then he hits the rock instead of speaking to the rock. Nothing happens. So Moses hits it again and the water flows. Moses is punished severely for not believing in God and sanctifying God’s name and is banned from entry into the Promised Land.
Why is Moses calling them rebels? This story occurred in the 38th year in the desert. The “rebels” from the book of Exodus are mostly dead by now. More importantly, this was not a rebellion. This was the voice of parched throats from desert thirst! The people had a legitimate complaint. Why does Moses see this as a rebellion?
Moses and Aaron fell on their face, again. Last time they fell on their face was the Korach rebellion. The time before that was the sin of the spies. Why would they be falling on their face again here? What was so spectacularly catastrophic about the request for water that Moses reenacted his reaction to a couple of the gravest sins throughout 40 years in the desert?
It’s possible that Moses heard the complaints of the Israelites and he didn’t just hear the actual words they were speaking. His mind took him back to the first complaints of the Israelites after they left Egypt. It must have been traumatic for Moses to rescue a broken people and then field complaint after complaint about his leadership and their lack of faith.
This complaint, in year 38 was a trigger that made his brain feel that trauma all these years later. In almost a PTSD sort of way, the legitimate complainers became those rebels in his head. Moses experienced the pain of those early complaints again and that’s why he fell on his face.
Perhaps this is why the people were not punished at all for this complaint. Other rebellions were met with severe Divine punishment. God is not too bothered by these complainers. The usual roles are reversed. Here, Moses is the one who calls them rebels and he seems to be at wits’ end.
This explains why Moses could not lead the people into the Promised Land following this episode. They had been through too much trauma together. After all these years, Moses was still falling on his face and calling innocent complainers “rebels.”
It’s important to be aware of our own triggers and trauma. We may not be able to prevent feeling things we don’t want to feel, but when we know about them in advance, we may be able avoid the problems they create for us and others.
More importantly, it is imperative that leaders such as parents, authority figures, teachers, rabbis and community activists remember that people are human. Not every complaint is a rebellion and if we think it is a rebellion it might be in our own head as opposed to the heads of the complainers. We must always try to handle complaints as they are and not as acts of sedition. If we can’t do that, we are not fit to lead.