One of the most powerful moments, however, is when Moses strikes the rock and water comes out. A little background, first.
There is some disagreement as to whether we’re in year 2 or year 38 of the wandering. Rashi (11th c France), Rambam and Ibn Ezra (12th c Spain)all think it’s the latter, so I’ll go with that for now. All who were at Sinai are gone, except for Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, the leadership siblings, and Joshua and Caleb, the future leaders.
But here we are. The people arrive as a unified body (kol ha’edah) at the wilderness of Zin, and Miriam dies. Immediately, we read that the people start complaining again about the lack of water, “joining against” Moses and Aaron, saying, “Why did you bring Adonai’s community into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there? Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink!” (Num 20:4-5)
Apparently, they’ve forgotten a few things. First, they were slaves in Egypt, not an ideal existence. Second, the promise of all the good things to eat was in the Land they were going to enter, not in the wilderness.
Nevertheless, God tells Moses to solve the water problem by taking a rod in his hand, assemble the community, and tell the rock to produce water. He and Aaron did this, but when it came time for speaking to the rock, Moses struck the rock twice and the water poured forth. The result was thirst-quenching for the people and their beasts, but it was a short-lived victory.
This was Moses’ biggest sin, the one that keeps him out of the Promised Land. Because he struck the rock instead of speaking to it, he find out that he will die in the wilderness, in sight of the Land he devoted his entire life to reaching.
None of these people were in Egypt to see the miracles of the plagues, or at Sinai to see and hear the Torah given. Perhaps they question more. Perhaps they’re more wary of promises of food and water in the wilderness. Perhaps it’s harder for them to experience the faith their elders did, based as it was in first-hand experienced wonders. So, perhaps Moses had to convince them that his leadership wasn’t passé, that he wasn’t irrelevant, and neither was faith in God.
How we keep these ancient stories relevant is a challenge as difficult today as getting water out of a stone. Not everyone experiences Divine moments, and even if one does, that doesn’t preclude the rest of us from finding meaning and power in the tales. Do we require from our leaders that they have experienced those Divine Moments, so we trust their decisions and actions? Do prophets make the best leaders? I think not. They may be the voice and insight we need to hear, but good leadership requires eyes on the dream, and feet on the ground, where we live and work and function. We should be wary of those who say they’ve received a telegram (text?) from beyond that the rest of us have to just trust came through clearly.
Moses’ mistake, as far as the people were concerned, was that he resorted to the magic tricks, thinking that’s what impressed the generation before. Moses didn’t trust the people’s faith in the more ordinary. Miracles don’t have to be sound and light shows. Sometimes, they’re found in the quiet, urgent whisper.