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Parashat Hukat tells the story of mei merivah—the waters of contention—to explain why Moses and Aaron are denied the opportunity to shepherd the Israelites to the Land of Canaan.

The plot of mei merivah seems simple and straightforward. When the people arrive at the location Kadesh in the 40th year, they complain of a lack of water. God commands Moses to gather the nation around a rock, speak to the rock before the people and bring forth water. Moses draws water from the rock but something goes awry in the execution. As our commentators suggest, perhaps it is in the words he utters to the nation or perhaps it is the fact that he strikes the rock, although not explicitly commanded by God to do so. Whatever the exact cause, God declares that Moses and Aaron have failed to sanctify God’s name before the nation of Israel. As a result, they lose their right to lead the people into the Promised Land and are condemned to die in the wilderness.

Scholars and commentators alike have puzzled over the episode of mei merivah. What was so terrible about Moses’s and Aaron’s conduct that their punishment is the denial of the culmination of their life’s work and passion? Was it the sin of transgressing God’s instructions to every precise detail, as noted earlier? Or was the episode a final demonstration of Moses’s anger, distance and frustration at the people that would render him inappropriate for the next phase of leadership?

I would like to suggest a reading of the mei merivah episode that elucidates its significance based on its literary context and language. The Torah introduces the episode by telling us that Miriam, Moses and Aaron’s sister, died and was buried in Kadesh. Immediately thereafter there was no water and the nation quarreled with its leaders. The Midrash, quoted by Rashi and other classical commentators, notes that (although unstated in the text) there must be a connection between these events. They infer that it was in Miriam’s merit that a miraculous well followed the people throughout their journeys through the wilderness, providing a plentiful supply of water, only to disappear when Miriam died. It is this very well that the Israelites celebrate with song later in our parashah, “Spring up O well—let us sing to it!”

It is likely that the loss of the prophetess Miriam caused not only physical thirst but great grief to her family and to the entire nation. Piecing together the disparate references to Miriam throughout the Torah, we must conclude that Miriam was a woman of the people—a woman who stood for and sustained all of the people. She is Moses’s sister who watches him from a distance at the Nile River in a basket and arranges for his adoption and nurturing by the daughter of Pharaoh. She leads the women in song and dance at the crossing of the Red Sea, celebrating the divine miracle of redemption and including the women as partners in that redemption. It is not surprising that when Miriam is afflicted with leprosy for her criticism of Moses taking a Cushite woman (Bemidbar 12:1) the Torah emphasizes numerous times that the people would not journey until Miriam returned to the camp. The Or HaHayyim concludes, based on the language of these verses, that it was the people’s decision to honor Miriam by waiting for her return.

In summary, Miriam the prophetess was a symbol of unity and caring—a woman who took notice of those behind the scenes as well as those in plain view. The death of Miriam no doubt left the people with a spiritual and emotional vacuum in addition to the coincident physical thirst.

This was a moment in which Moses needed to supply not only water but an extra dose of empathy—to share his personal grief with the people rather than to vent it, to rally the people in a show of caring and unity. At mei merivah, when Moses and Aaron flee from the people’s complaints to the ohel moed—the tent of meeting, God instructs them instead to gather the people, speak to the rock before the people “and bring forth for them water from the rock and give drink to the nation and their animals.”

Moses’s mission at this moment was to comfort the people at a time of physical thirst and emotional longing—to sanctify God’s name by consoling the people as well as personally quenching their need for water. Moses’s failure at mei merivah was a missed opportunity in his leadership—God performed the miracle but Moses’s mediation deviated from the original plan.

Perhaps Moses’s very human misstep at mei merivah is also hinted at in another manner. God commands Moses to speak to the rock before the people; but instead Moses speaks to the people before the rock. Speaking to the people could have been an opportunity for cohesion and comfort, but instead Moses’s words and tone convey anger and frustration. Moses declares, “shimu-na ha-morim; ha-min ha-sela ha-zeh notzi lakhem mayim?” “Listen now, O rebels, shall we bring forth water for you from this rock!?!” It is striking that the Hebrew word for rebels used by Moses is morim spelled m/r/y/m—the exact spelling of the name Miriam, his recently deceased sister whose demise introduces the story of mei merivah. As our Sages, echoed by modern literary scholars, so often point out, the Torah uses words with similar sounds and letters in order to convey subtle, textual messages. When Moses utters the words in anger and frustration, “listen rebels – ha-morim (m/r/y/m),” we cannot help but be reminded that Moses and the people had just suffered the loss of “Miriam (m/r/y/m)”—a model of sustenance and a nurturing presence.

The thirst of the nation of Israel at Kadesh in the 40th year of their sojourn in the wilderness was a moment of emptiness both physical and emotional, but it was also a moment of opportunity. Teaching God’s holiness is surely about miracles, but sometimes it is about words of consolation and comfort. Sadly, the waters of Kadesh (holiness) are remembered as mei merivah or waters of contention (perhaps the Hebrew merivah containing m/r/y also calls forth to the reader the similar m/r/y of Miriam and ha-morim). May it be our goal as Jews and human beings to transform moments of challenge into moments of caring and comfort. May we strive to transform waters of contention into waters of holiness and unity.

Shabbat shalom.

Rachel Friedman is Dean of Lamdeinu, the center for adult Torah study in Teaneck. Lamdeinu’s summer classes in Tanakh, Halakha and Talmud begin on Monday June 29—register now at lamdeinu.org.

By Rachel Friedman

 

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