Parshat Chukat

Torah Reading for Week of June 13 – 19, 2010

“Still Waters”

by Janet Madden, PhD
AJRCA 4th Year Rabbinical Student

You will feel me under your footsoles
Like cool ground water under porous stone
—Alica Ostriker (“The Songs of Miriam”)

How ironic it is that a chuk, which in Biblical Hebrew means a “statute” or “decree” for which no reason is given, means, in Modern Hebrew, “a conundrum.” This shift in meaning provides a commentary on the struggle between authority and autonomy, of our modern difficulty in simply accepting what we are incapable of comprehending.

The shoresh of chuk is intriguing: chet. vav. kuf means both to fix limits and to encircle or embrace. And Parshat Chukat is saturated with images of watery limitations and encirclings. Chukat begins with the exposition of mei niddah, the waters of the red heifer, and the laws of ritual purity and defilement concerning death. Its most dramatic episode concerns mei merivah, the waters of dispute, when G-d decrees that Moses and Aharon will not enter the Land because in his attempt to bring forth water, Moses strikes the rock instead of speaking to it as G-d commands. And Parshat Chukat also records the death of Miriam, whose life has been consistently entwined with images of water–as she watches over her baby brother Moses floating in the Nile, as she leads the Israelite women as they dance and sing the Song of the Sea, and as the people are sustained in the wilderness through Miriam’s Well.

Wells figure prominently throughout the Torah. Sources of life-giving water, literally and symbolically serving as focal points, wells connote Divine blessings. One well, though, created by G-d at twilight on the sixth day of Creation, possesses uniquely symbolic depths. According to legend, this miraculous well is given by G-d to Abraham and passes to Hagar and Ishmael when they are cast out into the wilderness. Lost during the Egyptian enslavement, this well, which is called “Miriam’s Well” in recognition of Miriam’s merit, reappears at the moment of greatest need. For forty years, it sustains the wandering people with the revivifying water of life–mayyim chayyim.

The miracle of Miriam’s Well is that it is not static, that its waters enliven both the well itself and B’nei Israel. Numbers Rabbah tells us that Miriam’s Well takes the shape of a beehive-shaped rock that rolls along as the people travel. After the Mishkan is set up, the Well appears when the leaders stand upon the rock and say “Rise Up O Well!”–the same words that the people sing to the Well after Miriam’s death. But Miriam’s death precipitates a crisis. With her demise, there is no more water.

In the section of Parshat Chukat that follows Miriam’s death, G-d instructs Moses how to access water, and thus come both a new chuk and a narrative that goes beyond the limits of the story of Miriam’s Well. But although the Well apparently disappears, the water of life in fact continues to flow in a new form– the Torah, our encircling text. According to Samson Rafael Hirsch, embedded in the word be’er, well, is the notion of clarification, of the movement from darkness to light. And as from the depths of a well come waters that sustain and renew, so in Jewish tradition “well” becomes a metaphor for the Torah, an expression of how its ever-flowing wisdom and instruction sustain the Jewish people.

When we acknowledge that G-d is the Wellspring of all that is, we connect our understanding of G-d to our experience of life-giving deep, still well-water. It is an understanding that is necessarily limited by our human inability to comprehend the Divine. But when we immerse ourselves in the study of Torah, the bedrock of Judaism, we plunge into the infinite possibilities that enable us to be constantly refreshed and renewed, to gain more and greater clarity, and to join in the life-enriching and life-sustaining flow from darkness to light.

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