Torah Fax    

Friday - Shabbat, June 18 - 19

Torah reading: Chukat (Numbers 19:1 - 22:1) 
Candle Lighting Time 8:12 PM
Shabbat ends 9:22 PM 

Pirkei Avot Chapter 5

Open Mouth

One of the most enigmatic narratives in the Torah is the one that appears in this week’s parsha concerning Moses’ attempt at producing water from a rock. When Moses’ sister Miriam died, the miraculous well that traveled with them in the desert disappeared and their water supply was cut off. When the Jews complained, Moses was told by G‑d to take his staff and speak to the stone and that it would produce water. Moses then struck the rock with his staff and the water gushed forth. Everything seemed fine until we read that G‑d reprimanded Moses for doing something wrong and thereby not sanctifying His name. 

The question as to what it was that Moses did wrong for which he was punished so severely—he would not live to enter the Promised Land—has occupied the minds of the greatest Jewish scholars.

According to Rashi, Moses’ error was that he struck the rock, when it did not initially produce the desired result, instead of speaking to it as he was commanded by G‑d.

According to Maimonides, Moses’ error lies in the manner with which he responded to the Jewish people’s complaint. Moses became angry with them and berated them, and for that he was punished.

However, both of these interpretations do not appear to fit in with G‑d’s apparent main issue with Moses, the fact that he did not sanctify His name. What does not speaking to a stone or getting angry have to do with not sanctifying G‑d’s name?

 There is a Chassidic/mystical approach to this narrative that will help resolve these difficulties.

The author of the work Bat Ayin cites a Talmudic analysis of the Hebrew Alphabet. When it comes to the letter pei, which comes in two forms—a closed pei and an open one (that parallel the English letters of p and f)—it states: Peh satum (a sealed mouth) and peh patuach (an open mouth).

In order for one’s mouth to open up and elicit all of the positive energies through one’s power of speech, the mouth must first be closed so that nothing forbidden comes in to the body through the mouth (with regard to kosher food) and nothing unsavory leaves the person via his mouth (with regard to unkosher speech).

To elaborate: The power of speech is what makes a human being unique. Our ability to communicate in an intelligent fashion is a distinct human trait. But what is even more unique about our power of speech is that it can change the world for the good. A directive that issues from a righteous person or an inspirational talk can inspire and influence countless others to do good. The ripple effect of this influence cannot be quantified.

Even where nobody hears the spoken word, human speech possesses powerful spiritual energy that can have an impact on the entire world; bringing blessing in its wake.

Thus G‑d says to Moses, speak to the rock; recognize that your power of speech is sufficient to transform an inanimate rock into an endless source of refreshing water. Your words will make a difference!

Moses was about to comply with G‑d’s instruction to him to speak to the rock when the scene of the rebellious and complaining Jews provoked him and led him to utter the sharp words of reprimand suffused with indignant anger.

When Moses realized what he had done—that his mouth should have been closed and should not have uttered those angry words—he felt that he no longer possessed the power to “open his mouth” to extract water from the rock. In Moses’ mind, his speech was no longer endowed with the capacity to generate the positive energy that would translate into refreshing water for the entire nation.

Moses thus decided that in the absence of his ability to produce water from a rock through his power of speech he would have to revert to the more direct and “conventional” method of striking the rock.

It might be suggested that Moses remembered how G‑d told him to strike the rock to produce water close to forty years earlier when the Jews first left Egypt and complained about the lack of water. Moses might have wondered why G‑d told him them to strike the rock and now He asked him to speak to it. Possibly Moses came up with the following analysis:

Before the Torah was given Moses had as serious speech impediment. Although it was a physical disability, it was a reflection that Moses’ power of speech was not yet sufficiently potent to generate the positive energy to extract water from a rock.

When Moses served as the conduit for transmitting the Torah to the Jewish people, our Sages tell us, he was healed. He now had neither the physical nor spiritual speech impediment. Thus Moses reasoned that the power he possessed to generate blessing for others was intimately related to his use of speech to transmit Torah values. When he got angry, Moses felt—incorrectly—that he no longer had this power since his mouth, which should have remained silent, was not. In his mind he had no other choice; he had to extract the water employing the same pre-Sinai method that succeeded in the past.

Where did Moses go wrong?

According to the analysis of Bat Ayin, Moses’ mistake—that was a product of his humility—was to deny the possibility that he had redeemed himself by acknowledging that he erred when he uttered angry words at the people. Had Moses demonstrated that despite his misuse of his power of speech he had reversed that misuse by doing Teshuvah (repentance, or return to the proper path of behavior) it would have demonstrated G‑d’s greatness. It would have shown everyone that G‑d gives everyone the opportunity to redeem themselves.

And while it is certainly true that Moses’ miscalculation about the efficacy of his speech was a product of his humility, it was not accepted by G‑d as a legitimate defense. To be humble is certainly a virtue. But to be humble at someone else’s expense is not. Had Moses given his power of speech more credibility, he would have demonstrated how G‑d was “great enough,” as it were, to forgive Moses’ angry outburst and restore his power of speech to do good.

Thus, Rashi’s and Maimonides’ explanations are complementary. Moses’ misuse—or perceived misuse—of speech—to vent his anger—led him to the erroneous conclusion that he could no longer use his power of speech to do good by commanding the rock to produce water. He therefore hit the rock instead of speaking to it and the lesson of G‑d’s forbearance and power of forgiveness was lost on the people.

The lessons we learn from this narrative are many:

First, one must not sully G‑d’s great gift to humanity; our ability to speak and communicate.

Second, the power and efficacy of our positive speech is tied to the measure of refinement of our speech. 

Third, even if we do corrupt our power of speech, this does not mean we have lost our ability to produce water (literally, or metaphorically). By recognizing our mistake we restore the power of positive speech to its rightful place.

Fourth, we should never allow ourselves to deny our G‑d given power to do good. Misplaced humility that minimizes our ability to generate positive energy is a denial of G‑d’s power. Never underestimate the positive powers we possess and the power we have to correct the past abuses of those powers.

There is also a special lesson we can learn from this episode with respect to the unique times we are in: on the very cusp of the Messianic Age.

Never before in history have we been inundated with all sorts of speech through the tools of modern media. Clearly, there are times when the “mouth” of our New Age communications would be better off being shut instead of expressing the negativity (and worse) that is sometimes expressed.  

To counter the increased amount of negative speech that we are exposed to, we must increase the use our mouths for positive ends. Our mouths must be opened for prayer, Torah study and speaking well about others (while not shying away from criticizing unhealthy behavior). In particular, our power of speech should be used to implore G‑d and demand of Him to bring an end to this exile and all its attendant miseries and bring us Moshiach, now!

Moshiach Matters 

It is important to complain to Hashem about the length of the Exile and cry out “Ad Mosai? Till When (do we have to be in this bitter Exile)?” There are those that might question the appropriateness of speaking to G‑d with such force. In truth, there are many verses in the Bible which speak exactly in this tone of voice, as in: (Zecharya 1:12) “Ad Mosai, Till when will you refrain from having mercy on Jerusalem and the cities of Judah...?”  (The Rebbe, Hisva’aduyos, 1984, vol. 2, pg 989)
Moshiach - It’s a Jewish issue. For more info, visit  

© 2001- 2010 Chabad of the West Side