Parashat Chukat recounts one of the most dramatic and tragic episodes in Moses’ and Aaron’s tenures as leaders of the nation of Israel.
When the Israelites arrive at Kadesh in the fortieth year of their journey through the wilderness, the people complain of a lack of water. God commands Moses and Aaron to gather the nation around a rock, speak to the rock before the people and bring forth water from the rock. Moses draws water from the rock but something goes awry in the execution. Perhaps it is in the angry words that he utters to the nation or perhaps it is the fact that he strikes the rock, although not explicitly commanded to do so by God.
Whatever the exact cause, God declares that Moses and Aaron have failed to sanctify God’s name before the nation of Israel. As a result, they lose their privilege to lead the people into the Promised Land. The location becomes known as mei merivah — or waters of contention — reflecting the strife of the people.
What was so egregious about Moses’ and Aaron’s conduct that their punishment is the denial of the culmination of their life’s work? Was it the slight transgression of God’s precise instructions? Or did the episode demonstrate the need for a new kind of leadership?
I suggest a reading of the mei merivah episode based on its literary context and language. The Torah introduces the story by telling us that Miriam, Moses’ and Aaron’s sister, died and was buried in Kadesh. Immediately thereafter, there was no water and the nation quarreled with their leaders. A midrash notes that (although unstated in the text) there is a connection between these events. The rabbis infer that it was in Miriam’s merit that a miraculous well followed the people throughout their journeys in the wilderness, providing a plentiful supply of water, only to disappear when Miriam died.
Surely, the loss of the prophetess Miriam caused not only physical thirst but great grief to her family and nation. Piecing together the disparate references to Miriam in the Torah, we conclude that Miriam was a woman of the people — a woman who stood for and sustained all of the people. She is Moses’ sister who watches him from a distance at the Nile River in a basket and arranges for his adoption by the daughter of Pharaoh. She leads the women in song and dance at the crossing of the Red Sea, celebrating the divine miracle of redemption and including the women as partners in that redemption. It is not surprising that when Miriam is afflicted with leprosy for her criticism of Moses’ taking a Cushite woman (Bemidbar 12), the people do not continue their journey until Miriam returns to the camp.
The death of Miriam at Kadesh no doubt left the people with a spiritual and emotional vacuum just as the loss of “Miriam’s well” led to their physical thirst. This was a moment in which Moses and Aaron had the opportunity to supply not only water but an extra dose of empathy — to share their personal grief with the people, to rally the people in a show of caring and unity. Instead, Moses and Aaron flee the people to the ohel moed or tent of meeting. Furthermore, God commands Moses and Aaron to speak in unison to the rock before the people, presumably to announce the upcoming miracle. Instead, Moses speaks alone to the people before the rock and his words convey anger and frustration. Moses declares, “shimu-na ha-morim; ha-min ha-sela ha-zeh notzi lakhem mayim?” “Listen now, O rebels, shall we bring forth water for you from this rock!?!”
It is striking that the Hebrew word for rebels used by Moses is morim spelled m/r/y/m — the exact spelling in Hebrew of the name Miriam (m/r/y/m) — his recently deceased sister whose demise introduces the story of mei merivah. The Torah uses words with similar sounds and letters in order to convey subtle, textual messages. When Moses utters, “listen rebels — ha-morim (m/r/y/m),” we are reminded that Moses and the people had just suffered the loss of “Miriam (m/r/y/m)” — a supportive and nurturing presence. The Hebrew word merivah (m/r/y/v/h) also calls forth the similar m/r/y of Miriam and ha-morim. We may deduce that the contentiousness of the people at mei merivah (m/r/y/v/h), and Moses’ dramatic response in which he calls them ha-morim (m/r/y/m), were related to the recent loss of their beloved Miriam (m/r/y/m).
The thirst of the nation of Israel at Kadesh, which immediately followed the death of Miriam the prophetess, was a moment of both physical and emotional emptiness for the people of Israel. But it was also an opportunity for Israel’s leaders to sanctify God’s name and solidify their connection to the grieving nation. Sanctifying God’s name is often about mediating miracles, but it may also be about offering words of consolation. It is ironic that the word Kadesh, the location of Israel’s thirst and complaints in Parashat Chukat, contains the same Hebrew letters — k/d/sh — as the word kadosh which means holy or sacred. Sadly, the waters of Kadesh are remembered as mei merivah or waters of contention, rather than as waters of sanctification.
May it be our goal as Jews and human beings to address moments of challenge with acts of caring and words of comfort. May we strive to transform waters of contention into waters of unity and holiness.
Dean Rachel Friedman is the founder of Lamdeinu, a center for Torah study in Teaneck.