After having left Egypt, the nation camps in Refidim. Having no water to drink, the people complain to Moshe and G-d gives Moshe the following instructions: “Pass before the people and take with you some of the elders of Israel; and in your hand take your staff with which you struck the river, and go. Behold! I shall stand before you by the rock in Horeb; you shall strike the rock and water will come forth from it and the people will drink.” The Torah continues: “Moshe did so in the sight of the elders of Israel.” (Shmot 17:5-6)
Forty years later, the people are faced with a similar lack of water. However, G-d’s instructions to Moshe are markedly different: “G-d spoke to Moshe saying, ‘Take the staff and gather together the assembly, you and Aharon your brother, and speak to the rock before their eyes that it shall give its waters. You shall bring forth for them water from the rock and give drink to the assembly and to their animals’.” (Bamidbar 20:7-8)
Abarbanel is puzzled by the numerous differences between the two situations. In the first case, the miracle is to be performed only in front of the elders; in the second case, in front of the entire assembly. In the first case, Moshe acts alone; in the second case he is joined by Aharon. Here he is told to strike the rock, while over there he is merely to speak to the rock. Here he is told that the water will come out and the people will drink, without mentioning Moshe or the animals, while over there the rock gives its water and then Moshe gives it to the assembly and their animals. Finally, in our case the rock is referred to in Hebrew as “tsur” while in the second case it is called “selah”.
Abarbanel explains that just as the manna miraculously “followed” the people throughout their forty years in the desert, so too did the water, which was necessary for their survival. The giving of the manna, the giving of the water and the giving of the Torah were three aspects of a single miracle — the demonstration of G-d’s glory. In our case — the first example of water being brought forth miraculously — the water is compared to the Torah that we received from the “Tsur” (another name for G-d), whose ways are pure” (Devarim 32:4). Because in this case the water is compared to the Torah and its source is G-d, Moshe is instructed to perform the miracle only in front of the elders. This is similar to what happens later when Moshe is instructed to approach Mt. Sinai prior to receiving the Torah: “Go up to G-d, you…and seventy of the elders of Israel” (Shmot 24:1). In the second case, however, the comparison to the receiving of the Torah is absent and the miracle can be performed in front of everyone. The comparison to Torah is also indicated by the fact that our verse makes reference to Horeb, another name for Sinai, where the Torah would be given. In our parsha Moshe acts alone, but in the second case Aharon’s assistance was required to organize such a large group. In our case Moshe is instructed to strike the rock in order to dramatically demonstrate the nature of the miracle which was taking place for the first time — the actual physical nature of solid rock, which represents solid ground, was being transformed into liquid water. Forty years later, however, the people were used to the miraculous appearance of water and no dramatic action was required. To further dramatize this new miracle in our parsha, the entire emphasis is on the fact that the rock itself gives forth its water, something new and unheard of previously. Finally, in our parsha, since the water is being compared to the Torah, there is no need to mention the animals, as they are not the ones to receive the Torah.