In the fortieth year of their wandering in the desert, the Israelites arrive at Kadesh. They have no water to drink and they complain to Moses. G-d tells Moses to take the staff and speak to the rock. Instead, Moses strikes the rock. Although abundant water miraculously pours forth, Moses is severely criticized by G-d for failing to sanctify Him before the people. He is told that, as a result of this transgression, he will forfeit the right to take the people into the land of Israel.

The incident is widely debated and analysed by the commentators with tens of explanations offered to try and comprehend Moses’ actions. One obvious question: If Moses was supposed to speak to the rock, why is G-d commanding him to take his staff? Surely that indicates he was supposed to use it! Indeed, forty years previously, when they had crossed the Red Sea and they were in the desert without water, G-d told Moses to take his staff and smite the rock to provide the water.

From a comment of Rashbam (France, 12th century), it is clear that we must be sensitive to the nuances of the text. On the previous occasion, G-d told Moses: “…take into your hand your staff, with which you struck the Nile,… and you shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it,” (Shemot 18:5-6).

On this occasion, G-d tells Moses: “Take the staff and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and speak to the rock in their presence so that it will give forth its water.” (Bamidbar 21:8)

Rashbam explains that the staff that is being referred to here is the staff that has been spoken about only recently. In last week’s portion we read that after the destructive punishments that destroyed Korach and his supporters, the leaders of the twelve tribes were asked to provide staffs that would remain overnight in the Tabernacle, by the Ark. It was Aaron’s staff that sprouted shoots, flowers and almonds and it was placed permanently in the Tabernacle.

The staff that was used to initiate the plagues was a staff of punishment. The staff that had sprouted almonds was a staff of life. The generation of newly-liberated slaves, of forty years ago, needed a message of G-d’s power to quell their complaints. The generation about to enter the land of Israel needed a message of life-affirmation and encouragement to restore their faith in G-d and Moses. Sadly, Moses fails at this critical juncture and it will be for his successor to take the people to the Promised Land.