Word of Torah: Parashat Chukat
Written by: Rabbi Emily E. Segal
Living in this area of the country, we feel keenly the need for water – precipitation – in its appropriate amount and in its appropriate season. Not enough snow in the winter not only negatively affects skiing and tourism but also has far-reaching effects on the ecosystem of our area. Too little snow in winter followed by a dearth of rain and we have wildfires in our state and fire restrictions and bans in our area. This may be a 4th of July without fireowrks, again.
The Israelites, too, find themselves lacking water in our Torah portion this week, Chukat. There is great sadness in our Torah portion this week; both Miriam and Aaron—siblings of Moses, leaders of the Israelites in their own right—pass away within the span of this week’s Torah portion, and Moses is sentenced to die in the wilderness with the rest of the generation that left Egypt prior to the Israelites’ entry into the Promised Land. After the death of Miriam, the Israelites find themselves without water, and they stand against Moses and Aaron in a crowd, complaining, worrying that they may die in the wilderness for lack of water. In response, God tells Moses and Aaron to ask a particular rock for water, and water will issue forth. However, fed up, at the end of his rope, grieving the death of his sister, Moses instead hits the rock with his staff and water issues forth. And for this public show of a lack of faith in God and flouting God’s specific command, Moses is sentenced to die in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land.
Rashi (referencing the Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 9a) comments (on Numbers 20:2 from this week’s Torah portion) about the Israelites lack of water: “Since this statement follows immediately after the mention of Miriam’s death, we may learn from it that during the entire forty years they had the “well” through Miriam’s merit.” Rashi is referencing a well-known Midrash that says that because of Miriam’s merit, during her lifetime as the Israelites were travelling through the desert, a magic well would follow her. The Israelites could have drink no matter the situations they found themselves in. However, upon her death, the well dried up and disappeared. Therefore the Israelites found themselves without water, found themselves angry, and unfairly confronted Miriam’s brothers, challenging them in their time of grief.
I love this Midrash. To me it is clear that the intent of the Midrash is not just to talk about a physical well that the Israelites were able to utilize for drinking water, but that during Miriam’s lifetime her goodness, her connection to God, her warmth and kindness and gentle, joyful leadership created a well of spiritual sustenance that lifted up the Israelites and nurtured their souls during their harrowing wilderness journey and its many conflicts. Upon her death they found themselves not only without actual, physical water—but they had no spiritual water to replenish their arid souls. And in this drought, they bickered, and instead of peace, rancor grew.
Would that we could each be Miriam, giving life and energy and renewal to those around us simply through our presence, through our kindness, and by acting as agents of joy and thanksgiving. Water seeps in, reaching the roots of plants and allows them to grow and to thrive. During these long summer days, let us each strive to take the time and effort to create spiritual wells—for ourselves, for those around us—to replenish and renew ourselves and allow ourselves—our communities—to grow and thrive.
May this be God’s will, and may we seek to live by that will.