Chukat contains a variety of interesting and challenging passages. We meet the “red cow” (parah adumah) a ritual that was designed, it seems, to purge contamination from someone who encountered a corpse. Again,we seem to see the subconscious fear of death being played out. And, we meet the death of Miriam (20:1).
Immediately following this death, the Israelites again confront Moses. No water! As before, Moses, seeks the advice of God and is told to go.,with Aaron, and assemble the people and to take his rod and order a rock to give water. In this very famous passage Moses assembles the “rebels”, raised his hand “and struck the rock with his rod” (20:11). Water emerged and all drank but immediately Moses and Aaron are chastised by God because Moses struck the rock. “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people. therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” (20:12) Notice also that just a few verses later (20:28) Aaron dies, a further punishment for his action.
What a punishment! Commentators have pondered this for a long time. Did Moses lose his temper after yet another series of complaints from this people? They complained continually thoughout the Torah. We have all been there, we are under pressure and at times just lose it. Some commentaries suggest that Miriam represented the presence of water and as soon as she died, that water disappeared. In another contemporary interpretation, Rabbi Jonathan Saks (z’l) sees this event as very human. Miriam, Moses’s sister has just died and the people come complaining again! His sister has died, the people rebel and he loses his temper. “This is one of the effects of bereavement, and those who have suffered it often say that the loss of a sibling is harder to bear than the loss of a parent.”
Anger, in the face of loss, is so human. All of us have walked this path. Our tradition reminds us in Pirke Avot not to try to assuage a friend’s anger in the heright of tha anger.(4:23) This is something we learn as we age and have had to face this reality. Maturity reminds us that there are times, emotional times, when words are not needed, indeed, they can be harmful. Sometime, in moments of anger, or grief, presence takes the place of words. Maybe Moses’s reaction was just his grief over the death of his sister. That grief had to express itself some way. The rebelious words of the group triggered his very normal reaction. Should not the God of mercy and forgiveness understood?
Rabbi Richard F Address