I’ve lived in very different climates with a wide variety of weather conditions. I’ve had snowy Michigan winters, California mudslides, scorching Texas summers, and the typically wetter Portland, despite this year’s dryness. This year in particular has been a roller coaster of water activity in my former states of residence. California is experiencing one of the most severe droughts on record, while Texas is flooding. Water – and the lack of water – can signal destruction and devastation just as easily as it can be a symbol of purity, life, and sustenance.
Water in the Torah shares the same distinction. The world was only created after God was able to separate the waters and create dry land. Following that, water is arguably the central character in the story of the flood, as God uses torrential rain to wipe out the earth before starting over again. Water then comes to us again as a barrier between freedom and slavery when the Israelites leave Egypt, and throughout their entire journey in the desert, the Israelites are particularly worried about the amount and even the taste of the water they have.
This week we read parshat Chukat, which is full of plot twists and new experiences for the Israelites. The lands of Sichon and Og are conquered, both Miriam and Aaron die, and we learn that Moshe will not be allowed to enter into the land of Israel. When Miriam dies, we are given one more water miracle on her behalf, with water flowing from the rock. We also learn that the reason Moshe and Aaron are not allowed to enter the land of Israel is because of the incident in which they struck the rock out of frustration instead of speaking to it as God had commanded. The text concludes with praise and thanks being sung to God for the water of the well.
Chapter 20, verse 11 states, “The community and their beasts drank.” At face value, this verse tells us simply that when the water appeared, those who were thirsty drank. However, the Hebrew lends itself to a slightly more colorful interpretation when it’s read as “The people drank like beasts,” meaning each person was concerned solely with easing his or her own thirst. It is yet another illustration of how just the fear of lack of water affects the community. Again, water is sustenance.
Parshat Chukat reminds us of the significance of perhaps our greatest sustaining force. May we strive to always act with conservation and future generations in mind, and may those who have been so severely impacted by too little and too much water find some comfort and rest this Shabbat.