Thoughts on Chukat
We are all too familiar with the fact that life as we know it can change in the blink of an eye – a baby being born, a diagnosis, a mass casualty, a change in national policy.
After weeks of unrest amongst the Israelite camp and numerous occasions of Moses and Aaron keeping cool under pressure, particularly in last week’s account of Korach’s rebellion, their place in society changes in the blink of an eye, with one misstep.
Miriam dies without much fanfare, though the following verse recalls that the Israelites were then without water, leading the Rabbis of the Talmud to credit her with the existence of the well that accompanied the Israelites on their wanderings in the wilderness and providing them with drinking water. This leads to the lamenting of our ancestors yet again, bewailing the resources they had in Egypt. Moses, in a fit of rage and frustration, calls the Israelites “a group of rebels,” asks if “we should provide water”, and then hits a rock to release the much required resource. As a result, Moses and Aaron are not permitted to lead the people into the land of Israel.
What was the specific offense? Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch points to Moses’ angry denunciation of the people to make the point that Moses should not have lost his cool. Rabbi Joseph Bekhor Shor says Moses’ asked if “we,” rather than God, should provide water, thus denying the miracle. Since Moses struck the rock twice, some say that Aaron should have stopped him after the first time and that his crime was in being a silent bystander.
On countless occasions, Aaron and Moses deescalated situations, bringing the temperature down between God and the people. And yet, this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat, reminds us of the fragility of our communities, how quickly one reaction or thoughtless moment can unravel that which we have strived tirelessly to build.
May we be strengthened in our moments of frustration and empowered to stand up in the face of rumblings, following in the path for which Aaron is most often remembered – pursuing peace.
Rabbi Gail Swedroe