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by Rabbi Lazer Gurkow


The natural is as astounding as the supernatural.


Ordinary events are, to ordinary people, well, just plain ordinary. The supernatural - now that is extraordinary. Miracle workers are different. To them, the natural is astounding and the supernatural is routine. How do I know? A miracle worker told me so.

When the household of Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa, a highly regarded miracle worker, was short on oil, Chanina advised them to supplement with vinegar. "He who instructed oil to light shall instruct vinegar to light," he observed.(1)

This comment is highly instructive, as it provides a glimpse into the miracle worker's mind. He doesn't take the oil's combustive property for granted. He marvels at it as a gift from G-d. He is also not surprised by a miracle. He easily assumes that the same G-d who directs combustive energies into oil could, effortlessly, redirect them into vinegar.

When the Sea of Reeds split, most Jews stood in awe. Moses wasn't fazed. He never assumed that liquids must flow and solids must stand. These properties were instilled into the solids and liquids by G-d, and the same G-d could easily redirect them.

Moses wasn't taken aback when desert rocks were transformed into wellsprings. Moses wasn't surprised when flaming torches, contained within great balls of hail, fell out of the Egyptian sky. When water turned to blood and the sun stopped shining over Egypt, Moses wasn't fazed. To Moses, the break with routine was no more remarkable than routine itself. Both were created by G-d.(2)

The Stone

This is what makes the rock episode so surprising. Just before the Israelites reached the land of Israel, their wellspring ran dry. G-d instructed Moses to tell the rock to spout water. Rather than speak to the rock, Moses struck it. The rock spouted water, but because Moses didn't carry out his instructions explicitly, he was denied access to the land of Israel.

In explaining the reason for this punishment, the Torah states, "Because you did not believe in me to sanctify me with water before their eyes." This is certainly a curious statement. Moses saw G-d smite the Egyptians, free the Israelites, split the Reed Sea, and deliver manna from heaven. Miracles were, to Moses, as routine as the natural seems to us. Didn't he believe that G-d could make a rock spout water?

This Biblical episode has garnered the attention of most Biblical commentators and, indeed, more commentary was written on this one episode that on almost any other subject in Torah. I would like to share one such explanation with you that I think deserves particular attention.(4)


Are great leaders forged by the trials they encounter or do generations of trying circumstances find great leaders to shepherd them through? Ordinary people have certainly risen to many extraordinary occasions, but there are also extraordinary leaders, who are born to handle extraordinary occasions. When confronted with the extraordinary encounters of history, it is often difficult to discern whether the leader is marked by the hour or the hour by the leader.

As a child, I marveled at the great men of history. Alexander the Great, Julius Cesar, Napoleon and Fredrick of Prussia all loomed large in my imagination. Yet, the more I read about them as an adult, the less impressed I am. These were not great men. They were ordinary men, who lived during great times.

As a child, I was in awe of Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin. Chaim Weizman and David Ben-Gurion seemed true heroes in my eyes.

When I regard them through the prism of adulthood, I am hard pressed to respect them as true heroes and great men. They achieved great things, this is true, but their fallibilities and limitations were equally true. Constrained by their quirks of personality, confined by the people around them, and prone to human weakness and predilection, these men failed as often as they achieved.

I seem to have grown cynical over time, but I'm glad to have retained at least some of my idealism. There are historical leaders that I still truly admire and Moses ranks at the top of my list. I truly believe that Moses was not made great by his circumstances, but that he made his circumstances great.


Moses was as righteous in Pharaoh's palace as he was at home, he was as mystical at the burning bush as he was at Mount Sinai. He was as humble when he was a shepherd as when he led his armies to victory, and he was as scholarly when he led his armies as when he taught Torah to the nation. He was a constant. Always righteous, always brilliant and always humble.

I believe that firmly and so did most of his generation. The one person who didn't believe it at all was Moses himself. Moses always considered that others could have been more successful in his position than he was himself. He always believed that any success he had was due to the people he led, rather than his own merit. He felt privileged to lead G-d's children and went about his work with humility.

He didn't regard himself a miracle worker, but as a conduit for the miracles G-d chose to deliver to a worthy generation. If the generation were less worthy, Moses figured, the sea wouldn't split regardless of what Moses did or wanted.(5)

The episode of striking the rock occurred nearly at the end of the forty-year journey through the desert. At this point, the generation that left Egypt was succeeded by its children. The new generation didn't witness the miracles that their forbears did, and they were not as reverent or as righteous as their parents.

Because Moses believed that he was endowed with spiritual gifts only on account of the nation he led, he feared that he might no longer be able to extract water from the rock. He had performed many miracles for the previous generation, but that was on behalf of a worthy group. It had been many years since he had last performed a miracle and he didn't consider this generation as worthy as its forbearer.

He did not doubt G-d's ability to perform a miracle, but his own ability to be its conduit. Moses was righteous, but he was punished because he indulged in excessive humility. Had he recognized the miracle worker within himself, he would have been able to demonstrate G-d's power to the young generation and "sanctify G-d before their eyes."

Recognizing our strengths is every bit as vital as knowing our weaknesses. Humility is a lovely trait, but we must never allow it to blind us to our true strengths. Our strengths are G-d-given and must be utilized in His service. When humility blinds us to our strengths, our ability to reach out to G-d from a point of strength is reduced. It was wrong when Moses did it and it is wrong for us, too.(6)


1) Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 25a.

2) He marveled at the natural every bit as much as you and I marvel at the supernatural. It was his very enchantment with G-d's hand embedded in the natural that enabled him to view the miraculous reversal of nature as just another event. An event as routine or as miraculous as the normal order of nature.

3) Shem MiShmuel (Rabbi Shmuel Bornstein, Rebbe of Sochaczev, 1855-1927) in his remarks from 5680.

4) This idea was reinforced in his mind when G-d instructed him to descend from Mount Sinai when the Israelites sinned and worshiped the golden calf. Our sages taught that G-d told Moses, "Descend, you were permitted on the mountain only on account of the people; now that they have strayed from me, you too must descend." (Babylonian Talmud, Brachot 30b. Shemot Rabbah 42:3)

5) See Hayom Yom, Kehot Publication Society, 1943, entries for 26 Mar Cheshvan and 27 Adar I. 5 Tammuz 5767 / 21 June 07

Rabbi Eliezer (Lazer) Gurkow is rabbi of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario Canada. He has written extensively on Jewish topics including Shabbat, Kashrut, Jewish Holidays and family purity. His website,, was established to provide a central location where his articles, speeches and essays could be made available to the inquisitive mind searching to understand and appreciate the "inner streams" of meaning that flow beneath the surface-simple understanding of the Torah text.

This article appeared June 21, 2007 in Arutz-Sheva


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