Sign In Forgot Password

Parashat Chukat - By Karen Knie-Cahana

The word, “water” is the metaphoric river that runs through Parshat Chukat. In the shortest sedra in The Book of Numbers, mayim is mentioned no less than 22 times. Our parasha opens with the mysterious Parah Adumah, Red Heifer ritual, whereby an unblemished, never-yoked cow is slaughtered and burned, and whose ashes are mixed with water to restore ritual purity to those who have had contact with the dead. Water is immersed in, clothes are submerged in water, and it is sprinkled around as part of this cleansing ceremony. While this practice teaches us about the concept of spiritual purification, the commentators cite this enigmatic ceremony as instructing us about the importance of following the mitzvot, even when we may not fully understand their reasoning. (19:1-22)

Death and water are juxtaposed in the text again. Both Aaron and Miriam will die in this parasha. When Miriam dies at the Wilderness of Zin, her special well, which had provided the journeyers enough water, disappears. Without her presence, Bnei Yisrael begin kvetching that “There is no water to drink!” With great concern, Moshe and Aaron, pray to G-d, who responds with the famous solution: Speak to the rock—and water will flow. We all know that Moshe strikes the rock twice instead, for which he will pay the dear price of not being able to enter Eretz Yisrael. Even though the Israelites get their water, the complaints don’t dry up. The place becomes known as: “The Waters of Discord”, Mai Meriva.

The desert sojourn is parching, and the areas are populated with adversarial fiefdoms. When Moshe asks the local leaders of Edom, Sihon, Bashan and elsewhere if Bnei Yisrael can pass through their lands, with the promise of either not drinking their water or purchasing it, they are refused. There are more wanderings, more wars and more complaints about the lack of water. The Wandering Jews finally arrive near the Jordan River and sing and exultant song to G-d about their appreciation of water, wells and the rivers’ abundant flow: “Spring up, O Well! Sing to it!” (20:1-22:1)

Parshat Chukat underscores the fragility of life, faith and community. Water has always been a source of life or strife: then and now. While desert-wandering may result in extreme responses, this text emphasizes the importance of water as a precious and essential resource, requiring protection, social cooperation and songs of gratitude.

Shabbat Shalom!

Karen Knie-Cahana

Sun, 14 July 2024 8 Tammuz 5784