Chukkat 5779 – A Well of Traditions

By: Dr. Melissa Steiner

Chukat is about mortality. In this parshah, we read about the death of Aaron and Miriam – two of three of Israel’s great leaders in the wilderness; we also read about the death sentence for Moses – that he shall not enter the land of Israel. I also think that Chukat is about the importance of water – there are 22 mentions of water in this parshah and they range from vessels of water, to bathing in water, to the Sea of Galilee.

Before you can talk about mortality, you first have to focus on life. Water is life. Well yes – without water you cannot survive past a few days. In an article by Yonatan Neril, about Chukat and Water Consciousness, he wrote that

G-d takes the essential tangible resource of water (without which we cannot live for more than a few days) and gives it to us in an environment where we do not have it. We learn to appreciate water… In an ultimate sense, water does not nourish us. G-d does. Water is one of the chief means by which G-d provides life to us every day. The see-saw experience of having water and then losing it is the means to develop the spiritual muscles of appreciating G-d.

Aside: I really like the idea of developing ‘spiritual muscles’

How is it that the Jews had water while they were wandering in the desert? It was Miriam! Miriam’s Well is the name of the spring that miraculously provided water during the 40 years of wandering. Wait, what? A spring in the desert? And it followed them? According to the midrash, the ‘well’ was actually a very porous rock; it rolled alongside them and whenever they stopped to encamp, the rock would dig itself into the sand. The leaders would stand near the rock and command ‘Rise up, oh well.’  Other commentators posit that it wasn’t a rock at all which travelled with them, but the stream from the rock would just miraculously reappear at each new location.

The other strong symbol of life in Chukat is the red heifer. Mention of the red heifer is very early in the parshah. God says to Moses and Aaron that the Children of Israel should find “…a perfectly red unblemished cow, upon which no yoke was laid.’ Red – the color of blood – symbolizes life, and this heifer has never had to endure the burden of work. And what is done with this wonderous red heifer? It is slaughtered and reduced to ashes. And then the ashes are to be mixed with water… and from water comes new life. So in just a few versus of Torah, we are presented with an image of pure life and then is it over, representing the fragility of our lives. But mixing the ashes with water brings new life, representing the renewing character of water.

Indeed, within this parshah are also the laws about coming into contact with death and how that makes you tamei (unclean). In each of the instructions, there is water as part of the cleansing. And this practiced is maintained today when you return from a cemetery, you wash.

Water is thus essential for life and important at the end of life. No wonder the Children of Israel were so distraught when Miriam died. As long as Miriam lived, the water was available along their journeys. When she dies, in Chukat, the well dries up and the people are dying of thirst. They moan to Moses and Aaron, bitterly complaining about their thirst. Moses and Aaron seek guidance from God and are told to approach this rock and speak to it, whereby water will flow from it.

Um – which rock exactly? There are so many…

Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock, and he said to them, “Now listen, you rebels, can we draw water for you from this rock?”

This rock? The people are thinking – what do we care which rock brings water… we just need water.

And instead of speaking to it, Moses strikes it! A few, meager drops spill forth, hardly enough to satisfy any one person’s thirst let alone the masses. So, Moses strikes the rock again and now the water pours abundantly.

This scenario reeks of anger and impatience. How is it that Moses, a chosen leader, is now speaking harshly to the people and also disobeying God’s instruction? Moses IS angry and impatient with the people; calling them rebels is his response to their incessant crying about being thirsty and also their ungrateful behavior. But leaders are supposed to be calm and rational and lead by example, right? Think about it – Miriam has just died. Moses has to carry-on in his capacity as a leader and his personal emotions are probably right at the surface. When did he get a chance to grieve the loss of his sister? Who is comforting Moses and Aaron with their loss?

Humans are a mixture of reason and passion; sometimes grief and exhaustion contribute to mistakes by those who are normally calm and solid. Commentators explain that calling the people rebels, not acknowledging the role of God in bringing forth water, and striking the rock instead of speaking to it as instructed, comprises Moses’ sin and the reason that Moses was doomed to die in the desert not reaching the Promised Land. What should we learn from this? First, there is no life without error; everyone has some shortcoming and yet our lives are meaningful. And secondly, just as you should not get behind the wheel of a car when you are angry, we probably should not function as leaders when we are overwhelmed with emotion.

Why did Moses strike the rock twice? Well, the first time didn’t produce the result he wanted and so he tried again. That’s the simple explanation… but of course we need to look deeper. I found this really great explanation on Chabad.org that striking the rock twice exemplifies two ways to perform acts of kindness. One way is for a person to give of themselves generously but deep down, the person is giving because they want recognition of their charitable nature; they are being kind as a means to boost their own reputation. This is represented by the meager drops of water. The other way for a person to perform acts of kindness is to give freely and generously because that is who they are – willing to sacrifice for others without recognition, and even if it causes some pain to themselves. In fact, with all of the instructions around purifying someone who has become ‘unclean’ there is often someone else helping.

The ritually clean person shall sprinkle on the unclean person on the third day and on the seventh day, and he shall cleanse him on the seventh day, and he shall wash his clothes and bathe in water, and he shall become ritually clean in the evening.

The ‘ritually clean person’ is sacrificing themselves to help the unclean person and they become unclean themselves. This generosity is the free flowing water as a result of the second striking.

And what is the ultimate generous gift… the one which cannot be repaid – participating in Chevra Kadisha to prepare the body for burial. And guess what? That ritual involves washing the body.

We have a Well of Traditions.

And what of the ‘actual’ well? Did it really dry up when Miriam died? The Talmud explains that

 “one who wants to see Miriam’s well… should do the following: He should climb to the top of Mount Carmel and look out [at the Mediterranean Sea], and he will see a rock that looks like a sieve in the sea, and that is Miriam’s Well.”

Travel Tip:  The Sea of Galilee (also known as the Sea of Tiberias and the Kinneret), has 17 natural hot springs which supposedly have healing powers.  Can’t make it to Israel? Maybe we can take a healing trip to Arkansas!

Shabbat Shalom

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