Chukat: The Politics of Meribah

David's Star (Patrick Lentz photo via, Creative Commons license.)
David's Star (Patrick Lentz photo via, Creative Commons license.)

With Numbers 19 we enter a series of stories that have challenged commentators for centuries. The “red heifer” issue begins the portion (19), yet, there is in chapter 20 an equally challenging passage. Again, Torah seems to reach from the ancient past into our modern world. In 20, Miriam dies. There is just a quick mention of this (20:1) and we are then told that the people complained to Moses and Aaron because they lacked enough food and “There is not even water to drink” (20:5). Again, Moses and Aaron feel the wrath of a this people and they retreat to seek God’s counsel. They are told to assemble the people and take their rod/staff and “order the rock to yield its water” (20:8). However, Moses, in an angry challenge to this mob said “”listne you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” (20:10). He then struck the rock twice and out came water. This seems natural, yet, the text yields the fact that in stricking the rock in anger, the punishmnet to Moses was denial to enter Canaan.
This story is filled with issues. Moses is angry. He is fed up with the complaining of the people. He reacts out of frustration and anger. We forget that the story begins with the death of his sister. Imagine having to deal with that and then immediatly having to deal with the frustation of his people. Where was time for his mourning? The text is silent. Perhaps his angry reaction was understandable in the context of having to deal with Miriam’s death?
In reading this, however, I was struck also with the idea, commented upon my many, that Moses reacts out of anger and says things from the basis of that anger and frustration. We often do as well. Words come out of our mouths that we do not process, and as we all know, words can hurt. Our tradition reminds us that we are not to speak, or make decisions from the basis of anger and frustration, for they are often the words we really do not mean or decisions we do not really with to make. Pirke Avot, from the 2d century, reminds us that we should not try to placate friends at the height of their anger. (4:23)
I think one of the lessons we learn as we get a little older is the lesson from Chukat. Words and actions taken from a place of anger and frustration are rarely what we wish for. The context of these moments are important. Like the death of Miriam which introdcues this story, we need to see things from within a context. Stepping back for a moment, or a day, or longer to allow emotions to settle is often a sign of wisdom, and that often can allow us to not taste those waters of Meribah, waters of bitterness.
Shabbat shalom
Rabbi Richard F Address

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