Rabbi Israel Chait on Parshas Chukas

—From the Pirkei Avos Shiurim 1983 (Mishna 2:2)—








What was Moshe’s sin when he hit the stone? Maimonides said:


“Moshe inclined slightly toward extreme anger. Thereby, God criticized Moshe saying a man like him shouldn’t get angry before Israel in a situation where it was inappropriate. This is a profanation of God because people watched Moshe and learned from him, and they hoped, through Moshe, to reach success in this world and in the next world. How is it possible that anger manifested in Moshe Rabbeinu? It emanates from a lower part of human nature. But I will explain what is meant by, ‘You rebelled against My word at the Waters of Contention’ (Num. 20:24). Moshe wasn’t speaking to fools or those lacking a high level of philosophical development. For the Gemara says that even the lowest Jew was on the level of Yechezkiel ben Buzzi. And all that Moshe said or did, the people would question him on it. And when they saw Moshe get angry, they said, ‘It can’t be due to Moshe’s imperfection. If it wasn’t that Moshe knew that God was angry with us because we asked for the water and we angered God, Moshe would not be angry.’ But in truth, we do not find that God was angry with the Jews because they asked for the water. And even though we departed from the topic of this area, we answered one of the Torah’s major problems: Many people often asked what the sin was.(Shmoneh Perakim, end of Chap. 4)


Every sin has two parts. First, a person must have an imperfection. But an imperfection alone is not a sin. If a person’s emotions sway during the day, this is not a sin: “God does not render an evil thought as action” (Kiddushin 39b). Man vacillates daily. It is normal for different thoughts to occur to him throughout the day. For example, anger alone is not a sin unless it results in harming another person, or in a Torah violation, or in a fixed disposition of character. But without resulting in any of these, it is only an evil thought, and God does not view this as a sin.

Why did Maimonides say that Moshe’s anger was a sin? It should not be a sin unless it resulted in action. The answer is that the people didn’t think Moshe was unjustified in his anger. They viewed Moshe’s anger as an indication that God too was angry at their request for water. Thereby, the people blamed themselves and wrongly viewed the situation as their sin. This prevented them from perfecting themselves and this is how Moshe created a profanation of God (chillul Hashem). Moshe disrupted the psychological mean (equilibrium) necessary in the Jews’ pursuit of philosophical perfection. When the Jews felt psychologically off-balance because of their mistaken self-blame, this corrupted their pursuit of philosophical perfection. Thus, Moshe’s anger sent the wrong message to the Jews, the guilt of which impeded their perfection.

Moshe was punished because his anger gave the Jews an impression that affected their perfection. What was Moshe’s error? One who is charged with a mission will always strive to preserve the path toward that ultimate objective. But the perfected person does not chase the objective. He has the objective in mind, but all of his actions are dictated by reality at every moment. However, at that moment, Moshe feared that the objective for which he strived his whole life might be lost. He focused on the objective. This was his error.


This is why a profanation of God is measured by the person. It occurs when one prevents another from gaining knowledge of God. An average person’s actions are not watched, so there is no impact. But as Moshe was watched by everyone, he caused a profanation of God. n