One of the most beautiful and impactful aspects of the Torah is its description of the humanity of its protagonists. Their strengths and struggles, heroism and failures, highs and lows are depicted before us, allowing us to much more readily identify with and learn from them. The realization that our Avot and Imahot had many crises within their own lives, or that Moshe himself had to struggle to contain his temper, can guide us and reassure us as we struggle with our own issues. As great as they were, they were human, and the Torah wants us to learn not only when to emulate them but when to learn from their mistakes to avoid repeating them.
The Torah rarely passes judgment on the actions of our great role models, preferring to describe events in their lives and leaving us, guided by our great commentaries, to derive the appropriate lessons for ourselves. Not surprisingly, we often find differing interpretations of certain events; for example Abraham's decision to leave Israel so soon after arrival due to famine, or Aharon's decision not to confront head on those building the golden calf. This points to the complexity that life is, the grey that obscures the black and white on almost every issue. The same action can often be viewed positively or negatively; much depends on context and motivation.
Context seems to be the key to understanding the severity with which the Torah viewed Moshe's hitting the rock to obtain water. Here the Torah in essence reverses itself and forcefully passes judgment against Moshe. The Torah's harsh verdict of the event itself, "you did not believe in Me" (20:12), is followed up on three separate occasions with the expressions "you rebelled against My word" (20:24), "you disobeyed My commandment" (27:14) and "you trespassed against Me" (Devarim 32:51). Reading words such as these one might envision a sinner who worships idols, blasphemes or disdains the Torah; yet these words are directed against Moshe Rabbeinu. While we have great words of indignation we are left almost clueless as to the series of events that led to such harsh judgment. Why is the Torah so seemingly vague as to what happened but so clear as to the characterization of it?
Adding to our puzzlement is the fact that an almost identical story took place soon after the Exodus (Shemot 17:1-7), when the Jews first arrived in the desert. Here too they did not have water to drink and quite understandably the Jewish people complained. Here too G-d told Moshe to take his staff, and Moshe hit the rock and water gushed forth. Even the name of the place where Moshe is punished, Mei Merivah , is reminiscent of this prior episode at Masa u'Merivah. Yet in that case there is no criticism of Moshe with G-d's anger being directed only at the Jewish people. In contrast at Mei Merivah G-d is most upset at Moshe, yet there is no indication of any anger being directed at the Jewish people. Only Moshe somehow did not believe?!
The main task of a leader is to inspire others. A leader who cannot motivate others to change and grow has, great accomplishments notwithstanding, failed in the major component of leadership. This failure may be totally beyond the leader's control, as in the case of trying to lead a stiff necked people. When one describes a generation as leaderless, that refers not only to the stature of the leaders but to the obstinacy of the people as well, who are resistant to change.
Such was the situation of Moshe, Aharon and Miriam. As great as they were they were unable to inspire the people to the necessary great heights. We readily understand that a group of slaves would complain about a lack of water. For them, hitting the rock and receiving water was a great display of G-d's benevolence. But forty years later a different response was warranted. At this juncture, having had all their needs taken care of during the long years in the desert, the people should have realized that water would be forthcoming. There was no need for them to complain and no need for Moshe to hit the rock. And if this was not to be, it is their leaders who must tragically be held accountable. The exact details of what, why and how are irrelevant.
Moshe's fate was sealed not by hitting the rock but by the fact that the Jews complained in the first place. This explains why Aharon, who was an innocent bystander in all of this, was similarly punished. As co-leader he too had to suffer the fate of his flock. Zot chukat HaTorah, this is the decree of the Torah. May we merit great leaders and even more importantly may we merit great followers.