Chukat: Sing to the Well

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chukat

Shalom Friends!

Our Torah portion this week is a busy one, but the overall theme
is Israel’s journey through the wilderness, with its triumphs and
Along the way, we get the law of the Red Heifer, which becomes
a purifying sacrifice; there are repeated stories about the need
for water in the desert; both Miriam and Aharon die and the
people mourn; there are plagues and battles; and Moshe
himself is told that he will die on the far side of the Jordan river
rather than go into the Promised land.

Much has been written about why Moshe wasn’t allowed to enter
the Land, but the key text is from Bamidbar/ Numbers chapter 20,
verses 7-13. After being told by God to take his staff (compare
with last week’s commentary) and speak to the rock to bring forth
water, Moshe strikes the rock, which is accounted as an act of
rebellion (or disobedience, or lack of faith, or <something> that
is not good) from God’s perspective.

However, today’s discussion will not be about the question of the
proportionality and fairness of Moshe’s punishment- for more on
that, find a link below.

Rather, I want to compare the text in chapter 20 to a passage
from the next chapter. The Israelites are traveling and camping
and shlepping through different places, and they still need water,
but things are a bit different this next time around. The people
end up by a well of water, of which the Torah says:

“. . . this is the well of which the Lord said to Moshe, ‘Gather the
people, and I will give them water.’ Then Israel sang this song:
‘Ascend, O well, sing to it! A well dug by princes, carved out by
captains, the nobles of the people, with their staffs. . . . . ` ”
(Bamidbar/Numbers 21:16-18)

Notice the difference? In the first story, Moshe strikes the rock,
and water comes forth; in this one, the people sing, and the
leaders dig, and water rises up from below.

As we did last week, I’d like to look at these stories as
metaphors for emotional stages along a religious journey. The
people are in a long (40 years!) transition from from the
“narrowness” of Egypt, to the mature state of being self-directed,
autonomous citizens of a nation in its land. They’re journeying
from a place where they had no power to a place of moral and
communal responsibility for themselves; in this sense, arrival at
the Land signifies maturity and the blessing and burden of self-

So what’s with the constant complaining along the way?

Well, I think of it this way: when the people are complaining
about water, what’s really happening is that their fear is getting
focussed on something concrete, something palpable and
definable- after all, if God brought them along for 40 years it
wouldn’t take that much more faith to believe that God would
bring them the rest of the way into the land! However, we know
that fear isn’t rational; a deeper fear than thirst was fear of
abandonment, fear of mortality (remember, Miriam, a leader of
the people, had just died), fear of change, fear of the new and
unknown. These fears were projected onto an immediate need:
“we have no water!”

Now we can go back to our stories and see them in a different
light. In the first story, Moshe strikes the rock; it seems to work,
but it’s not a good thing, as God’s reaction makes clear. Even
though Moshe had just lost his sister, and can’t be entirely
expected to be in control of his emotions, the story teaches that
one can’t conquer fear by lashing out, nor can one adequately
address feelings of frustration with anger and harsh words.

This is where the second story comes in, because in this case,
in order to make the well rise up, the people sang. They sang-
that is, they brought forth within themselves an expression of
longing and celebration. This, in turn, brings forth from a deep
place the “water” that they need. In the story, the deep place is
the earth, but as a metaphor for the journey, I think the deep
place that they “dug into” was within themselves.

By singing- or praying, or meditating, or other means of turning
inward in order to discern a deeper truth- the people were able to
“dig with their staffs” and find what they needed to carry on, in a
peaceable and sustaining manner. This stands in contrast with
the earlier story, in which the place where Moshe struck the rock
is called “mei meribah,” the “waters of contention,” signifying that
the complaining and consequent anger hadn’t really resolved
anything, as, in fact, such displays rarely do.

In anxious times of transition, it’s easy to “strike the rock,” with
words if not always in actual deed, but singing is the better
response. Singing, in our story, means joining together in
emotional authenticity, expressing what is most real in the
context of a sacred community, in order to draw upon the
sustaining Presence that is always available to us, if we dig
deep enough to find it.

shabbat shalom,


To compare these two chapters in their entirety, you can find a
translation here:

For further discussion of Moshe’s punishment including different
views from the classic commentaries, go here:

Finally, for a reasonably good article on Conservative rabbis
reaching out to the gay and lesbian community, featuring quotes
from your humble list owner, click here:

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