Chukat (Law)

Numbers 19:1 to 22:1

ChukatAfter Miriam’s death the people had no water. Upon examination of both Torah and Midrash we see why the reaction of Moses to this shortage of water explains why he couldn’t lead the people into the Promised land …. And why Miriam is more significant that the text indicates.

And the complaining – kvetching continues…. This week the story jumps forward thirty eight years…. The Israelites are nearing the end of their long journey to the Promised Land.

The parsha opens with a lengthy discussion of a procedure to purify those who came in contact with a dead person. We know that death was all around them because it was promised that all except Joshua and Caleb would die before entering the Promised Land. The waters containing the Red Heifer mixture afforded those who came in contact with death an opportunity to remain ritually pure.

Right after the Red Heifer discussion we are told: “The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there. And the community was without water, and they joined against Moses and Aaron….” (Num. 20:1-2) The rest of the story is familiar to all…. Moses and Aaron “fell on their faces” after hearing the complaints of the people. The Eternal appeared before them and told them to assemble the community and speak to the rock asking it to produce water. Then the rock would supply sufficient water.

Moses assembled the community as God had requested. Then, Moses spoke to the people: “ ‘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.” (Num. 20:9)

But that wasn’t the end…. There is more: “But the Eternal One 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.’ Those are the Waters of Meribah – meaning that the Israelites quarreled with the Eternal – whose sanctity was affirmed through them.” (Num. 20:2-13)

Through the ages the question has been asked – Why was Moses punished so heavily for just striking the rock? — Now he was not allowed to journey into the Promised Land and complete and finalize his life’s mission?

To answer this difficult question, the rabbis looked to past Torah text and added some of their own Midrush. Most of the comments I am making here are based on a video by Rabbi David Fohman on ( ) First we look to the text…. There are only two times before this that the Israelites cried out for water…. The first came a few days after crossing the Sea of Reeds. This is to be expected. They exhausted the supply of water that they could carry. So God told them to place a special piece of wood into the bitter waters and there would be water they could drink. This incident took place after the Israelites and Miriam sang the Song of the Sea.

The second time they needed water was a few days later… Then water was consumed again. This time God told Moses to strike a rock and water would flow. Moses did and there was enough water for the entire community. The water was connected to the fact that Miriam praised and thanked God in song and dance at the Sea of Reeds.

Water was not requested again until right after Miriam dies. God tells Moses to speak to the rock and water would flow…..

This is where Midrash enters the story…. God tells Moses to speak to “the rock.” What rock? There are millions of rocks in the desert….. “The Rock” according to Midrash is the same rock that Moses struck thirty eight years earlier to produce water. This rock was given the name of “Miriam’s Well” and it traveled … or followed … the Israelites all the years of their travels. It is said that it was a porous rock that was blown by the wind from place to place as the people traveled. When Miriam died the rock stopped giving water. So when the Eternal told Moses to speak to ‘The Rock,” Moses knew which rock.

However, Moses had difficulty finding the exact rock. He spoke to a rock and there was no result. He became angered and addressed the people as “You Rebels” and then struck the next rock out of anger…. Moses did not have the patience or faith to trust God and do as he was told…. In fact, he didn’t even refer to… or thank … the Eternal when he approached the rock.

Through these actions … both calling the people rebels and the actual striking the rock, Moses demonstrated his loss of leadership…. The leadership that would be needed to bring the people into the new land. The people needed a leader with deep faith and trust in God. Moses showed that in a difficult time, he didn’t have, or had lost, these abilities that he had in the past. The Eternal saw that another, stronger leader was needed.

It is also interesting to note that when the vowels are removed from the Hebrew name Miriam, three different words can be made… all relate to the stories of water.

First, Miriam can also mean “bitterness” … describing the water before the special wood was added to make the water drinkable.

A second meaning is “to lift up.” – Moses had to lift up his rod before striking the rock as God had commanded during the second water shortage.

The third meaning is “rebels.” – The description that Moses applies to the Israelites.

These stories are of interest to me because they explain why this error by Moses was so significant….. and they also show the importance of Miriam to the Israelite community. This importance goes beyond the few, short mentions of her in the Torah text. I am sure that there are more stories about this special woman. But, because she was a woman… or because her views were not the same as the majority … these tales were not included in the Torah and, over the years, have been forgotten.

Earl Sabes

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