Chukat and Water: The Gift of the Desert

In memory of my father, Avraham ben Shlomo Zalman, Z”L

The chapter of the Torah called Chukat [“Statutes”][1] seems like it’s disastrous, filled with confusion, Screen Shot 2016-07-17 at 8.47.34 PMcontradiction, and despair. It begins with a brain-bending formula for purification – the red heifer – which no one has convincingly explained. It is followed by calamity after calamity.  Miriam and Aaron, Moses’ sister and brother, two of the greatest prophets, die. This is a national tragedy for the Israelites but an inconceivably painful personal loss for Moses. I have one brother and one sister. I can only imagine what Moses felt. Yet, his grief isn’t even mentioned, maybe because the story has to move on to a lot more dismal news.

When Miriam dies, the well which sustained Israel in their forty years of wandering in the desert dries up. Unbelievably, after all this time, the people panic and protest and moan again for Egypt just as they did after, among others, the incidents of the Golden Calf, the manna, the spies, and Korach’s rebellion:

Why have you brought the LORD’s congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there?

Moses and Aaron again fall on their faces and appeal to G-d, Who says

“You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts.”

Moses took the rod from before the LORD, as He had commanded him. Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank.

But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.”[2]

Seems like the horrible punishment of Moses is disproportionate to his petty infraction, right?

Wait, there’s more! The Israelites then look for access to the Promised Land through the Edomites, the Amalekites, Sihon, and Moab, but they are met at every turn with opposition and refusal. The Kings of Sihon and Arad even wage war against them.

Then poisonous snakes arise out of nowhere to attack and kill the Israelites for their lack of faith.

In short, from start to finish, Chukat looks like it’s going to be a hard and dispiriting slog through the wasteland. After decades of wandering, they are now besieged by enemies, plagued by rebellion, tortured by despair and grief, and perhaps worst of all, confounded by God’s incomprehensible Torah, filled as it is with commandments like the red heifer, they cower and yearn for Egypt. More than any other parsha, Chukat communicates the despair and pessimism of the desert, at least in its opening scenes.

The Countercurrent

But if we look closely at Chukat, there is a counter-theme which courses and babbles and carves a redemptive streambed through the story, revealing a hidden depth and a surprising counter-narrative. Chukat is like the rock Moshe strikes for water. Mayim, is mentioned 22 times in the course of the parsha. The section of the red heifer tells us to bathe, cleanse, wash, sprinkle, and dip. There are wells, rivers, brooks, springs, tributaries, and wadis. As if to identify the Israelites with water, when Moses begs the kings of Edom and Sihon for peaceful passage through their territories, he promises them that neither the Israelites nor their cattle will drink their water. The chapter ends with the Children of Israel poised within view of the salvation for which they have thirsted for forty years, at the east bank of the Jordan River.

Further, this is in stark contrast to the parched chapters directly before and after, Korach and Balak. Korach[3]is a desperate, parched story.  The symbol of that parsha is fire: Aaron shows his superiority to Korach and all of his followers with a test of all their individual firepans against his; when they lose, earth belches fire and swallows the leader of the rebellion and 250 of his followers “and all their households.” Aaron is commanded to expiate Israel and stop the plague that broke out among them and he rushes to perform the offering of incense on his firepan; plague kills 14,500 more of Korach’s followers. Korach’s rebellion burns with the heat of a mob, and it mentions water zero times.

The parsha following Chukat, Balak, mentions water only three times, and then only in one sentence (during Bilam’s extended blessing of Israel).

Why are the floodgates suddenly opened in Chukat? Why here, in this desperate passage?

The key is Miriam’s death. The sages famously tell us Miriam’s name comes from “mar” – bitter, but any schoolchild can see it is closer to the word for water – mayim, and the kabbalists agree.[4]  After all, her entire story is bound up with water. She follows her brother Moses as an infant in his basket down the Nile, making sure he is picked up by the princess of Egypt and cared for by his own mother, Yocheved. When the Israelites make it safely across the Red Sea and pharaoh’s army is drowned, she leads the women out of the camp with timbrels to sing the “Song of the Sea.” In the desert, a well of water miraculously follows the Israelites, sustaining them for most of the forty years. This is Miriam’s Well, because it is in her merit that it exists. When she is stricken with leprosy for gossiping about Moses’ divorce, the entire camp of Israel stops to wait seven days for her, both honoring her and waiting for her well to be ready to move. When she dies (recounted in this parsha), the well dries up, which leads to the events that follow.

So which is it? Is Chukat a dispiriting narrative of defeat, death, and despair? Or is it a tale of thirst slaked and pilgrims rewarded? Is it meant to afflict us with the feeling of wandering a desolated wasteland, never learning our lessons, always panicking and losing heart, or is it fertile with flowing waters, mayim chaim, the ‘living water’ of sustenance and hope, as the Torah calls it here?

The answer of course is both, but if we read the calculus of themes correctly, I believe the Torah tells us – even commands us with the force of a transcendent and mystifying statute – to trust in and celebrate the water of life. Or, no pun intended, to see the cup at least as half full, if not overrunning, with life. And to prove the point, the end of the parsha concludes with a vigorous new generation of Israelites defeating Sihon and occupying their lands. Then they conquer Og, King of Bashan – the Talmud tells us they were descendants of the aboriginal race of giants, a fitting contrast and rectification for the cowardice of the spies who first scouted out the Promised Land and saw only giants – and occupy their lands. The tide has turned and the conquest of the Promised Land is about to begin.

The 614th Commandment?

Towards the end of Chukat, the Jews celebrate water by breaking into song for the second time in the Torah, presumably by a well in the lands they newly occupy.

“Gather the people together and I will give them water.

Then Israel sang this song:

Spring up, O well,

sing ye unto it.

The princes dug the well,

the nobles of the people dug it,

by the direction of the Lawgiver,

with their rods.

And from the desert it is a gift.[5]

On the one hand, this hearkens back to Miriam’s “Song of the Sea” and puts a nice exclamation point on the theme of water in Chukat, giving it coherence and a sense of resolution. On the other hand, the Torah uses the imperative: “Sing, O Israel”!  Although this isn’t one of the 613 commandments (mitzvot), perhaps it should be the 614th, or maybe the 0th, because it is the premise for all the others. Praising water is itself a kind of chok, as the song seems to hint. Rambam, Bachya Asher  and others say the origin of the word chok is from chukikah – engraved in rock, like a picture.[6] The princes “dig the well” with their “rods.” Is it a metaphor for the luchot habrit – the two tablets engraved in stone that Moses brings down from Sinai? Is it meant to evoke the entire Torah itself, an impenetrable text that nonetheless brings forth waters of redemption? The “princes” … are they the Torah scholars inscribing the stony text with their pens, bringing forth water of wisdom from rocky, impenetrable sources beyond rationality? The red heifer formula dissolves the clear line between the tamei (contamination) of death and tahor (purity) of life, and water plays an essential role in the opaque ritual (along with fire). But the line between life and death isn’t a solid barrier, to be overcome by a mechanical ritual. It is a flow overspilling fixed boundaries and categories, working back into life to contaminate it. It can only be washed away by a torrent of paradoxes that dissolves the levee of those logical, mechanical boundaries. In some measure, all of Torah’s commandments have a mystical source beyond comprehension; they are all chukat.

Watering Our Internal Desert

Life is filled with want and strife and contradiction. We fail ourselves and those we’re responsible for. We flare in anger when quiet patience will do. Babies wail. Wells dry up. Enemies block the paths to quench our thirst and reach our goals. We try to get by, but nations wage war on us. Danger, like poison snakes, emerge out of nowhere to torment us. Innocents and great people and loved ones die. Though we try to keep the faith, how can we when we can’t even comprehend the rules for doing so? Even miraculous manna and well water turn to dust in our mouths when we’re afraid. The world is senseless and violent. We are bound to lose heart, even as we near the end of our journey. We find it impossible to believe in promises and miracles when our raw material survival is threatened. We are bound to cry to return to our spiritual Egypt where we might have been slaves but our bodies were provided for. If God is so wonderful and perfect, why did He even invent suffering and death, let alone lead us into the desert of history where hundreds, thousands, millions of Jews are slaughtered in every chapter of our wandering?

Chukat prescribes the cure to this nihilism and despair. It commands us to sing our joy and celebrate water even in the most parched desert. Water is the very gift of the desert, its special miracle, first through Miriam, then Moses. Though we are left poised in suspense near the end of our journey, on the expectant side of the River Jordan, there it is, the water of life, promise, and redemption. And here we are alive against all odds, ready. It’s still too early to have lost all hope.

Moses himself exemplifies this lesson.[7] At the end of his turbulent life, 120 years old, you would think he would be reconciled, even ready, to succumb to death. If anyone has earned the right to rest from stony conflict and dismay and disappointment, he has. Yet he is still defiant, thirsty for more, and begs God for more life.

L’mayim chaim!

* Although this one, by Reb Aaron Benjamin, is the best I’ve ever heard: http://www.weeklysugya.com/ <—- Click on July 7, 2019 podcast in list.

ENDNOTES

Thanks to my extended chavrusa, especially Ron Kardos, Marcos Frid, and Michael Wulfsohn for their suggestions, edits, and corrections. Mistakes are still all my own.


[1] Numbers 19:1-22:1

[2] Numbers 20:7-12.

As to this punishment, Ramban explains that G-d doesn’t punish Moses because he was angry and struck the rock instead of talking to it – the conventional explanation that Maimonides offered – it was because Moses didn’t remember to attribute the miracle to G-d, didn’t “affirm His sanctity,” in front of the congregation. Instead Moses made it seem like he an Aaron were performing the miracle, a much graver violation: “Shall we get water for you out of this rock?”

[3] Numbers 16:1-18:32

[4] See this discussion by Rabbi Aaron L. Raskin of the kabbalistic interpretation and gematria values of her name include “mar” raindrops + yam [sea]: she is the source of so many raindrops they amass to a sea. Another is the tradition that if you go to the same well, any well, on the evening after Shabbat, you will be blessed because Miriam’s well connects all the wells in the world. https://www.chabad.org/multimedia/video_cdo/aid/3557353/jewish/Inside-the-Name-Miriam.htm

[5] Num 21:16-18

[6] From Rabbeinu Bachya commentary to 19:3 “Still, the principal meaning of the word חק is derived from the word חקיקה, something that is “indelibly engraved in a rock,” like a picture. G’d hinted to the Children of Israel that their image is indelibly engraved in the celestial regions. In other words, seeing there are no rocks to inscribe things on in the celestial regions, the word חקיקה is a simile for immutable concepts, as basic to G’d’s legislation as if their counterpart had been engraved in rock in our terrestrial universe

[7] According to the Rabbinic tradition (Midrash On the Death of Moses, Petirat Moshe)

Literature, Letterature, Liturgy

When the Hebrew Bible was first transcribed, the Jews used the newly-invented alphabet to write it. No matter whether you believe it was simply the Ten Commandments or the entire Five Books written in fire on stone by the Finger of God that Moses brought down from Sinai, or even if its core was fabricated by a bunch of authors in the 13th-8th centuries BCE, the medium must have been the alphabet.

Screen Shot 2016-07-07 at 6.20.09 PMEarliest archeological evidence, like the stone idol from Serabit el-Khadem, places the origin of the alphabet in the South Sinai (!) about sixty miles north of Mount Sinai, around the 15th-14th C BCE (!), just when tradition places the Exodus of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt.

Hebrew for about four centuries after remained a primitive alphabet, lacking vowels, or spaces between words, or punctuation of any kind. It was scrawled boustrophedon – as the ox plows the field – that is, left to right until the end of the line, then right to left, and so on.

In short, the Torah that Moses brought to the Children of Israel was one long, breathless, written word. It awaited an oral enunciation to  place the cuts between words and determine their meaning.

To quickly illustrate this, how would you read the following letters?

nthbgnnggdcrtdthhvnndthrth

It would take some puzzling and context and familiarity to recognize this as

“In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.”

But lacking complete authority and assurance – nothing short of playing telepathy with the author – any reading would admit of several competing interpretations, including some that may seem at first nonsensical but may hide lurking messages if you stare at them too long:

In the big, no-nagged court doth have nine, death, or thee.

Hebrew readers to this day read texts without vowels and have to disambiguate individual words either by familiarity, or context, or memorizing them with the aid of another text with vowels. Consider the word in Hebrew דבר – DBR.  The consonants could mean dvar (word), dever (plague), davar (thing), daber (speak), dibbur (speech), and others besides.

In short, even individual words in Hebrew invite – even demand – that the reader play this puzzling game. This is the sort of game English students come into contact with in literature classes when they are asked to interpret opaque or dense poetry (John Donne’s works are my favorite) or literature filled with word play and deliberate punning, like Joyce’s Ulysses.

Not-yet-words

But I would draw a nuanced distinction and say because Hebrew words lack vowels, they are not -yet-words. This is true even when we consider the words as instructions for speech: consonants are the hard sounds stuck in the mouth that await the explosive of a vowel to be pronounced. Try to pronounce ‘T’. All you have is the instruction for placing the tongue at the top of the mouth, behind the upper teeth, waiting for a vowel for it to burst forth.

Because all words in Hebrew are to some extent not-yet-words, lambent with meanings that are always becoming, emergent, not-yet-utterable, then all Hebrew texts written without vowels – even a grocery list (see A Canticle for Liebowitz, for instance) – are a form of literarature, one might even say poetry: difficult, opaque, demanding interpretations.

Compared to the ideal of clarity we inherited from the Greeks, who perfected the alphabet by adding vowels, Hebrew without vowels is a hopeless muddle. When the eminent Yale scholar of the transition from orality to literacy in ancient Greece, Eric Havelock, declared that the ancient Hebrews could not hope to create a true (read “Greek”) literature, he was right, though for the wrong reasons. His assumption was that the primitiveness of the Hebrew mind and social organization, and the impoverishment of its alphabetic script, could not allow for the elevated thinking, clarity, and expressiveness of classical Greek.

Yet, armed with our understanding of the essential ambiguity-generating early Hebrew script, we can see that vowelless Hebrew is already a form of literature, inviting interpretation of almost every word. Indeed, the question What is literary? makes no sense as we try to apply a Greek understanding to a Hebrew communications technology and textuality. We need a whole new word for the kind of discourse engendered by these letters which form words that are never-quite-words.

Letterature… and prayer

In reading Hebrew, I propose that we are perpetually reading a kind of letterature, where sense is suspended between our decoding of the letter and our reading of the word, as we shuttle back and forth in interpretive suspense attempting, often vainly, to be sure of the intended meaning. This is really literary reading tending not towards clarity but dyslexia. As Amos Oz quipped, “There is no word in Hebrew for fiction.”

Perhaps even the truth value of any text is suspended between the ever-threatening catastrophe of  ever-promulgating interpretations that at the first reading defeats the illusion of telepathy – clearly understanding what’s in the Mind of the Author, but at another opens hailing frequencies to a very animated and dynamic metaphysical and cognitive plane.

I don’t know about how you take your literature (or should I say, how your literature takes you), but this sure feels how I take and am seized by mine, in all its debilitating pleasure and transporting joy. A good poem or a dense novel exiles us for a time to an inward realm. We read and get lost somewhere in the wilderness between multiple competing possibles and mutually-enriching meanings. If we linger there long enough and if we climb the mountain, then perhaps revelation will come.

Reading Hebrew thus becomes the Ur-type of literary reading: a devotional, a form of prayer, and the engagement with its letterature a form of liturgy.