D’var Torah – Chukat/Balak

Chukat-Balak D’var Torah 5769 / July 3, 2009

Rabbi Maurice Harris

This week we’ve come to a double Torah portion, pairing Chukat and Balak, two of the portions that bring us to the final chapters of the Israelites’ forty year saga of journeying through the wilderness.  

The parasha opens with a famously intriguing description of a ritual of purification involving the ashes of a red heifer.  The priests are to take an unblemished red cow and burn it along with cedar wood, hyssop and crimson stuff. The ashes are then gathered up and used to create sacred waters which are sprinkled on individuals who have come in contact with the dead to ritually cleanse them.  

Until now, the book of the Torah we are in – the Book of Numbers – has told us stories that have taken place during the first two years of the Israelites’ exodus from slavery in Egypt.  But now the narrative takes a sudden 38 year jump forward. The generation that witnessed the 10 plagues, that left Egypt, that miraculously crossed the Sea of Reeds on dry land, and that experienced the thundering presence of God at Mount Sinai has died now in the wilderness.  With the exception of just a few elders like Moses, his brother Aaron, and his sister, Miriam, a new generation born in the wilderness has now taken the previous generation’s place. With this 38 year jump, our Torah portion presents us with, in fact, a new nation of Israelites with a new mission.  The previous generation’s mission was escape from slavery and the receiving and incorporating of the laws that God provided the nation at Mount Sinai. This generation’s mission will be to maintain those laws and traditions, and to enter and establish themselves in the Promised Land. So our story presents us with a new generation still led by the previous generation’s elders.

But that changes quickly.  Quickly we learn about the death of Miriam as the people are encamped at Kadesh.  Following her death, Moses and Aaron are faced with a crisis. Here’s how the passage reads in translation:

The whole Israelite community arrived in the desert of Zin in the first month, and the people settled at Kadesh. It was here that Miriam died, and here that she was buried. As the community had no water, they held a council against Moses and Aaron.

The people contended with Moses, exclaiming, “Would that we too had perished with our kinsmen in the ETERNAL’S presence! Why have you brought the ETERNAL’S community into this desert where we and our livestock are dying?  Why did you lead us out of Egypt, only to bring us to this wretched place which has neither grain nor figs nor vines nor pomegranates? Here there is not even water to drink!”

But Moses and Aaron went away from the assembly to the entrance of the meeting tent, where they fell prostrate. Then the glory of the ETERNAL appeared to them, and the ETERNAL said to Moses,

“Take the staff and assemble the community, you and your brother Aaron, and in their presence order the rock to yield its waters. From the rock you shall bring forth water for the community and their livestock to drink.”

So Moses took the staff from its place before the ETERNAL, as he was ordered.

He and Aaron assembled the community in front of the rock, where he said to them, “Listen to me, you rebels! Are we to bring water for you out of this rock?”

Then, raising his hand, Moses struck the rock twice with his staff, and water gushed out in abundance for the community and their livestock to drink.

But the ETERNAL said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you were not faithful to me in showing forth my sacredness before the Israelites, you shall not lead this community into the land I will give them.”

These are the waters of Meribah, where the Israelites contended against the ETERNAL, and where God revealed God’s sacredness among them. (Num 20: 1-13)

This moment, in which Moses appears to disobey God’s specific instruction by striking the rock instead of speaking to it, appears to be the incident that results in God denying him, and his brother Aaron, the experience of getting to enter the Promised Land.  We’ll come back to this subject later. To finish up the summary of the Torah portion, in the final passages of the parashah, Moses dispatches messengers to the king of Edom requesting safe passage along the King’s Highway for the Israelites and offers to compensate the Edomites for any water consumed along the way.  But the Edomites – who are the Israelites cousins – remember, Jacob’s brother Esau is the patriarchal ancestor of the Edomites – the Edomites refuse to allow the Israelites passage and instead go out to the borders heavily armed. The Israelites circumnavigate the land of Edom and arrive at Mount Hor. Moses, Aaron and Aaron’s son Elazar go up the mountain.  Aaron is told to prepare to die there, and he transfers his High Priest’s vestments to Elazar. Then, Aaron dies.

Finally, approaching ever closer to the Jordan River and the borders of the Promised Land, the Israelites fight and win a series of battles against the king of Arad, Sihon, the king of Amorites and Og, the king of Basham. Unfortunately, this new generation of Israelites seems to have learned the art of complaint from their parents, and the episodes of widespread bitter complaint continue.  One episode of these complaints leads to God afflictin the people with serpents – and the plague is finally stemmed by Moses’s placing a bronze serpent atop a tall staff which draws the people’s focus upward. The Israelites now find themselves encamped across the Jordan River from the city of Jericho.

As I mentioned already, there is a second Torah portion this week, but I am going to limit myself to responding a bit to just this one.  I’d like to share a couple insights from two contemporary commentators on the Torah.

Rabbi Lewis Eron comments on the death of Miriam.  He reminds us of the rabbinic tradition found in midrash and in the Talmud that tells us that wherever Miriam went with the Israelites as they journeyed in the wilderness, she would be accompanied by a magical well that provided fresh, abundant water for the people.  Although this story is not found in the Torah itself, the rabbis developed this midrash partly on the basis of the fact that as soon as Miriam dies, the community faces a crisis involving a sudden lack of water.

Rabbi Eron states that this midrash reflects Miriam’s status as a full partner alongside her two brothers, Moses and Aaron.  He writes, “Her courage and enthusiasm sustained our people. Her death was a great loss for our ancestors and her two brothers. The Torah underscores this point by telling us that almost immediately after her death, Moses and Aaron are almost overwhelmed by the challenge to provide water for our people.”  Rabbi Eron then goes on to talk about the wonderful trend that’s gone on for well over a decade now in which more and more Jewish households place a kos Miriam, a Cup for Miriam, on their Passover seder table alongside the cup of Elijah.  Elijah’s cup is, of course, filled with wine. Miriam’s cup is filled with pure, clean water.

It’s the crisis over water that faces Moses and Aaron after Miriam’s death that interests another Torah scholar, Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, who is the chair of the Hebrew Bible and Jewish Thought Departments at the Open Orthodox Rabbinical School and Yeshiva in New York.  Rabbi Helfgot looks closely at the text describing the episode in which Moses and Aaron end up striking the rock to bring water to the complaining Israelites, instead of speaking to it as God had commanded. He notes that the Israelites seem to be complaining about their overall situation, and that only at the tail end of their protest do they actually mention their wish for water.  He also points out that this crisis is the first story told about the new generation of Israelites that has been born and grown up in the wilderness. It’s the first crisis story that we are witnesses to for this new generation. Building on the ideas of others, Rabbi Helfgot argues that what’s happening in this episode is a case of Moses and Aaron failing to understand the nature of the complaint of this new generation.  What Moses and Aaron heard was a rebellious and bitter grumble from the people that sounded a lot to them like the same kind of complaining that they had heard so many times from the generation that left Egypt 40 years earlier. This generation had different challenges to face, and in some respects was asking a different question with its complaint.

If the previous generation’s question was, “Now that we’re out of Egypt and here in the wilderness, what will we have to drink,” this generation’s question really seems to be, “What is our purpose and our mission?  How are we related to our parents’ mission, what are we supposed to do, and how is it all going to work?” The complaint about water in this episode is, according to Rabbi Helfgot, almost an afterthought. These people are not, he writes, simply thirsty for water, but with the passing of the previous generation, they are questioning the whole purpose of their mission. God’s specific instruction to Moses to speak to the rock in front of the entire people, all assembled as witnesses, is markedly different from God’s instruction to Moses the last time they faced a water shortage 40 years ago.  At that time, God asked Moses to take the elders with him to the rock and have them witness the miracle of God bringing forth water from the rock. Not this time. This time God’s intent is for Moses and Aaron to gather the entire community and perform the miracle, in order to give them an experience that will help them solidify their belief in their mission and galvanize their commitment to their purpose. But, sadly, Moses loses his temper with the people and mars the moment. He strikes the rock instead of speaking to it, yes, but maybe that’s missing the real failure. The real failure, according to Rabbi Helfgot, is he and Aaron misread the leadership need of the moment, and God has set it up as a very important moment for this generation to have a direct encounter with the Divine and draw inspiration and energy to bolster their sense of purpose.  

It is this failure that leads to Moses and Aaron not going with the people into the Promised Land – not so much as punishment, but more as logical consequence.  It’s time for this generation to find its way with new leadership.

A Rabbi Robert Zimmerman of Duluth, Minnesota expressed the same kind of generational transition during the 1960s when he wrote:

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you cant understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin’.
Please get out of the new one
If you cant lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.


Maybe this week’s Torah portion sheds light on at least one aspect of what’s happening in Iran.  In a country where the sizable majority of the population is under 30, a new generation very well may have moved on to a different mission than the one that continues to frame the mindset of the older generation that established Islamic rule after the 1979 revolution.  The dynamics of generational shift and leadership change are fluid and complex, and definitely beyond my grasp. It seems our ancestors, like us, faced these issues too. Shabbat shalom.

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