Chukat: The Torah of Water

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chukat

Dear Friends:

Below find a commentary based on this week’s portion that I wrote for the e-magazine of the Poughkeepsie Sacred Earth Festival, which will be this Sunday, July 1, at the Mid-Hudson Children’s Museum. Go here for more information.

The Torah of Water

” . . You, and Aaron your brother, speak the rock so it may yield its water!  Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts.” (Bamidbar/ Numbers 20:8)

Imagery of water abounds in the Hebrew Bible. Indeed, the Torah begins in Genesis 1 an image of God creating our cosmos out of the primordial waters, holding back the floods for the sake of opening up a space in which Creation can unfold. Given its origins in a dry climate, it is not surprising that the Bible sees water in its season as a great blessing from God, who gives water to the earth for its life and sustenance:

“He waters the mountains from his upper chambers; the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work. . . .” (Ps. 104:13, cf. also 65:9)

The need for water plays a crucial role in the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the long journey to the Land of Israel. In Exodus 17, shortly after the Israelites have left Egypt, they cry out for water on the far shores of theSea of Reeds, and Moses, their leader, is perplexed. He doesn’t know how to provide the multitudes with thewater they need, and turning to God, he is told to strike a great rock with the same rod he used to strike the Nile during the plagues. (Our tools affect water for better or for worse!) Moses strikes the rock, and water issues forth for the people.

After 40 years of sojourning, the same story is retold, but this time with a very different ending. In Numbers 20,the Israelites are once again encamped in the wilderness,  probably near the Aravah desert south of the Dead Sea, and once again they cry out for water. This time, however, Moses rebukes the people for their complaint and is told by God to speak to the rock:

” . . .You, and Aaron your brother, speak the rock so it may yield its water!  Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts.” (Numbers 20:8)

However, Moses doesn’t speak to the rock: he strikes it with his staff, as he had done before a generation earlier, and while the rock produced its water, this episode of misunderstanding or disobedience is given as thereason why Moses would not be allowed to lead the people into the Land. While Bible scholars have struggled for millennia to understand why striking the rock would be punished so severely, perhaps the point isn’t what happens to Moses, but what happens when we relate to the Earth as mere resources, to be broken open at will.

When the Israelites first left the slavery of Egypt, they were scared and confused and unskilled in providing for themselves; it is understandable that Moses as their leader would use all his strength and ingenuity to get them what they needed to survive. After 40 years of development as a people, the story in Numbers makes clear that dominating the Earth with strength, forcing it to give up its blessings, is no longer the appropriate way for a responsible people to live.

We, too, cannot continually force the Earth to yield its blessings. Using our ever more efficient technology may work for a while, but eventually we must learn to “speak to the rock”- that is, learn to be in a more holistic and even dialogical relationship to the Earth which ultimately sustains us. We cannot continue to break apart the earth, the seas, the forests and plains without learning how to live with nature more humbly, more slowly and more appreciative of its wonders. Like Moses, the time for “striking the rock”- that is, taking from the Earth without regard to its limits- is over; in order to arrive at a place of sustainable blessing, we’ll need to learn a different way relating to the Creation of which we are just one part.

Shabbat Shalom,


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