I. Ten Sins
Moshe’s precise sin is hotly debated among commentators. When the biblical text leaves so much open to interpretation, important underlying worldviews of commentators affect how they fill in the gaps.
Abarbanel (Num. 20) lists ten different explanations. Similarly, Jacob Milgrom (JPS Commentary, Numbers p. 448) conveniently summarizes ten views in three categories:
1. Moses’ actions in striking the rock: (a) that he struck it instead of speaking (Rashi, Rashbam, Arama, Shadal, Malbim); (b) that he chose it although the people wanted another rock (Orah Hayyim, Yal., Lek. Tov); (c) that he struck it twice instead of once (Targ. Jon.; Ibn Ezra.
2. His character, shown by (a) his blazing temper (Maimonides, Ibn Ezra, Tanh. B. 4:210); (b) his cowardice (in fleeing the sanctuary; v. 6; Albo, Biur); (c) his callousness (in mourning for Miriam while his people died of thirst; Yal., Lek. Tov).
3. His words, (a) which in the form of a question were misconstrued as doubting God (Meir ha-Kohen, Ramban); (b) actually doubting God (Tanh. B. 4:121-22; Deut. R. 19:13-14); (c) calling Israel “rebels” (Ibn Ezra); (d) notsi’, “shall we draw forth…” (Hananel, Ramban).
II. Moshe’s Anger
As mentioned briefly, Rambam (Shemonah Perakim, 4) sees Moshe’s sin as his anger. He writes (R. Yaakov Feldman tr., The 8 Chapters of the Rambam, pp. 78-79):
But what was [Moshe’s] sin? He inclined toward an extreme of a particular personal virtue, composure, by expressing anger and say, “Listen now, you rebels! [Must we fetch you water from this rock?]” (Numbers 20:10). And God objected to the fact that a man like himself would express anger toward the congregation.
For when someone of his caliber does something like this, he profanes God’s Name. Because the people studied every move he made and everything he said, and learned from them, and hoped to merit true bliss both in this world and the World to Come by [duplicating] them.
Ramban (Num. 20:7) stridently objects to this approach. Among his questions are that the text states that God accused Moshe of failing to have faith (Num. 20:12). How does Moshe’s anger show a lack of faith? Rather, Ramban suggests in the name of Rabbenu Chananel, Moshe’s sin was saying that he would bring water from the rock. The people might have thought that he did it on his own, through witchcraft, and not as God’s agent.
One possible reason for Rambam’s and Ramban’s disagreement is their approach toward witchcraft. Ramban (Sefer Ha-Mitzvos, overlooked positive commandments, 8) states that the mitzvah of being wholehearted with God (Deut. 18:20) involves rejecting seers and wizards. While their black magic works, we must place our faith in God and ignore their abilities. Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Avodah Zarah 11:16) takes a more skeptical stance. He sees all these types of black magic as useless nonsense. According to Ramban, black magic is effective but off limits because we must place our faith in God. According to Rambam, it is entirely ineffective.
Perhaps the Rambam and Ramban are consistent with their own opinions. According to the Ramban, since magic works, even if forbidden, we can understand why the people might suspect that Moshe might have used magic to independently draw water from the rock. However, according to the Rambam that magic is ineffective, Moshe would not have been able to draw water from the rock without God’s assistance. But this explanation fails because we are discussing what people believed. Even according to the Rambam, people believed that magic works. Therefore, they might have mistakenly believed that Moshe used magic to draw water from the rock.
IV. Faith and Action
Perhaps the explanation of Rambam’s view can be found in an apparent contradiction between his writings regarding God’s judgment of a person’s actions. How many mitzvos must a person perform in order to earn entrance to the World to Come? In Mishneh Torah (Hilkhos Teshuvah 3:1-2), Rambam writes that a person is judged according to the majority of his actions. If the majority is meritorious then he is judged righteous.
However, in his Mishnah commentary (Makos 3:17), Rambam writes that if a person performs a single mitzvah with perfectly pure intent, he earns a place in the World to Come. This statement is doubly difficult. On the one hand, if a person is generally negligent in his mitzvah observance, why should one perfect mitzvah earn him eternity? On the other, if a true intellect achieves eternal life, of what relevance is mitzvah performance?
R. Jonathan Blass (Mi-Nofes Tzuf, vol. 2 pp. 682-688) explains that, according to the Rambam, the highest level of faith requires action. Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 1:39) explains that loving God with all your heart means with all the powers of your heart, which includes all the powers of your body, i.e. mitzvah observance. Intellectual apprehension of God requires loving God (ibid. 3:51), which in turns requires mitzvah observance. Understanding God’s attributes involves imitating them (ibid. 3:54). A person cannot perfect his faith without imitating God.
In Hilkhos Teshuvah, Rambam is discussing minimal mitzvah performance. That follows the majority of actions. In his Mishnah commentary, Rambam is discussing the highest level of mitzvah performance which represents apprehension and love of God. With that one mitzvah, he has reached the highest levels of faith.
Perhaps, then, we can answer Ramban’s question. The Torah states that Moshe sinned by failing to believe in God. How did his anger show lack of faith? The Ritva (Sefer Ha-Zikaron, p. 62) states that faith requires action (ha-emunah mitzarefes le-ma’aseh). As we just saw, according to the Rambam, the highest level of faith in, and love of, God requires action. You must manifest it in every fiber of your being. Moshe’s anger shows not only a character flaw but a brief failure to imitate God’s attributes, a momentary descent from complete faith in body and mind.