Gift of the Desert

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

Screen Shot 2016-07-17 at 8.47.34 PMThe chapter of the Bible called Chukat [“Statutes”] is disastrous, filled with confoundment, contradiction, and despair. It begins with the brain-bending formula for cleansing us from touching a dead body, the red heifer, for which there has never been a rational explanation. Then come calamity after calamity. In this one chapter, Miriam and Aaron, Moses’ sister and brother, two of the greatest prophets, die. This is a national calamity for the Israelites but an inconceivable personal tragedy for Moses, whose grief must have been enormous but is not even mentioned. I have one brother and one sister. I can only imagine what Moses felt at losing both his. Yet, in the same chapter, God delivers what is also tantamount to Moses’ own death sentence: he will die before entering the Promised Land.

Chukat also tells how the well which sustained Israel in their wandering in the desert dries up when Miriam dies. The children of Israel protest their thirst and Moses loses his patience. “You rebels!” he yells at them and strikes a rock. Although water gushes forth, and we can imagine the stress Moses was under in his grief and after forty years of facing rebellion, Moses has failed God, who commanded him merely to talk to the rock.

The wanderings of the Children of Israel intensify as they look for access to the Promised Land through the Edomites, the Amalekites, Sihon and Moab, but they are met at every turn with denial, opposition, and refusal. The Kings of Sihon and Arad even wage war against them.

Poisonous snakes arise out of nowhere and attack and kill them.

In short, from start to finish, Chukat is a hard and dispiriting slog through the wasteland. More than any other parsha, it communicates the despair and pessimism of wandering the desert, dispossessed, besieged by enemies from without, plagued by rebellion within, tortured by private despair and grief, and perhaps worst of all, confounded by God’s incomprehensible commandments.

But if we look closely, there is a counter theme which courses and babbles and carves a redemptive stream through the story. The central scene is emblematic of this percolating idea: Moses strikes the rock twice and water miraculously gushes forth.

Mayim, water, is mentioned 22 times in the course of the parsha. (My friend, Rabbi Jonathan Neril, sees this as a sign of the Torah’s ecological consciousness in http://jewcology.org/resources/parshat-chukat-water-consciousness/). Further, this is in stark contrast to the parched parshiot (chapters) directly before and after – Korach, and Balak. Water is mentioned zero times in Korach. (The symbol of that parsha is fire: Aaron shows his superiority to Korach with a test of firepans; Aaron is commanded to expiate Israel by offering incense on the firepan; fire erupts from the earth and swallows 14,500 of Korach’s followers. Korach’s rebellion burns with the heat of a mob.) Water is mentioned only three times in Balak, and then only in one sentence in Bilaam’s extended blessing of Israel.

Chukat by contrast is a veritable narrative oasis. Indeed, the imagery of water and actions related to it flow throughout. 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.

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 desolated wasteland, or is it fertile with flowing waters, mayim chaim, ‘living water’ 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 to put it more plainly, to see the cup at least as half full, if not overrunning, with life.

Towards the end of Chukat, the Torah celebrates water:

…Beer; that is the Well whereof Hashem spoke unto Moshe, Gather the people together, and I will give them mayimThen 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.

Num 21:16-18

The Torah uses the imperative: “Sing, O Israel”! And although this isn’t one of the 613 commandments (mitzvot), it should be the 614th, or maybe the zeroth, because it is essential, the premise for all the others. To sing in praise of water is the ultimate chok, springing from rocky sources beyond rational inspection. In fact, it is confluent with the mystery of the red heifer, whose message seems to be to dissolve the clear line between the tamei (contamination) of death and tahor (purity) of life. The line between life and death described in the ritual of the red heifer isn’t a solid barrier, effected and erected through a mechanical ritual. It is a paradoxical flow spilling over and effacing boundaries: We live with death.

Life is filled with want and strife and contradiction. Babies wail. Wells dry up. Our paths to quench our thirst are blocked. We try to get by, but enemies wage war on us. Danger, like poison snakes, emerge out of the blue. Innocents die. We fail ourselves and those we’re responsible for, flaring in anger when quiet patience will do. Loved ones pass away, and at the end of the day, we’re left to mourn by ourselves. Though we try to keep the faith, how can we when we can’t even comprehend the rules for rejoining the community after death contaminates us? The world is senseless and violent. If God is so wonderful and perfect, why did He even invent death, let alone slaughter hundreds, thousands, millions of us at a time throughout history?

Chukat prescribes the cure to nihilism and despair. It commands us to sing our joy and celebration in and by and of water. Though we are left poised, in suspense, at the end of our journey, on the expectant side of the River Jordan, there it is, the water of promise and redemption. And here we are alive against all odds, ready. It’s still too early to have lost all hope.

At the end of his life, 120-year-old Moses begs God for more life. If anyone earned the right to rest from conflict and dismay and disappointment, it is Moses. But he knows God invented the prospect of death to make life sweeter. It is the gift of the desert.

L’mayim chaim!

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