At the beginning of creation, Torah says, God’s spirit hovers over the water. When Yaakov is overcome with fear of meeting his estranged brother, he crosses the Yabbok stream. On its far bank, he wrestles with a stranger, and receives a new identity. When the Israelites leave Egypt, they cross the Sea of Reeds.
After popular leaders Miriam and Aharon die, the people confront Moshe, fearing he has deliberately led them to the wilderness to die of thirst. After snakes bite them into awareness, they apologize to Moshe and to God. Torah then reports: They camped along the Zered brook, and on the other side of the Arnon river. From there, to the well. Then Israel sang this song, “Rise up, O well, respond to this song!” (Bamidbar-Numbers 21:12-17)
Traditional commentators wonder: Why does Torah break to describe their travels – the same travels that are listed elsewhere? Why do they travel along water? What is the significance of the song?
Or Hachayyim says, For the first time, they travel on their own, no longer led by the Divine cloud that used to rest on the sanctuary while Aharon was alive. Ramban says: The travels are listed specifically to emphasize the water theme. Ba’al Haturim says: From this point on, they travel along water the whole way. Kli Yakar says: This song of gratitude is not led by Moshe; it comes from the Israelites’ own heart.
Water: The Torah’s symbol of rebirth and new beginnings. At the edge of the water, 40 years of wandering end, and a new independent, healthy, optimistic, grateful nation is born.
Exactly one year ago, our family found some renewal in a simple household flood.
Where in your life do you find waters of renewal?
Snake Questions (5772/2012)
Parshat Chukat invites us to step outdoors and take a closer look at snakes.
In Parshat Chukat, two Israelite leaders die, water is nowhere to be found, no cities will grant the Israelites safe passage, and they experience all-out war. After their battle they would like some nourishing meat, but there is none. They begin to riot against their leader Moshe. A swarm of poisonous snakes enters the camp. After people get bitten, they apologize for their nervous behavior. Moshe sets up a pole with a snake sculpted in copper. Everyone who has been bitten by a snake is healed. The healing is a national turning point. For the first time since the Exodus, the people offer their leaders a song of praise, instead of a litany of complaints.
When the people find themselves lost in the narrowness of fear and despair, they cannot see a future or grasp a plan. Snakes bring a jolt of awareness and a healing that allows the Israelites to embrace a new course. A snake’s sensory system reads in the air around it delicate chemical information that helps it identify possible courses of action. A snake’s skeleton is one long spine with short fine ribs all along it, enabling it to move quickly in any possible direction. The Israelites look at the snake and learn from it.
What life questions will you contemplate during British Columbia’s slower, more reflective summer? Where do you need to find awareness, openness to possibility, and flexibility to change course? When you step outdoors, which animals will you observe? Whose qualities will you emulate? Allow summer time spent outdoors to bring healing your way.
The Middle Way (5770/2010)
The great medieval Jewish philosophy Rabbi Moses Maimonides (a.k.a. Rambam), learned from the Greek philosopher Aristotle that good acts take the middle way between two extremes. In any situation, being too aggressive or too passive is the wrong choice. Maimonides believed that the Torah’s stories were designed to teach this same ethical philosophy.
In Parshat Chukat, our teacher Moshe responds to the thirsty Israelite mob by shouting at them, “Hear now, you rebels! Are we to bring you forth water out of this rock?” and then hitting the rock. According to Maimonides, here Moshe does not find a middle way between anger and patience. He moves too far to the extreme of anger. In so doing, he does not follow the ethical system he is supposed to be teaching: gain enough self-awareness and self-control to always find the middle way between two extremes. This is why God says to Moshe “You did not believe in me, and you did not make me holy.”
Maimonides believes that each of us can learn from this story about Moshe. Although we may not have two million people who need our help to fulfill their basic needs, everyone is connected in a network of relationships. Each decision that we make affects some people, and sets an example for others. In every situation, we can benefit from a “middle-way analysis,” asking: What would be the most aggressive response? What would be the most passive response? What response, somewhere between the two extremes, would bring about the most beneficial outcome for all?
Responding to Suffering (5768/2008)
Parshat Chukat begins by describing a ritual for dealing with death – and continues with the deaths of beloved leaders Miriam and Aharon, a drought, a loss of faith and confidence by Moshe and the Israelites. It raises dramatically the problems of “theodicy” – God’s justice. Why does God allow the innocent to suffer, emotionally and physically? And how can we respond to suffering?
Torah does not explain why suffering takes place, but it gives many suggestions about how we can respond. The Book of Bereisheet-Genesis teaches that, ultimately, people reconcile and reach out to one another. The Book of Shemot-Exodus invites us to pay attention to God’s miracles, which occur even when we have lost hope. The Book of Vayikra-Leviticus teaches us healing rituals. The Book of Bamidbar-Numbers encourages us to wait for bad times to pass. The Book of Devarim-Deuteronomy calls us to be a strong community of support to one another.
In a way, Parshat Chukat alludes to all five of the Torah’s recommendations. People reconcile, as Moshe continues to lead the people after expressing no confidence in them. Pay attention to Divine miracles, as God brings water despite the people’s loss of heart. Conduct healing rituals, like the ritual of the red heifer, for alleviating the trauma of dealing with death. Wait, as things do turn around. Gather in solid community, as all do come together to bury Miriam and mourn Aharon.
Without Miriam (5765/2005)
Adapted from Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira
Parshat Chukat opens with a description of the ritual that purifies a person after they have come in contact with a dead body. Paradoxically, the priests who perform the ritual become impure. A clue to understanding the paradox is found in the narrative of the parashah, if we understand water as a metaphor for divine Light. In Parshat Chukat, Miriam dies, the people can no longer find water, God instructs Moshe to speak to a rock so that water may flow from it, and Moshe strikes the rock instead.
Miriam attained great spiritual heights. The fact that she, as a woman, was released from the obligation to perform certain religious practices, made no difference. She performed even deeds that she was not obliged to perform. The force driving her to such exalted heights of piety was an exceptional yearning that gushed out from within her. With it, she was able to inspire the whole Jewish people with a longing to yearn for God, so that they could receive the supernal Light that Moshe brought down for them. Without Miriam’s inspiration, the people could not yearn, and could not access the Light.
In order for Moshe to inspire the people, he had to participate in their experience. In order to help others, pious people sometimes have to sin. By hitting the rock, Moshe did what for him was counted as a sin. One assumes that Moshe immediately repented for his sin of disobedience and that the Israelites could participate in his longing for total forgiveness. The whole people were thereby elevated. As a result, a copious flow of water was forthcoming, and there was abundance and great salvation.