Thoughts on Chukat

This week’s Torah reading is Chukat, Numbers 19:1–22:1.* The haftarah is Judges 11:1–33 and the Apostolic Writings is from John 16:12–28.

During last week’s discussion of Korach, it was brought up that the punishments and the sheer number of deaths attributed to the anger of HaShem in metering out discipline was, to say the least, beyond the pale. This week, though not numerically the same, another situation appears to have been judged much harsher than it should have been—at least according to our modern standards of justice. 

Setting the stage we read, 

In the first month,the entire community of Bnei Yisrael arrived at the wilderness of Zin. The people stayed at Kadesh. There Miriam died and was buried.

Numbers 20:1

It is the first of Nissan in the fortieth year of the wilderness wandering. Bnei Yisrael is winding down their travels looking expectantly to soon enter the land promised to the patriarchs. Then there is an apparent scene change.

Now there was no water for the community, so they assembled against Moses and Aaron.

Numbers 20:2

What does the fact that there was “no water” have to do with the death of Miriam? The Sages attempt to explain the connection of Miriam’s death and no water in the camp.

Rabbi Yosei, son of Rabbi Yehuda, says: Three good sustainers rose up for the Jewish people during the exodus from Egypt, and they are: Moses, Aaron and Miriam. And three good gifts were given from Heaven through their agency, and these are they: The well of water, the pillar of cloud, and the manna. He elaborates: The well was given to the Jewish people in the merit of Miriam; the pillar of cloud was in the merit of Aaron; and the manna in the merit of Moses. When Miriam died the well disappeared, as it is stated: “And Miriam died there” (Numbers 20:1), and it says thereafter in the next verse: “And there was no water for the congregation” (Numbers 20:2).
(English translation from https://www.sefaria.org.il/Taanit.9a?lang=bi)

b. Ta’anit 9a

Far-fetched, maybe, but the fact of the matter is that the cloud and the manna did surely appear–so why not a travelling rock that provided water. Interestingly, there are three episodes of Israel grumbling about no drinking water. The first two occur at the very beginning of Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness (Exodus 15:22-25 and 17:1–7) and the third is just after Miriam’s death (Numbers 20:1-5). The above Talmudic interpretation holds that while Miriam was still living, Bnei Yisrael always had drinking water they needed, but after her death, the well dried up. 

Now the stage is set for the divine discipline that seems a bit harsh. Look again at the end of verse 2 and the first of verse 3. Water is no longer readily available so Bnei Yisrael come together and quarrel with Moshe. One might have thought that by now Moshe would have grown used to the grumbling and complaining of those that Hashem had left in his charge. Nonetheless, this time Moshe and Aaron are not in top form as their beloved sister had just died. Again the people complain, 

…why have you brought the community of ADONAI into this wilderness, for us and our livestock to die here? Why have you brought us from Egypt to bring us to this evil place—a place without grain, fig, grapevine or pomegranate—and there’s no water to drink!”

Numbers 20:4-5

As with Korach’s rebellion, Moshe and Aaron go straight to the Tent of Meeting and fall on their faces before HaShem. HaShem instructs them to go and

…speak to the rock before their eyes, and it will give out its water. You will bring out water from the rock, and you will give the community something to drink, along with their livestock.

Numbers 20:8

Two things to note at this point. First, HaShem tells Moshe and Aaron to go together, and for Moshe to speak to the rock. He does not say to strike the rock as earlier at Rephidim (Exodus 17). Second, Moshe’s speaking to the “rock” both reinforces the idea that this is the rock that had accompanied Miriam and with her death ceased to provide water but now it would respond to Moshe. 

Unexpectedly, Moshe and Aaron seemed to lose control. Instead of speaking to the rock, Moshe struck the rock, not once but twice. Then Moshe’s words to the assembly were not “wait and see how HaShem is going to provide for you” but an emphatic 

Listen now, you rebels! Must we bring you water from this rock?

Numbers 20:10

It appears that Moshe, with Aaron standing alongside, at least verbally assumed the responsibility for the water that Bnei Yisrael would receive. HaShem graciously provided the water that Bnei Yisrael needed, this time without punishment for their grumbling and complaining. However, for Moshe and Aaron it was a different story. Consider Yaacov’s warning in the Apostolic Writings, 

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, since you know that we will receive a stricter judgment.

James 3:1

The word for teacher, in the Greek is didaskalos, which most often means teacher, but also carries the understanding of rabbi and master or in other words a leader either in word or by example. Instead of revealing the glory and presence of HaShem, Moshe and by inference Aaron responded in anger. The story concludes with the divine discipline prohibiting both Moshe nor Aaron from leading, or even joining, Bnei Yisrael into the land which had been promised. They had run the race, only to be disqualified before crossing the finish line.

In conclusion, while Miriam’s death may well have been a factor in Moshe’s slip of the tongue, but it was that slip of the tongue and then the striking out in disobedience to the specific revealed word that brought about Moshe and Aaron’s discipline. We can clearly understand the importance of David’s prayer when he prays, 

Set a guard, ADONAI, over my mouth. Keep watch over the door of my lips.

Psalm 141:3

It is important to note Yaacov’s affirmation the warning mentioned earlier, 

For we all stumble in many ways. If someone does not stumble in speech, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well.

James 3:2

It is inevitable, some would say even unavoidable, that we are going to slip sometimes. But with this in mind, let us do all that we can to ensure that we do not stumble through the words of our mouths. The Irish nobleman poet, Wentworth Dillon once wrote, “Words once spoken, can never be recalled.” May we not regret the words of our mouth as I am sure Moshe and Aaron did.

* Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.

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