Chukat: Confronting Mortality

Va’yavo’u B’nei Yisrael kol ha’edah Midbar Tzin bachodesh harishon vayeshev ha’am b’Kadesh. Vatamot sham Miriam vatikaver sham. V’lo haya mayim la’edah.

And all the Children of Israel arrived at the Wilderness of Tzin on the first new moon, and stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there. And there was no water for the community. (Numbers 20:1-2)

Thirty-nine years have passed since Moses, Miriam and Aaron led the Children of Israel out of bondage. Thirty-nine years since Moses raised his staff and split the Sea, since Miriam led all the women in dancing on the other side. Now, Miriam dies.

Aaron will also pass away later in our portion. And Moses will learn that he, too, will not enter the Promised Land. A generation is passing – are the Children of Israel finally ready to “grow up”, and find a new generation of leaders?

The Torah tells us that immediately after Miriam’s death, the community’s water dries up. This link between Miriam and water, which goes back to her protecting her baby brother Moses as his basket floated down the Nile, and continues with her singing and dancing at the edge of the sea, is noted by Jewish tradition, and Miriam becomes known as the keeper of Miriam’s Well, a miraculous water source summoned by Miriam that travels with the Israelites through the Wilderness. Now that Miriam is gone, the well dries up. The Torah relates that God tells Moses and Aaron to take his staff, and to speak to the rock and tell it to yield its water so that the people might drink.

In one of the more perplexing moments in the Torah, instead of speaking to the rock, Moses shouts at the assembled community “Shim’u na, ha’morim המרים! Ha’min ha’sela ha’zeh notzi lachem mayim?” – “Listen up, you rebels! Can we get water for you out of this rock?” (Num. 20:10) Moses then strikes the rock with his staff, and water gushes forth.

But there is no celebration. Instead, YHVH says to Aaron and Moses, “Because you did not trust me enough to affirm my sanctity in front of the Israelites, you shall not lead this people into the Promised Land.” (20:12) Is this not too harsh? After a lifetime of selfless leadership, Moses lapses once and is thus condemned to never reach his goal? Readers of all eras are troubled, and puzzle over God’s decree. How could Moses possibly deserve this fate? I find the many efforts to justify God’s decree to be forced and unsatisfying – on the surface, the punishment simply does not fit the transgression. I am much more drawn to a more subtle reading of the text – “a story beneath the story”, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it, that we find encoded in so much of the Torah.

Miriam has just died, and a very human Moses is beside himself with grief. His big sister has protected him since birth. Moses never led alone; he always had his sister and his brother by his side. And now, Miriam is gone, and the water of life has stopped flowing. An all-too-human Moses lashes out in anguish and despair. This is a story about mortality and grief.

In this telling, read “God” as “Life”, proclaiming not a punishment but instead describing reality: “And Life said to Moses, indeed, Miriam is gone and your time too is soon coming to an end. You will not live to see your most cherished goal. This is the way of Life. It is time to pass the mantle to the next generation.”

In this telling, read the odd Hebrew usage with care: when Moses exclaims, “Shim’u na, ha’morim המרים!” “Hamorim” certainly appears to mean “rebels”, but this is the only time in Torah that this usage is found. Note that in the unvocalized Hebrew of the Torah, this word could just as easily be read as “Ha’Miriam”, thereby rendering the verse as “Hear me, please, Miriam! How are we going to get water out of this rock for these people?”

In the story beneath the story, Moses cries out to his sister. The fact is, Moses knows how to get water from the rock – he accomplished the same task back in Exodus 17:5-6. Something else is going on here: Miriam has just died, and Moses at this moment is utterly bereft. In the aftermath, Moses realizes that he will not be able to complete this journey without his sister. His time too is approaching. There is a time to be born and a time to die, a time for every purpose under heaven.

Aaron is then informed that it is his time to die, and Moses escorts his brother to the peak of Mount Hor. Aaron dies on the summit and the people mourn. Now only Moses is left of that triumvirate of siblings, and as the Israelites journey onward, it is imperative that they learn how to summon the waters of life into their midst. Life must go on. They arrive at a place simply called “The Well”, and there they sing a song to the well…and the waters appear!

In this telling, a close reading of the Hebrew is again key: “Az yashir Yisrael et hashirah ha’zot” – “Then Israel sang this song” (Num. 21:17) is the very same phrasing, with a key difference, as the song of liberation at the Sea of Reeds: “Az yashir Moshe uv’nei Yisrael et hashirah ha’zot” – “Then Moses and the Children of Israel sang this song” (Ex. 15:1). Nearly forty years later, the Children of Israel are now called simply Israel, no longer children, and are singing without Moses!

And what do they sing? “Alei be’er, anu la!” – “Spring up, Well – Sing to it!” (Num. 21:17), reminiscent of the celebration with drums and dance that Miriam led the women in after crossing the Sea. But there it says “Va’ta’an la’hem Miriam” – “And Miriam sang to them” (Ex. 15:21). Now, Miriam is no more, and it is the people themselves who are singing, and the waters now flow for them.

In this telling, mortality is confronted, grief is expressed and acknowledged, and life is affirmed. In this telling, the story is about our own journey through life. The waters that dry up when we lose a loved one are not forever lost, but we each face the challenge of having to resume the song of life on our own, despite the fact that the loved one who taught us the song, who sang with us, and whose loving presence we drank from, is no longer singing. We must journey through our grief, through our own desiccated wilderness, until we can return to the well, and then we must allow to rise within us the song that others used to lead. In this telling, after our beloved teachers and parents are gone, it is up to us become the singers who summon and keep the waters of life flowing for the next generation.

Parshat Chukat begins with an entire chapter about the arcane ritual of the Red Heifer. The heifer’s ashes, when properly prepared, are to be used in a ritual to restore to wholeness those who have come in contact with the dead. On the surface, these instructions seem quite obscure, oddly inserted into the narrative that follows it. But in the story beneath the story the connection becomes obvious. The ashes of the Red Heifer bring us back from the limbo of grief and death, and restore us to the community of the living. The chapter of the Red Heifer serves as a prelude for our portion. In the next passages Miriam and Aaron die, Moses encounters his own disabling grief and confronts his own mortality, and the Children of Israel must finally grow up and restore their own sense of wholeness, knowing that death is a part of life. Chukat teaches us how to keep singing.