Chukat: Waters of Strife

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion: Chukat

The portion Chukat begins with the Parah Adumah, or Red Heifer, a red cow which is sacrificed in order to purify those who are ritually impure. Miriam dies, and there is strife and thirst. Aharon dies, and the people have a difficult path through hostile nations.

“But the Lord 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 Merivah—meaning that the Israelites quarrelled with the Lord—through which He affirmed His sanctity . . . .” (Bamidbar/Numbers 20:12-13)

One of the most troubling passages in the Torah is the story of the “waters of Merivah,” found in Bamidbar 20:2-13. The people are thirsty and cry out for water, and God gives Moshe instructions to speak to the rock and it will bring forth water. Moshe instead strikes the rock (after making a snarky comment to the complainers), and is told that because he did not trust God enough in the sight of the people, he would not continue to lead the people into the Land. The place where this happened is called Merivah, from the word “quarrel,” as the Torah itself explains in the text above.

Let’s set aside the question of whether striking the rock was so bad that Moshe deserved to be punished- that’s a famous question and there’s lots of commentary on that. Since our theme this year is connections between the Torah and the prayerbook, instead let’s note a reference to these events at a most un-strife-ful time: the beginning of Shabbat. To wit: at the beginning of the service called Kabbalat Shabbat, we recite 7 psalms, beginning with Psalm 95, which begins with the invitation to sing together but also bids us to be different than those who grumbled at Merivah:

“Harden not your heart, as at Merivah, as in the day of Massah in the wilderness;
When your ancestors tried Me, proved Me, even though they saw My work . . . ” (Ps.95:8-9)

The story of Merivah, both in Bamidbar 20 and an earlier version in Shmot/Exodus 17, seems to represent resentment, anxiety, and lack of broader perspective on the part of the people who were speaking out against Moshe. Yet it also seems that Moshe didn’t act out of the deepest compassion- after all, the people were thirsty and fearful, and he appeared to respond with frustration rather than understanding of their needs.

So getting back to Psalm 95, above: as we go into Shabbat, perhaps the reference to Merivah reminds us that what we have, for the next 25 hours, is probably enough; Shabbat is a time to let go of the anxieties and fears and wanting “more” which pervade our working hours. Shabbat is a time to put away our resentments and impossible expectations- of God and each other- so that we can make sacred community in joy. We slow down so we can see more clearly what we have, and what we need, so there is not strife, but peace.

Shabbat Shalom,


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