According to tradition (Ta’anit 9a), Bnei Yisrael were sustained throughout their journey in the wilderness by water from a miraculous well which was provided in the spiritual merit of Miriam. This means that immediately upon the death of Miriam, ‘the community was without water’ (Bemidbar 20:2) and they complained harshly to Moshe & Aharon.
Moshe and Aharon were at a loss. They were in the midst of mourning their sister, and pained by the complaints of the people. Moreover, they knew that the well was a miraculous creation and they felt that they had no more spiritual credit to their name to provide water for the people. In fact, if there was no water for the people, it meant that they were inadequate leaders, and as Rabbi Mordechai HaKohen explains in his Siftei Cohen, they felt ashamed that they could not provide this basic need to the people. It is for this reason that Moshe and Aharon came to the entrance of the Ohel Moed to try and find some inner peace amidst their emotional agony and we are told that Moshe and Aharon prostrated themselves, at which time ‘the presence of the Lord appeared to them’ (ibid. v. 6).
However, what is fascinating is what Rabbi Cohen believes to have been the message that Moshe and Aharon received from God. In his opinion, rather than receiving an answer from God about their predicament, Moshe and Aharon receive a rebuke from God about their behaviour, claiming that God said: “There should be no mourning an anguish expressed by public servants! Leave here immediately! My children are thirsty and you are sitting here and mourning for Miriam?!”
According to this explanation, Moshe and Aharon erred by prioritising their emotional needs over the needs of the nation and in so doing they forgot a key lesson about leadership which is that when a people are in crisis, the leader must be present. This is why the solution given to them by God demanded that they reengage with the people and ‘assemble the community’ (ibid. v. 8) while also telling them how to provide water for the people through talking, which itself could be understood to be teaching Moshe and Aharon that the only way that they will find inner peace amidst this crisis is through talking rather than through isolating themselves. Yet, rather than talking, Moshe says to the people ‘listen you rebels’ and then he hits the rock twice. Perhaps, by using the term ‘listen’, Moshe was expressing his desire for his needs to be heard rather than quashed, but as his actions demonstrated, by this time it was too late. Moshe was in no mood to talk to people or even to a rock. He, along with Aharon, needed to mourn, but the situation did not allow them to do so.
Understood this way, this was a triple tragedy. The first was that Miriam died; the second was the Moshe & Aharon could not mourn her properly; and the third was the outcome of Moshe’s actions. What we learn from here is that leadership is not easy and that a leader will often struggle to deal with personal matters while attending to national concerns. But more significantly, even the greatest of leaders can behave out of character when under tremendous emotional strain.