Unlike Abraham who, though old and childless, had faith that God’s promise would be fulfilled and that he would father a multitudinous nation (Genesis 15:6), Moses is punished by God because he failed to believe that God could cause water to flow from a stone (Numbers 20:12). As a consequence, Moses was barred from entering into the Promised Land along with the Israelites (ibid.). At least that is what we are led to think. However, the Midrash (Numbers Rabbah 19:10) raises a good question.
Moses had shown an earlier failure to believe. Following the people’s complaints that the wilderness diet lacked enough meat (Numbers 11:4), God threatens to give them a month’s worth of meat, so much meat, in fact, that they would be sick of it (Numbers 11:20). Thinking about this threat, Moses wonders whether there is enough meat and fish to supply a nation of six hundred thousand adult males along with their families for an entire month. God then chides Moses, accusing him of failing to believe in the power of God (Numbers 11:23). Regarding this episode the Midrash comments: “Faith surely was wanting here too, and to a greater degree than in the present instance. Why then did He not make the decree against him on that occasion?” In other words, why wasn’t Moses barred from entry into the land of Israel nine chapters earlier?
The Midrash observes that while both instances show a weakness in Moses’ faith, the second instance was worse than the first. When Moses expressed his skepticism regarding the meat supply, that was a conversation between him and God alone. In contrast, in the second instance, Moses hit the rock twice in full view of the entire people. So, as the Midrash puts it: “The first offence was a private matter between you and Me Now, however, that it is done in the presence of the public it is impossible to overlook it.” In fact, what the Midrash stresses is implicit in the scriptural verse (Numbers 20:12): “…to sanctify me in the eyes of the Israelites” – emphasis on “in the eyes of the Israelites.”
What emerges from the Midrash is the conclusion that sins committed in public warrant greater redress that those committed in private: a valuable warning to celebrities, politicians, and all those who are in public view.