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 Torah called Chukat [Numbers 19:1-22:1 – “Statutes”] is disastrous, filled with confusion, contradiction, and despair. It begins with a brain-bending formula for purification which no one has convincingly explained: the red heifer. 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 for Moses. In the same chapter, God delivers what is tantamount to Moses’ own death sentence: he will die before entering the Promised Land.

Meanwhile, the well which sustained Israel in their thirty-eight years of prior wandering in the desert dries up when Miriam dies. When the people protest their thirst, Moses loses his patience. “You rebels!” he yells at them and strikes a rock. Although water gushes forth, and we can imagine the duress Moses was under in his grief not to mention after facing four decades of rebellion, God counts Moses’ anger as a failure: He commanded Moses merely to talk to the rock. Thus the death sentence. Seems like a petty infraction, right?

Wait, there’s more! The Israelites 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.

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

In short, from start to finish, Chukat is a hard and dispiriting slog through the wasteland, especially after decades of wandering 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 like the Red Heifer. More than any other parsha, it communicates the despair and pessimism of the desert.

The Chukat Countercurrent of Water

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. The central scene is emblematic of this countercurrent: Moses strikes the rock twice and water miraculously gushes forth.

Further, this is in stark contrast to the parched chapters directly before and after, Korach and Balak. The rabbis of the Talmud are troubled both by Chukat’s lack of internal consistency and its lack of narrative logic following the events of the preceding chapter Korach [Numbers 16:1-18:32]. Korach is a desperate, parched story that climaxes when the earth swallows the leader of a rebellion and 250 of his followers. 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 zero times in Korach.

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 like the rock from which water gushes forth. 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.

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.

The 614th Commandment: “Sing, O Israel!”

Towards the end of Chukat, the Torah celebrates water:

Gather the people together [at the Well of Be’er], and I will give them waterThen 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 the premise for all the others. To sing in praise of water would be the ultimate chok, springing from rocky sources beyond rational inspection like the red heifer formula. The red heifer seems to be dissolve the clear line between the tamei (contamination) of death and tahor (purity) of life, but the line between life and death described in the ritual of the red heifer isn’t a solid barrier, to be overcome by a mechanical ritual. It is a flow overspilling sacred boundaries and categories washed away by a torrent of paradox.

Life is filled with want and strife and contradiction. We fail ourselves and those we’re responsible for, flaring 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 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  at a time?

But Chukat prescribes the cure to this nihilism and despair. It commands us to sing our joy and celebration in and by and of water even in the most parched desert. It is the gift of the desert. 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 life, promise, and redemption. And here we are alive against all odds, ready. It’s still too early to have lost all hope.

According to the Rabbinic tradition (Midrash On the Death of Moses, Petirat Moshe) Moses himself exemplifies this lesson. 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 rocky conflict and dismay and disappointment, he has. Yet he is still defiant and begs God for more life.

L’mayim chaim!

4 thoughts on “Gift of the Desert

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