Tomorrow Jewish congregations around the word will read the story of “Moses hitting the rock” (Numbers 20). It is a controversial story with a vital lesson for all of us.
After nearly forty years of leading the Children of Israel through the wilderness, Moses is near the end of his rope. He snaps when the Israelites complain yet again that they have no water. God tells Moses to address a certain rock, and water will come forth. Instead of addressing the rock, Moses, still in mourning over the death of his sister, Miriam, loses his temper and shouts, “Listen you rebels. Shall we indeed bring forth water from this rock (Numbers 20:10)?” And then he bangs his staff three times against the rock as water comes gushing forth.
God is furious! Moses has made it appear that he – not the Almighty had caused the rock to issue water. However, furious or not, God imposes a penalty that seems unduly harsh. “Because you did not show enough faith in me to affirm my holiness in the eyes of the Children of Israel, you shall not lead the community into the land I am giving them (Numbers 20:12).” Wow! After all Moses had done, God sentences him to die in the wilderness without ever entering the Promised Land! How could God be so cruel? It is like giving someone a life sentence for a relatively minor violation. Even if we argue that, the offense was indeed serious (and I would agree) the punishment seems too harsh.
Ultimately, ranting against God’s excess misses the point. There is a vital lesson in this story for all of us. Moses’ time had passed. He was not the leader he once was. He was too old tolead the military campaign necessary for the Israelites to conquer the Promised Land.
Such a campaign required a young, vigorous leader whose voice the people would obey without hesitation. Joshua was that man, and if Moses were still around when Joshua said, “Charge!” there would be those who would look to Moses to see if “Charge!” was, in fact, the right thing to do.
Each of us has limited opportunities to lead and to influence. When that time passes, even if we are Moses, we have to step aside and pass the reigns of leadership on to another. The question of whether God’s punishment was too harsh is irrelevant. Moses was past his prime as all of us will be one day. Therefore, we should make the most of the opportunities afforded us. Too many people lament what they should have done when they had the chance. Time is finite, and so like Moses, we must do what we can, when we can. Unlike Moses, though, we must be ready to relinquish the reigns when that time is over.