The story of Moshe hitting the rock is ubiquitous for its blatant but rare punishment of Moshe, but many of the commentaries struggle with pinpointing what exactly he did wrong. Why is it, that the first time he drew water from a rock it was through hitting (Parshat Beshalach), and now it was a problem that he did? Some commentaries provide, based on Midrash, an intriguing backstory.
The pasuk tells us that Hashem instructed Moshe “speak to the rock” (20:8). While that seems like a clear instruction, its specificity seems even more than necessary- what rock is Hashem referring when He says “THE rock”? Why not say ‘a rock’? Does it matter which rock? Surely, Hashem can bring water out of any rock He wants! The Shem MeShmuel, Rav Shmeul Borenstein (1855-1926) quotes his father, the Avnei Nezer (Rav Avrohom Borenstein, the founder of Sochatchover Chassidus) as explaining that this specific rock was chosen because it has a history. This was the very same rock that was used the first time Moshe drew the water. While it’s true that the rock was hit the first time, what Moshe failed to realize was that the second time becomes much easier, “like riding a bike”, as they say. Once you’ve already ingrained the habit of producing water, then the habit remains, even if it is 40 years later.
We often look back at days of spiritual success with a tint of nostalgia, as if to say ‘those days are long gone’ or distinctly in the past. In truth, those moments, activities, or feelings of inspiration are actually readily available to access again. We just have to try. The familiarity of those experiences allow us to reconnect- with the siddur, the class, the mitzvah, and return to that same feeling. We shouldn’t say ‘I used to be good at learning Torah’, or ‘I wish I could go back to those meaningful prayers during Yom Kippur’. The opportunity is there, and it’s easily accessible even now, we just have to try. It doesn’t require compulsion or extra hard work, like Moshe felt necessary for the rock. As Shlomo HaMelech says, “Don’t say, ‘How has it happened that former times were better than these?’ For it is not wise to ask such a question” (Kohelet 7:10).