In this week’s Torah portion, Chukat, we find that after almost 40 years of journey in the wilderness, Israel has learned more about how to be a community and about how to be a community that has a covenant with God by doing what God wants. Things have changed and they are about to change even more.
We read: “Miriam died there and was buried there. The community was without water” (Numbers 20:1-2). The juxtaposition of Miriam’s death and the lack of water suggests that it is because of Miriam’s merit that a well of water has accompanied the Israelites in their wanderings.
Although the Israelites have learned a great deal in the 40 years of their journey, there are still some patterns that haven’t changed. If there is a problem, the people are gathering against Moses and Aaron. Moses asks God what to do and God tells him to take his rod and speak to the rock. Water will appear and God’s name will be sanctified before the Israelites. Forty years ago, when the people were in need of water, God told Moses to hit the rock with the rod and water would appear.
Moses then makes his biggest mistake. Out of his grief and his anger over his sister’s death he lashes out. He is verbally abusive to the people that he has led for the last 40 years, his people. He doesn’t speak to the rock; he hits the rock, twice. Water appears, but God’s name isn’t sanctified before the Israelites. Moses is told that he, too, will die in the wilderness; he will not enter the Promised Land. This is a moment of transition for Moses and the Israelites that has been almost four decades in the making. God has kept them in the wilderness in order that they would be able to learn how to be a free people and how to do things differently. Moses hasn’t handled the transition well and it will cost him dearly.
We all face transitions, large and small, in our lives. Each of these moments of transition touches our lives for good and for bad, but to a great extent we determine which, by how we face our transitions and what we choose to learn from each new challenge.
Good things can come from transitions, even the difficult ones. At the end of our Torah portion, the Israelites have grown as a people. They are still complaining and they are still stiff-necked and we know that this will not really change much. But now they can get their own water.
“… the Lord said to Moses, ‘Assemble the people that I may give them water.’ Then Israel sang this song: ‘Spring up, O well — sing to it — the well which the chieftains dug, which the nobles of the people started …’” (Numbers 21:17-18).
They no longer need Miriam’s well. They no longer need Moses to hit rocks or speak to them. How beautiful that the Israelites can sing and the well is there. They have grown as a result of all of the transitions and become stronger and self-reliant.
Batsheva Appel is the rabbi educator at Temple Emanu-El.