The waters of strife
ולא-היה מים לעדה ויקהלו על-משה ועל-אהרן: וידבר יקוק אל-משה לאמר: קח את-המטה והקהל את-העדה אתה ואהרן אחיך ודברתם אל-הסלע לעיניהם ונתן מימיו והוצאת להם מים מן-הסלע והשקית את-העדה ואת-בעירם: ויקהלו משה ואהרן את-הקהל אל-פני הסלע ויאמר להם שמעו-נא המרים המן-הסלע הזה נוציא לכם מים: וירם משה את-ידו ויך את-הסלע במטהו פעמים ויצאו מים רבים ותשת העדה ובעירם: ויאמר יקוק אל-משה ואל-אהרן יען לא-האמנתם בי להקדישני לעיני בני ישראל לכן לא תביאו את-הקהל הזה אל-הארץ אשר נתתי להם
There wasn’t water for the congregation, and they assembled against Moshe and Aharon…Hashem [then] told Moshe as follows: “Take the staff and assemble the congregation, you and Aharon your brother, and both of you will speak to the rock before their eyes, and it will give forth its water, and you will bring forth water from the rock, and you will quench the congregation and their animals.”…Moshe and Aharon gathered the congregation before the rock and [Moshe] said to them: “Listen now you rebels! Will we bring forth water from this rock?” Moshe raised his arm and hit the rock twice with the staff, and a great amount of water emerged, and the people and their animals drank. Hashem said to Moshe and Aharon: “Since both of you didn’t believe in me, to sanctify my name before the eyes of the Jews, therefore you will not bring this congregation to the land that I have given to them.”
The episode known as “the waters of strife” is one of the most puzzling in the entire Chumash. The verses say explicitly what happened with Moshe and the rock, yet all the commentators struggle to understand what his sin was. Finding an explanation is particularly hard due to the severity of the punishment: not being allowed to bring the people to the land of Israel and to die in the wilderness. As well, it’s hard to find any justification for why Aharon was punished; it seems like he wasn’t involved at all in what happened. There are many approaches to these questions, and they all have their flaws.
Rashi’s is the most famous. Hashem commanded Moshe to speak the rock, and his sin was that he chose instead to hit it. Hashem wanted to teach the Jews a valuable lesson: a rock, which doesn’t speak and doesn’t hear and doesn’t need sustenance, listens to the word of the Omnipresent, all the more so should we. Moshe’s sin was failing to teach this message. This begs the question why did Hashem tell Moshe to take his staff if he wasn’t supposed to use it? As well, why is it a bigger miracle to speak to the rock than to hit it? And again, why was Aharon punished.
Another famous approach is that of the Rambam, who explains that Moshe’s sin was that he got mad at the Jews. The Rambam rules that a person’s character traits should never tilt to any extreme, ie. complete suppression or complete surrender. The middle path is the most desired. As with most things in life, everything should be in moderation. This is not true though for anger, which is one of the few traits that a person should almost never express. As the leader of the Jews, Moshe was expected to excel at this. However, this approach doesn’t explain why Hashem rebuked Moshe and Aharon for “not having faith in Me”. This approach has nothing to do with a lack of faith.
A third approach is that when Moshe said “will we bring forth water from the rock?” he was referring to his own personal ability. He meant that everything comes from Hashem, and that he was unable to do it himself. However, the people misunderstood and thought he meant that Hashem Himself was unable to bring forth water from the rock. Causing the people to make this grave mistake in their faith was his sin. This approach still doesn’t justify why Aharon was punished, since it was Moshe who spoke.
The Abarbanel’s approach to Moshe and Aharon’s sin is the most satisfying. He uses Rashi’s explanation for what happened with the rock, since it fits the best with the verses. Hashem explicitly commanded Moshe to talk to the rock, and instead he hit it. However, it is clear that Moshe and Aharon would not have received such a severe punishment for such a slight offence. Rather, their punishment was due to prior crimes they had committed. When Moshe tarried from returning from forty days on Mount Sinai, the people panicked and desired to make an idol for themselves. Aharon, in an attempt to stall for time so Moshe could return, requested everyone’s jewelry. The jewelry ended up becoming the golden calf which they worshipped. Many died in a plague as a result of their sin. Aharon, who was complicit in the crime, should have been punished then as well. However, because his intentions were noble, his punishment was delayed until a later time. Hashem couldn’t forgive him entirely, because in the end he was the cause of the calf’s creation. Ultimately, he was the cause of the deaths of those who worshipped it. Since he prevented them from ever entering the land of Israel, Aharon was sentenced to the same end: to never enter the land. The punishment fit the crime.
Moshe’s crime was related to the sending of the spies to check out the land of Israel. While Hashem condoned their decision to send spies, it was only so far as letting them provide a report on the quality of the land. Moshe on his own accord added to the mission: that they should report on the strength of the inhabitants of the land. Are they mighty or are they feeble? When the people heard from the spies that the inhabitants are fierce and unassailable, they gave up all hope. They preferred to return to Egypt. As a result, the entire generation was punished with wandering the wilderness for forty years, only having their children enter the land. The rest would die without entering. Since Moshe ultimately was the cause for this decree, he too shared their sentence. Again, the punishment fit the crime. However, since Moshe’s intentions were proper, he was not punished immediately. He intended that the people appreciate the miracles that Hashem was going to do for them when they would realize the mightiness of their enemies. However, his plan backfired, and as a result he could never enter the land.
For both Moshe and Aharon, Hashem waited for the right opportunity to punish them. Hashem asked Moshe to gather the people with his brother Aharon to bring forth water from the rock. When Moshe committed the slightest of errors by hitting the rock instead of speaking to it, Hashem used this as the opportunity for the punishment that was lying dormant. Aharon wasn’t really involved in the sin of the rock, and Moshe’s sin was too slight to matter. However, since they were both guilty of prior crimes, now was the time to receive their punishment.
In the end there are fifteen different approaches to the sin of Moshe and Aharon that were brought here. Each one has its strength, but they all have some weakness. The Abarbanel and Ohr HaChaim, as well as those they quote, don’t waste any time delineating all of those weaknesses. Not all of the details were described here, and it is recommended to learn the original sources inside. It is a highly worthwhile endeavor.
 Based on Abarbanel to Numbers 20:1 and Ohr HaChaim to verse 8
 ibid 20:2,7-8,10-12
 See ibid verse 13
 Both Abarbanel and Ohr HaChaim list ten explanations that had been previously suggested, before introducing their own. Each one’s list is mostly the same as the other, minus a few exceptions. This results in a total of 12 unique approaches, plus both of their own. There are of course many more suggestions offered by other commentators
 ibid verse 12; Abarbanel lists this as explanation #1, as does the Ohr HaChaim
 Ibn Ezra to verse 8 quotes a similar opinion to this. Both the Seforno to verse 8 and Shir Maon (understood to be written by the Chasam Sofer’s grandson Rav Shimon Sofer), brought in Toras Moshe III to verse 11, explain that Moshe’s sin was specifically that he didn’t perform the greater miracle of speaking to the rock (although the Seforno focuses on the fact that it would have shown the greatness of Hashem, whereas Shir Maon sounds like it would have shown the greatness of Moshe, as Hashem’s servant)
 Rabbi Gidon Shoshan asks a strong question on this Rashi: A rock doesn’t have free will, how can we, who have free will, learn from it?
 Ramban to verse 8
 ibid. See the Shir Maon’s (loc. cit.) answer to this question. Another approach to the sin of Moshe is that he disgraced the honor of the Jews by calling them “rebels”. Abarbanel counts this as #2 in the name of Chazal, and the Ohr HaChaim counts this as #5, from the Ibn Ezra (loc. cit.) who quotes this from an anonymous individual. There are many Midrashim that say Moshe’s sin was saying this to them (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:6; Midrash Tanchumah 1:9; Midrash Tehillim 78:2), but I didn’t find one that says explicitly that it was because he disgraced their honor. The closest I found was Otzar HaMidrashim Al Misas Aharon § 3. It is noteworthy that the Abarbanel’s phraseology is similar to that of Drashos HaRan Chapter 9
 Shemoneh Perakim Chapter 4 at the end
 Abarbanel counts this as #3, the Ohr HaChaim as #6
 Mishneh Torah Hilchos De’os 2:2
 ibid § 3
 Ramban (loc. cit.) asks this on the approach of the Rambam
 Numbers 20:12
 The approach of the Ramban (loc. cit.) in the name of Rabbeinu Chananel is Moshe was punished for saying “will we bring forth water from the rock?” instead of “will Hashem bring forth water from the rock”. He shouldn’t have taken credit for the miracle. Abarbanel counts this as #4 and the Ohr HaChaim as #7. An approach quoted by Ibn Ezra (loc. cit.) is that Moshe’s sin was that he hit the stone two times, as one would have been sufficient. Abarbanel counts this as #5 and the Ohr HaChaim as #3. A second approach quoted by Ibn Ezra is that Moshe and Aharon didn’t sing Hashem’s praises when the water came forth. Abarbanel counts this as #6 and the Ohr HaChaim as #4. A third approach quoted by Ibn Ezra is that the people demanded that Moshe choose a different rock, and Moshe was afraid to change from the rock that Hashem commanded him to use. He lacked faith that Hashem could have brought the water forth from any rock. Abarbanel counts this as #7 and the Ohr HaChaim doesn’t list this (although he uses this approach to help his own approach). Abarbanel points out that the Ibn Ezra’s preferred approach is a combination of the explanations of Rambam (#3 in Abarbanel’s list), Rashi (#1), and an earlier one quoted by Ibn Ezra (#5). Since Moshe was mad at the people, he lost concentration in his attempt to perform the miracle. As a result, he had to hit the rock two times. Abarbanel counts this as #8 and the Ohr HaChaim as #2
 Ibn Ezra (loc. cit.) quoting Rav Moshe HaCohen. Abarbanel doesn’t list this, while Ohr HaChaim counts this as #8
 Ibn Ezra (loc. cit.) asks this on the approach of Rav Moshe HaCohen. In the end the Ibn Ezra brought 9 approaches in total to the sin of Moshe and Aharon, while only 8 of them were brought by Abarbanel and Ohr HaChaim. The approach of Rav Yosef Albo in his Sefer HaIkarim Chapter 22 is that Hashem had to tell Moshe and Aharon to bring forth the water from the rock. They should have done this without prompting, relying on their faith. Both Abarbanel and the Ohr HaChaim list this as #9. The Abarbanel brings an approach quoting an unnamed sage in his generation (although this like one of the approaches the Ibn Ezra rejects) that in reality Moshe and Aharon didn’t sin at all. Rather, the people sinned with their incredulous attitude. It’s not uncommon for the Torah to include Moshe and Aharon in the sins of the masses, while they themselves didn’t sin. Abarbanel counts this as #10 and the Ohr HaChaim doesn’t list this. The approach of Eliezer Ashkenazi (author of Ma’aseh Hashem) is that the people wanted Moshe to use a different rock than the one he wanted. He got mad at them and threw his staff, inadvertently hitting the intended rock. Abarbanel doesn’t list this and Ohr HaChaim counts this as #10
 While the Ohr HaChaim rejects all the approaches that he brings, and he feels his is the most satisfying, it still doesn’t answer all of the issues that the Abarbanel raises. The Ohr HaChaim’s approach is based on Yalkut Shimoni § 764. There are four adjectives used by the Torah to describe the sin of Moshe and Aharon. Each one is indicating a different aspect of their sin. One aspect is Moshe hit the rock instead of speaking to it (this is Rashi‘s approach). The second is they refused to bring forth water from whichever rock the Jews requested (this is Abarbanel #7 quoting Ibn Ezra). The third is Moshe said: “will we bring forth water from this rock?” (the way the Midrash presents it, it sounds more like the Ramban’s approach than Rav Moshe Cohen’s approach). The fourth is Hashem told them to teach a chapter of Torah in front of the rock, and they didn’t. What does all of this mean? Hashem told Moshe to take the staff, and there are two ways to interpret this command. Either He wanted Moshe to hit the rock with it, or it was simply a means to indicate that Hashem had given him the power to perform the miracle. As well, Hashem told Moshe to speak to the rock, which can be interpreted as only speak to the rock, or hit it as well as speak to it. Moshe took the conservative approach; he hit it and spoke to it. He was worried if he only spoke to it, perhaps the miracle wouldn’t happen. He played it safe, and didn’t want to take any risks. As well, he only tried the rock that had worked in the past; he didn’t try the rock the Jews wanted him to use. That’s why he said, “Will we bring forth water from this rock?”, meaning the rock the Jews had chosen. This was their sin: they didn’t have enough faith in Hashem that he would perform an even bigger for the Jewish people. The water would have come from any rock, even without hitting it. Therefore, they were punished. See the rest of the Ohr HaChaim’s commentary where he fleshes out this approach, although it still doesn’t fully explain why Aharon was punished alongside Moshe
 See Shir Maon loc. cit. verse 8 who explains why Hashem in Exodus 17:6 said to hit the rock and here He said to only speak to it. He also explains why there the rock is referred to as a צור and here as a סלע
 Exodus Chapter 32
 Or in Hebrew, מדה כנגד מדה
 Numbers Chapter 13
 8 brought collectively by the Ibn Ezra, Abarbanel and Ohr HaChaim, 1 more by Ibn Ezra, 3 more by Abarbanel and 3 more by Ohr HaChaim