From the Head of Jewish Life
Water, tears and wellsprings
In this week’s parashah, Chukkat, water is suddenly ubiquitous for the parched people in the dry desert. Moshe’s sister, מרים/Miryam, whose name means “bitter sea”, dies. With Moshe still in tears, we are told, in the very next verse, that there was no water (מים) for the people. Miriyam’s well which, according to Jewish tradition, accompanied the Israelites in their wilderness journey, has now disappeared.
The thirsty and saddened people argue with Moshe who, calling them מורים/morim (rebels and embittered ones), echoing the loss of מרים/Miriyam and her well, strikes the rock from which a torrent of water is released. Anger, in the form of water, is unleashed upon the people by a grieving Moshe who cannot contain the waters of sorrow that lie within. This place is called מי מריבה/mei merivah – “the waters of strife”.
Moshe and the people, bereft of Miryam are quickly stricken again as Aharon, Moshe’s brother and their leader, is taken from them, as well. We are told the tears flowed for thirty days from “all of Israel”.
The opening passage of this parashah speaks about the “מים חיים/living waters” of the red heifer ritual only to soon lead us through waters bespeaking death, mourning and loss. Then, suddenly, we are journeying with the Israelites through wadis and streams when, coming upon a well, a resurgent sense of hopefulness becomes palpable. We are brought back to the Sea of Reeds and the song of Moshe and the Israelites, as we hear: Az yashir Yisra’el et ha-shirah ha-zot – ”Then, Israel sang this song”.
A new well has been encountered and the people cry out “Spring up, O well”. The “living waters” of the Red Heifer are to bring those who have been touched by death back into the stream of life. Miryam’s well has sprung up from the people who now journey on.
Our parashah ends with the people encamped across the river Jordan, with the promised land on the horizon. The current of life flows on. For us, as for Israel, its wellspring is our journey’s song.
לשיר זה כמו להיות ירדן
To sing is to be like the Jordan
I would love to live like a river flows
Carried by the surprise of its own unfolding