Parshas Chukat: Miriam’s well, the sin of Moshe Rabbenu and the waters of strife

In many ways, Parshas Chukat is about water. It begins with the laws of the red heifer, whose ashes are mixed with water, then it tells of Miriam’s well, and the drought suffered by the Israelites following her death, before relating the episode of Moshe Rabbenu striking a rock to provide water and being told by G-d that neither he nor Aaron will enter the Holy Land. Following Aaron’s death, and a plague of snakes, the Israelites sing a song giving thanks for the water they have been provided with, and the Parsha ends with Moshe Rabbenu leading the Israelites in battle against Sichon and Og (by way of the Sea of Reeds), and conquering their lands, which lie east of the Jordan River!

Chukat certainly leaves us with a great opportunity to reflect upon the nature of water, both physically and as a metaphor.

The incident of Miriam’s death, and the Israelites’ thirst certainly carries and important message. One might wonder why Miriam’s death led to a lack of water; initially, the two events seem unconnected. But the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe zt”l help us to understand this part of the Parsha. The Rebbe taught that “Miriam’s well is the vital fluid of Israel’s spiritual life, the water that inculcates them with the knowledge and identity her brothers provide”. The well drying up after her death served as a useful physical portrayal for the huge spiritual effect that her death had on the Israelites. The “waters of Miriam” enabled each individual Israelite to benefit from the beauty and meaning found in the Torah. When she died, the Israelites no longer benefitted spiritually from her incredible righteousness, and this is mirrored by the physical damage brought on by a lack of water.

Miriam excelled in the trait of Gemilut Chasadim (loving kindness). So much so that her death was as great a tragedy as the absence of a physical necessity. Those who aspire to be like Miriam should attempt to take upon themselves her enthusiasm for good deeds, and her ability to transfer the teachings of the Torah to each and every individual. When one imparts the knowledge of Torah and Chassidus eloquently, their teachings take upon the form of water; they are as necessary for the soul as water is for the body, and flow as easily as water does. By helping others to improve their spiritual standing we can provide water in a desert environment- indeed, modern day Western society is a lot like a spiritual desert, with the dangers of intermarriage and assimilation increasing with each passing year.

An important lesson can also be gleaned from Moshe Rabbenu striking the rock to provide water. Various commentators have attempted to explain this incident; why was Moshe told by G-d that he would not enter the Promised Land because of this? Rashi says that it was that he struck the stone instead of only speaking to it, as G‑d had instructed. In doing so, he doubted G-d’s power, just as the Israelites did in Parshas Shlach, and was punished as a result. Maimonides’ interpretation is that it was due to the fact that he got angry at the Israelites, who complained of their thirst, and said, “Hear now, you rebels”. Meanwhile, Nachmanides explains the sin as lying in Moshe’s remark, “Shall we get you water out of this rock?” when he should have attributed the miracle solely to G‑d.

All of these interpretations are inspiring and give us a useful insight on leading a Torah observant lifestyle. From Rashi’s words, we learn about the importance of trusting and believing in G-d. This lesson is repeated at numerous intervals in the Torah, for example with each of the Israelites’ complaints that G-d has failed them. Not only does doubting G-d lead to a lower quality of life, but it is in fact a sin (though this isn’t to say that one should disregard common sense and safety in hope of a miracle). Meanwhile, Maimonides’ remark teaches us about the sin of anger, which is in fact a subtle form of idolatry, and one of the biggest problems one can face. There are extremely few situations in which anger is Halachically permitted, and this prohibition applies to everyone, including Moshe Rabbenu.

Though Nachmanides disregards the other two explanations, he also imparts a useful lesson. Failing to attribute miracles to G-d, and instead attributing them to nature or chance is a serious issue in itself. People who do so doubt G-d in the same way as the Israelites did when they did not believe G-d would lead them to the Promised Land. Of course, many miracles take the form of seemingly natural occurrences, but when a righteous Jew finds beauty in nature, he searches for (and finds) G-d there. Similarly, modern historians have attempted to attribute the Jewish people’s amazing perseverance to a number of causes, but each and every Jew’s soul clings to G-d, and we know that this is the reason for Jewish survival.

Additionally, Midrash Rabbah provides an explanation for the phrase “these are the waters of strife” (20:13); “Why did Pharaoh decree that all the Hebrew male babies be cast into the river (Exodus 1:22)? Because his astrologers foresaw that the savior of Israel will meet his demise by water. They thought that he would be drowned in water; in truth, it was that because of a well of water death was decreed on him”. This gives us insight into a potentially confusing decision of Pharaoh’s, and also provides us with a useful metaphor for a “double-edged sword”; water can be both incredibly positive and incredibly negative.

It was due to water that Moshe Rabbenu was decreed to never enter the Promised Land, and indeed it was water which killed Hebrew babies. Similarly, thousands die each year through drowning, and yet without water we die of dehydration. Like the Israelites, we rarely realise the importance of water until we find ourselves without it. I recently read the words of a convert to Judaism who suffers from leukaemia and is awaiting a heart transplant. He wrote about the wonder of being able to drink water after spending weeks in a coma, and how glad he was to be able to say the Shehakol blessing again. Reading this made me think of the reason for the importance of blessings in Judaism. They serve multiple purposes; just like the Sefirat HaOmer, they spiritually prepare one to perform a mitzvah. But also, they serve to remind us of the great gifts that G-d has bestowed upon us, and water is one of them.

Water can be compared to speech. Speech is incredibly useful, and incredibly important- it is through speech that we learn, teach, discuss and confer, and it is necessary if we want to live a fully productive life- but it is also very dangerous, hence the laws surrounding loshon hora. We often forget the immense power of speech, as even Miriam did in Parshas Beha’aloscha, and we do not always treat it with the respect it deserves. It is also due to improper speech- namely doubting G-d- that the Israelites were struck with tragedy in Parshas Shlach, just as it was due to a sin involving water that Moshe Rabbenu was prevented from entering the Promised Land. Some say that his sin even combined speech and water!

We can find a lot of inspiration in Parshas Chukat, and the water-related episodes in it. Ultimately, we must remember to learn from the mistakes of Miriam, Aharon, Moshe Rabbenu and the Israelites, while taking on their exemplary traits, and attempting to bring Torah into the lives of those around us.

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