Haazinu teaches an important lesson about abuse of power. In this reading, Moses ascended Mound Nebo and viewed the Promised Land he would never enter because he had broken faith with God at the waters of Meribath-kadesh.
However, most readers believe Moses' punishment results from an episode related in the Book of Numbers (Chapter 20).
There, the Israelites reproached Moses because they lacked food and water. God then instructed Moses to speak to a rock that would produce water. Moses, enraged by the Israelites' complaints and lack of faith, struck the rock twice with his rod. Although water flowed abundantly, this rash deed led to his punishment: "Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them" (Numbers 20:12). Most people believe this disobedience to God was the reason for Moses's punishment.
However, the Torah records several differing versions of this incident, thereby indicating that even the ancient authors were uncertain of the true reason that Moses did not enter the Promised Land.
The Book of Exodus (17:1-7) notes that God ordered Moses to strike the rock to obtain water. In Deuteronomy 3:26 and 4:21, Moses attributed his inability to enter the Promised Land to the behavior of the Israelites, not to his own over-zealousness. What are we to make of these divergent records of the same episode?
In many ancient civilizations, the rod symbolized authority. In Egyptian tomb reliefs, kings were depicted holding a serpent-headed staff, the symbol of sovereignty. The symbolism is evident when Moses and Aaron appeared before Pharaoh with their rods in hand. God coached Moses to cast his rod onto the ground, whereupon it turned into a serpent. It was restored to a staff when Moses picked the snake up by the tail (Exodus 4:1-5).
Pharaoh ordered his magicians to do the same thing, only to see their snakes swallowed up by Aaron's (7:8-13).
The rod appears twice more: Moses held the rod over the Nile, turning it into blood; and Moses held his rod over the sea, splitting the waters, permitting the Israelites to march to safety on dry ground (14:16).
Moses was no magician. He had no personal control over the staff. The biblical narrative demonstrates that the power of the rod does not inhere in the rod itself, and is not bestowed by a magician, as the Egyptians believed but, rather, emanates from God. In Egypt, the magician attempted to control the divine; among the Israelites, God influenced man and nature. The difference is significant. On the one occasion when Moses took the initiative to strike the rock, disaster resulted.
A rod also figures prominently in the Book of Numbers. To indicate the pre-eminence of Moses' and Aaron's leadership over rebellious Korach, the rods of all the tribes were placed in the tabernacle overnight. The next day, Aaron's staff "had brought forth sprouts, produced blossoms, and borne almonds" (Numbers 17:21), thus symbolizing Moses' authority and paving the way for Aaron to assume leadership. The rod served as the tangible symbol of authority.
The multiplicity of accounts reporting Moses' use of his staff point to Moses' actual sin as the abuse of authority, not disobedience of God. Judaism teaches that leaders must be judged by stricter standards than those they lead because so many individuals are dependent on their behavior. Leadership must be tempered by rachmonis, compassion. Moses' rash behavior demonstrated a lack of patience. If Moses employed poor judgment in striking the rock, then he could be expected to behave similarly when dealing with the people. Moses could be forgiven for abusing a rock, but not if he were to abuse his people. This is the real reason for God's punishment.
If, in simple matters like speaking to a rock, we use poor judgment, then we can be expected to apply the same poor judgment in matters of great importance. If, however, an individual is able to use compassion and kindness, then he deserves to carry the mantle of leadership. This logic led Ben Zoma to answer his question, "Who is powerful?" with the words: "He who is slow to anger" (Proverbs 16:32).