April 14, 2024
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Three Lessons From Mei Meriva

By Rabbi Moshe Hauer

There is an enormous amount of debate and commentary regarding the incident recorded in our parsha that resulted in Moshe and Aaron being prevented from entering Eretz Yisrael, the story of the mei meriva, the waters of strife. Rambam’s commentary—presented in the fourth chapter of his shemonah perakim—focuses on the negative consequences of Moshe’s display of anger. Every aspect of his commentary is richly instructive.

First, Moshe’s demonstration of anger was a grievous failure of character, given who he was. A lapse of this kind for someone of Moshe’s caliber—whose every action was watched and learned from as the standard which others sought to emulate—served, in Rambam’s words, as a chilul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name, as defined by the Talmud (Yoma 86a) and codified in the Rambam’s Mishna Torah (Yesodei Hatorah 5:11):

“There are other things included in chilul Hashem, although they are not of themselves either among the mandatory or prohibitive commandments, for example, when a great man, famed for his learning and piety, will do something that the public will suspect him of, even though such deeds are not transgressions, yet he has committed a chilul Hashem. For example: if he makes a purchase and does not pay for it at once although he has the money and the vendors are claiming it and he delays them; or if he indulges in frivolity, or eats and drinks with and among the ignorant, or if his speech with his fellow men is not polite, or if he does not receive them pleasantly, but acts as one looking for strife and shows anger. In such like matters, all measured by the standard of the greatness of such a scholar, he must take particular care, and act exceedingly better than the law requires.”

Second—as Rambam notes—God was not in fact angry with the Jewish people. Yes, when we were thirsty we became cranky and complained, but God did not indicate any real anger or frustration in response; He simply told Moshe to give us what we had asked for. Clearly, God understood that we truly needed water, and as the need was real and the request was reasonable God did not take us to task for expressing it in an irritating or obnoxious manner.

This is profoundly instructive. We often field complaints. Our response to those complaints should consider the issue itself, more than the way it is expressed. And, while when we are the ones doing the complaining, we must take care to express ourselves carefully and respectfully; when we are on the receiving end, we should only focus on the issue raised—rather than the way it is raised.

Finally, God describes Moshe as “merisem pi,” which Rambam renders as “altering God’s word and message.” Given Moshe’s stature, the Jewish people—who were themselves mature and spiritually sophisticated—assumed that whatever he expressed to them was an accurate reflection of God’s feelings towards them. If Moshe displayed anger to the people, they assumed that it was because God was angry with them, when in fact in this case—as noted above—He was not. As such, Moshe was misrepresenting God to His people.

The ramifications of this are exceptionally profound and practical, as they are reenacted constantly in religious life. Any one of us—rabbi or rebbetzin, educator or parent—who stands as a religious figure or as one who encourages faith within his or her family, is seen to represent God. When we project love and encouragement, that is the way those around us visualize God. And, if we, instead, project fury and frustration, that too, is attributed to God. We must represent God accurately, and we can only do that by doing our best to reflect His qualities—His attributes of mercy—to all for whom we serve as His representatives.

Each of these elements of Rambam’s understanding of the story is a profound lesson unto itself, guiding us towards greater personal refinement and worthiness as God’s representatives to those around us.


Rabbi Moshe Hauer is executive vice president of the Orthodox Union (OU), the nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization.

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