Chukat is a thirsty Torah portion.
The mention of water: fresh and flowing, miraculous and natural, living and life-giving, appears again and again in this sedra, like a hidden spring that runs under a dry creekbed, yet bubbles up at unexpected twists and turns before disappearing underground again.
Surrounding the streamlike theme, the sedra of Chukat is loaded with conflict and the clash of opposites: purity and impurity, sin and atonement, leadership and lack thereof, peace and war, sickness and health, tragedy and triumph, life and death.
It is the last epic installment of the story of three extraordinary siblings, Aaron, Miriam, and Moshe, and their miraculous adventures leading the people of Israel out of Egyptian slavery and through the desert towards the Promised Land.
One event at the heart of the narrative is the crux of this climax: Moshe strikes a rock instead of speaking to it, and his entire destiny changes in a heartbeat. G!d’s response seems harsh and is hard to understand:
What is going on here? Was this a fair and fitting punishment for the brief folly of Moshe, such an outstanding leader?
Let us explore two letters: the Lamed and the Mem, and these will be the twin keys that unlock the question above. We will explore staff and spring, anger and tranquility, teaching and learning, transgression and redemption, song and psalm, and hopefully emerge refreshed and a little wiser for our watering of Torah.
The Letter Lamed
What is so wonderful about language, and the Hebrew language specifically, is that the history of the letters lend layer upon layer of meaning to each sentence, word, and character. The Hebrew Aleph-Bet is particularly special because it is the holy tongue of the Jewish people, and the original language of the Bible, so the letters are infinitely more precious and meaningful.
Hebrew, as it is generally studied today, is made up of a group of letters that communicate only consonantal sounds to the average reader. But if we listen more closely, the letters speak their secrets. For this we must travel back to the origin of the Aleph-Bet, when each and every letter began life as an image: a picture of something in this world.
To explore a letter deeply, then, one must look at the form of the character and its evolution over time, and at the meaning of the letter’s name itself.
Back to the Lamed.
First the Letter Form: The letter Lamed, the twelfth letter in the Aleph-Bet, was first written down (or shall we say drawn?) as an image of a rod or staff. This form of the Hebrew language is called Proto-Hebrew, shown here beside an image of a wooden staff:
But the Lamed is not just any staff: it is the Shepherd’s Crook. Because of this, the Lamed represents the concept of authority, from the authority of the shepherd over the flock.
The uniqueness of the Lamed is that he is the only ascender in the Hebrew Aleph-Bet. This means that Lamed is the only one who reaches beyond the upper line of standard Hebrew script. All the other Hebrew letters remain in line, or descend down below the line, in their final forms.
Second, the Letter Name: The very word Lamed comes from the root .ל.מ.ד (L.M.D), meaning both “to learn” and “to teach”. It is the letter of the educator.
The Shepherd’s staff, the ascender, the educator. The Lamed symbolizes the power to direct and control (especially a flock of animals), the aspiration of the devoted student yearning to quench their thirst for understanding, and the heart of the wise person striving to comprehend the wisdom of the natural world…and ascending to grasp knowledge of the divine.
Moshe: The Shepherd-Teacher
To me, Moshe Rabbeinu embodies the Lamed.
He was chosen by G!d, one might argue, because he was such a caring and devoted shepherd in the wastes of Midian to his father-in-law’s flock, and G!d saw that he had the makings of an excellent leader of men. Armed with his staff, Moshe was a leader and shepherd to the people of Israel – no easy task. He was a true ascender: going up above at Sinai to bring down knowledge of Torah below. He was both teacher and supreme court justice to Israel, and his authority was outranked only by G!d.
The Shepherd’s Staff can also be called the goad. A more familiar concept to city folk might be the cattle prod. It once was made of wood, but at some point, the cruel electrified cattle prod was developed, and that is a truly painful thing to be at the wrong end of.
How a shepherd uses this tool, as a horseman uses his whip, tells a lot about the character of the human wielding it. If he is kind and fair, and does not seek to harm his flock but only to guide the animals to their own benefit and safety, then the staff is nothing more than a symbol, a reminder, an extension of his arm. These animals tend to respond to gentle leadership in kind, with trust and without fear. If however the shepherd is cruel, his animals will feel the lash or the electrocution whether it was truly deserved or not. These animals will often become bitterly untrusting, unpredictable, and cruel themselves.
Moshe was the sort of Shepherd to wield his staff for the good of his flock and his people, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have to put up with his share of upstarts!
On to the next letter, both in the Aleph-Bet and in our lesson: Mem, the letter of Miriam.
The Letter Mem
Mem means water. It is the letter of lifegiving liquid: pure water, bitter water, salt water, fresh water…
But lest the waters flow away from us – let’s focus first on Form: The letter Mem comes from that squiggly shape every child draws when outlining the surface of the waters.
The open Mem is the symbol for flowing water. The Final Mem is captured water (see letter image above). Waters bring purification in Judaism, especially when they are gathered in a Mem-shaped mikvah.
Torah is likened to water because water is likened to wisdom. Mem is therefore also the letter of wisdom.
Waters can be still. Calm. Tranquil. Or they can be playful, as in a gurgling stream. Waters can also be tempestuous and unpredictable, fierce and cruel. Water brings life to this wet rock of ours called Earth and sometimes, when there is too much of it or it is too fierce, it brings death.
In her fierce, loyal, and nourishing spirit, Miriam is like the Mem. She has both free flowing and enclosed pure waters in her name: מרים.
Miriam triumphs when she is near water. Miriam may have been named for the bitterness of the situation into which she was born (a slavegirl in Egypt), but she transformed that bitterness into sweetness by virtue of her own chutzpah, vision, and perseverance.
As a child aged six, Miriam foresaw that her parents would give birth to the redeemer of Israel. Despite Pharaoh’s cruel decree to cast the male babies into the Nile, she succeeded in convincing her parents to remarry, and Moshe was born.
Miriam watched over and defended her baby brother when he was vulnerable, afloat in the freshwaters of the Nile River. When Pharaoh’s daughter pulled him from the water and gave him the name Moses, “Drawn from the Water”, Miriam spoke up on his behalf and arranged for a Jewish wetnurse to be found…Moshe’s own mother, Yocheved!
Years later, when she leads the Israelite women in triumphant song on the banks of the sea at the defeat of the Egyptian military, Miriam is declared by the text to be a fully fledged Prophetess.
In the desert, we learn through a Midrash that the well which miraculously followed the Israelites in the desert existed due entirely to the merit of Miriam.
By Hook or By Crook
Let’s look again at the crux of the matter, when Moshe, his brother Aaron beside him, took his Shepherd’s Staff and struck the rock:
As these verses imply, Moshe loses his temper. He yells at the people, he calls them names, he asks a disparaging question, and he smites that poor rock with all his strength. Says the Midrash, when Moshe hit that rock and it split in half, so powerful was his action, so fierce was his intention, that all the rocks in the wilderness around him split in half, too.
But what triggered him? Let’s go back a few more verses to gain context:
The congregation had no water. They were exhausted; thirsty in the desert. And like a bleating herd of hungry goats, or like immature young children, they whine and cry and complain and then go so far as to say, “We wish we were dead!”
But there have been plenty of times Israel has complained before now, and there have been times that Moshe has been pushed to his breaking point, but only here and now does he truly break.
We must go back one verse further, to the beginning of the section break:
|א וַיָּבֹאוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל כָּל-הָעֵדָה מִדְבַּר-צִן, בַּחֹדֶשׁ הָרִאשׁוֹן, וַיֵּשֶׁב הָעָם, בְּקָדֵשׁ; וַתָּמָת שָׁם מִרְיָם, וַתִּקָּבֵר שָׁם.||1 And the children of Israel, even the whole congregation, came into the wilderness of Tzin in the first month; and the people abode in Kadesh; and Miriam died there, and was buried there.|
What happened just before the episode of the children of Israel whining about no water? Moshe’s big sister, Miriam, dies. The rabbis teach us that Aaron and Moshe were shattered by grief. The two brothers buried their sister themselves, and then went into mourning for Miriam.
Did the people mourn? Apparently not.
For the first time in their desert travels, Miriam was not there to lead her brothers and the people. She was not there to divine fresh sources of water. When they lost her, Israel lost their water source, but what they mourned was the loss of water, not the loss of their Leader-Prophet, sister to Aaron and Moshe.
But Moshe was in tatters. His big shvester, that strong, mighty Miriam who had always been there to protect, support, sing with, and guide him, was dead, and he was bereft.
The fact that the people cared only for their own thirst (and that of their animals) was too much for Moshe. He was a man of letters, an orator par excellence who chose his words with great care, even when he had lost his sister and his temper in the same day.
Look closely at what Moshe yelled at the Israelites before striking the rock in his fury:
English translations say:
“Hear now, you rebels; shall we fetch you water out of this rock?!”
But we are scholars – and so we look to the original Hebrew:
שִׁמְעוּ-נָא הַמֹּרִים–הֲמִן-הַסֶּלַע הַזֶּה, נוֹצִיא לָכֶם מָיִם
Do you see his brilliance, and his pain?
The word Moshe uses for “rebels” מֹּרִים is the same characters as the name of his departed sister מִרְיָם. Only the vowels differ.
Moshe was condemning the people for their failure to mourn his sister, their leader and savior, Miriam, and went so far as to transform her own name into a harsh rebuke against them.
If Moshe meant this as a rebuke, which Israel rightly deserved, why did G!d punish Moshe so severely? Of what was he truly guilty?
Tempest of a Temper Lost
Moshe was tasked by G!d to be the shepherd of the Israelite nation. From the outset, G!d taught him how to use his shepherd’s staff to work miracles to impress Pharaoh and win Israel’s freedom from Egyptian enslavement.
Much as I enjoy the film adaptations of Biblical stories (most of them), like Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt, the scriptwriters never seem to pick up on the nuances of the text itself. How sensitively the narrative is told! How important each detail!
If you read carefully through the episode of the plagues in Egypt, you will notice that whenever a plague is directed at the Nile, or any waterway in Egypt, for blood, frogs, etc., it is Aaron, not Moshe, who preforms the miracle with the staff.
Moshe never lifts up his staff against the river. Not only did the waters of the river carry him to freedom, they saved him from death. Moshe therefore owes his life to the waters, and he does not harm them out of gratitude.
Moshe never lifts up his staff against the waters of the Sea of Reeds, either. But don’t take my word for it – look at the text:
|כא וַיֵּט מֹשֶׁה אֶת-יָדוֹ, עַל-הַיָּם, וַיּוֹלֶךְ ה’ אֶת-הַיָּם בְּרוּחַ קָדִים עַזָּה כָּל-הַלַּיְלָה, וַיָּשֶׂם אֶת-הַיָּם לֶחָרָבָה; וַיִּבָּקְעוּ, הַמָּיִם.||21 And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the LORD caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all the night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. (Exodus 14:21)|
Moshe only lifts up his hand over the sea and causes it to split, he never raises a rod up against it, not even as a threat.
The only time Moshe strikes any form of water is when G!d directly commands him to bring forth water from a rock by hitting it with his Shepherd’s Staff. But the second time G!d commands him to bring forth water, in this week’s sedra, G!d asks Moshe to speak to the rock, not strike it.
As we all do, sometimes, being human, Moshe lost his patience.
He lost patience with his exasperated and complaining herd of humans.
Moshe broke under the strain of pain, mourning, disbelief, and rage.
When Moshe opened his mouth in anger he transformed Miriam’s good name into a curse. When he raised his hand and staff (the Lamed) in anger he hurt the hidden stream of Mayim (the waters of the Mem), which symbolized Miriam.
Moshe wielded his characteristically gentle Shepherd’s Staff against the water in an act that ran against all he was, all he hoped to be, and ran counter to all the people and elements to which he owed his life.
In anger Moshe struck out against the waters, his rescuer
In anger he struck against the memory of his sister, his savior
In anger he struck out against his own self, he who was “Drawn from the Water”
Moshe struck against his better nature in anger
And worst of all, Moshe struck in anger against the command of G!d Himself.
The Rambam (Maimonides) says that anger is akin to Avodah Zarah, idolatry. When we allow ourselves to be consumed with anger, we forget about G!d. We raise our own fury above our higher calling. Moshe forgot G!d at the rock because he was blinded by anguish and consumed with rage. And so, because Moshe failed to believe in G!d and sanctify the divine in that moment, he lost his right to lead his people into the Land.
What, if anything, is redeeming about this painful sedra? How can we move forward from such a break in leadership?
The Song at the Well
Like the hidden source of waters that Miriam could always find, there exists a hidden and rather soothing consolation in Chukat that I never noticed before:
The Song at the Well.
A Song to the Well.
In its language, this unexpected song is a direct reference to the Israelite’s Song at the Sea, back when Miriam was at full strength, her prophecies fully realized, leading the women with timbrel in dance and song in response to the song of their men.
This song, I believe, is the belated Ode to Miriam by her people. After they and their herds are watered, after a struggle and war over water (what else?), Israel remembers their voices, they remember the songs they once sang on the seashore with Miriam, and they sing this song to the well, לָהּ – to her.
Many centuries ago, in the spirit of this song, women in Ashkenaz used to observe the Yahrtzeit (death anniversary) of Miriam the Prophet by fasting on the 10th of Nissan each year.
Today, it is a custom in some families to place a cup of fresh water on the Passover table in honor of our Women of Water.
By Still Waters
I promised you a Psalm. Tehillim (Psalm) 23 is traditionally sung during the final Shabbat meal, when the dimdumim (sunset) of the evening falls. These verses are also commonly recited in the presence of a human whose soul has left their body, recited by those keeping watch over the body before burial, and at the funeral service itself.
It is sometimes called the Shepherd’s Psalm, and it’s imagery makes use of the Shepherd’s Staff, Moshe’s Lamed.
Psalms Chapter 23 תְּהִלִּים
When the Shepherd’s Staff is used gently to guide, teach, learn, and reach up, when it is partnered peacefully with calm waters, that is our vision of harmony and plenty.
Chukat ends with Moshe and the people arriving at the Jordan river, where soon, he will be allowed to gaze out over the land of his forefathers. While he never was able to enter the land himself as he wished, Moshe achieved his, and his siblings’, joint destiny and goal of delivering their people from the narrow straits, through walls of salt water, through deserts with no water, to the banks of the freshwater Jordan.
In the end, like Moshe, we all carry staves, and every human being alive has lost their tempers, and will lose them again. But be cautious. Be warned. Harsh though it may be, there are critical moments in our lives were so much is at stake, and the wrong word or the wrong temper let loose at the wrong time can derail the course of our own lives, and the lives of those around us, in an instant.
Sometimes, what has shattered cannot be mended, and the Prophet Shepherd must die in exile on the mountaintop. Other times, the thirsty ones can come to their senses and redeem the memory of the Prophet Sister with a song at the well.
Song of Moshe Bringing Forth Water
(with gratitude to my grandmother for sharing this song with me!)
Questions for Further Study:
- If G!d only wanted Moshe to speak to the rock, but not strike it, then why was Moshe commanded to take his staff with him?
- G!d tells Moshe and Aaron that they failed to believe in and sanctify Him (Num. 20:12). Why then would the text immediately say G!d was sanctified “וַיִּקָּדֵשׁ בָּם” vayikadesh bam, “And He was sanctified in them” (Num. 20:13)?
- To what (or whom) is the word בָּם bam referring in the phrase “וַיִּקָּדֵשׁ בָּם”?
- Resources for further interpretation: https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/3839434/jewish/Moses-Strikes-the-Rock-The-Full-Story.htm
Share your thoughts in the comments!
Chasidah, Yishai. Encyclopedia of Biblical Personalities. Shaai Press: Brooklyn, 1994.
Ginsburgh, Rabbi Yitzchak. The Hebrew Letters: Channels of Creative Consciousness. Gal Einai: Jerusalem, 1990.
Gold, Avie. Baal HaTurim Chumash. Masorah Publications: Brooklyn, 2007.
Koren Tanakh. Koren Publishers: Jerusalem, 2010.
Torah Q’dumah. Sha’ul ben Shalom Hudayafi: Beit Dagan, 2005.
Benner, Jeff A. The Ancient Pictographic Alphabet. https://www.ancient-hebrew.org/ancient-alphabet/ancient-pictographic-alphabet.htm
Raskin, Rabbi Aaron L. Lamed: The Twelfth Letter of the Hebrew Alphabet.
Mechon Mamre. https://www.mechon-mamre.org/ (source for all tables of biblical verses)
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