הֵמָּה מֵי מְרִיבָה, אֲשֶׁר-רָבוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-יְהוָה; וַיִּקָּדֵש בָּם

These are the waters of Merivah, where the children of Israel strove against God, and he/it was sanctified in them / he was separated from them. (Num; 20:12–13)

 One of the most confusing passages in Torah happens here in parashat Chukkat – not the mysterious ritual of the red heifer which is the ‘hok’ par excellence of Torah, a law without obvious or rational basis to be done simply out of obedience to God’s laws -but the events at the rock, where instead of ordering the rock to yield its water, Moses struck it twice instead (as he was told and did in the first such narrative in Exodus 17:6).

Here in chapter 20, God had instructed Moses and Aaron to take a rod, assemble the community, and order the rock to give its water. But instead Moses had struck the rock twice, had described the Israelites as rebels, and had done the whole thing himself, without including Aaron.  Tradition tells us that Moses’ many failings are demonstrated here. Anger, Impatience, Self-centeredness, Lack of faith in God, … and that this is the reason that God tells both Moses and Aaron that they will not enter the promised land, because Moses had lost control, had not trusted in God, and Aaron had not stopped him. God said to Moses and Aaron, “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.” Those are the Waters of Merivah, the Israelites quarrelled with God—“

But I wonder. That verse seems to be pointing at something a little different.

  הֵמָּה מֵי מְרִיבָה, אֲשֶׁר-רָבוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-יְהוָה; וַיִּקָּדֵש בָּם

and then we have this strange phrase “va’y’kadesh bam” translated usually as some variation of “through which God affirmed sanctity.”

It is this notion of the sanctification of God in this passage that I find deeply troubling. From the moment when God blessed and va’y’kadesh the Shabbat day (Genesis 2:3), the verb va’y’kadesh has an infrequent but powerful presence in bible.

            It is used at the foot of Mt Sinai when Moses tells the people to prepare for the giving of the commandments in three days’ time, telling them to wash themselves, to stay away from women.          It is used when Aaron and his sons are taken through the rituals of becoming priests and particularly high priest. It is used again at the ritual opening of the Tabernacle readying it for sacrifices.   All of these uses are not so much about making something holy, but about separation and dividing, making something ready for particular usage. The only time we hear about the sanctification of God is in the verse before ours:

יב  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל-אַהֲרֹן, יַעַן לֹא-הֶאֱמַנְתֶּם בִּי, לְהַקְדִּישֵׁנִי לְעֵינֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל–לָכֵן, לֹא תָבִיאוּ אֶת-הַקָּהָל הַזֶּה, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַתִּי לָהֶם.   12 And God said to Moses and Aaron: ‘Because you believed not in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.’

Then follows the verse we know, but it doesn’t seem to be the continuing words of God, it is not spoken in the first person, and it seems to be an interpolation in the speech:

  הֵמָּה מֵי מְרִיבָה, אֲשֶׁר-רָבוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-יְהוָה; וַיִּקָּדֵשׁ בָּם

These are the waters of Merivah, where the children of Israel quarrelled with God, va’y’kadesh bam .

I would like to suggest that we are no longer talking about punishment of Moses or even of the people with this verse, and we are also not in the realm of the sanctification (or not) of God. Instead, we should look at this verb va’y’kadesh and recognise that it is reflecting the geography of the surroundings of the people of Israel, they are in the wilderness of Zin, in the area of Kadesh. In other words they are in an isolated and separated place, not yet part of a community, not connected to anywhere else.

The root comes to mean ‘holy’ by virtue of its more fundamental meaning – that of being separate, distinct and different. It makes sense in all the other usages of this word as a verb va’y’kadesh, as God separates the Sabbath day and makes it distinct, Moses separates out the people and warns them to be different from usual, the High Priest (and the priesthood generally) are separated from the rest of the populace. The tabernacle is also made a distinct and special place when it is given the status of kedusha by Moses once it is completely built. So why would we not translate our verse as “These are the waters of Merivah, where the children of Israel strove against God, and were separated/ isolated/ made different because of it.”

            This is the generation that didn’t have to leave Egypt. This is not the generation who were at Sinai. This is the generation who were born into the wilderness, born after the spies had led the people into a spiral of anxiety and depression by reporting that the Promised Land, while wonderful and fertile, was filled with giants who made themselves look pathetic in their own eyes. This is the generation who as yet know neither themselves nor God.

So maybe what is happening is that after punishing Moses and Aaron for their not teaching about belief and faith to the children of Israel and so being told that they will not be the ones who lead them into the promised land, the attention turns to the relationship between God and the children of Israel – this generation who were not yet taught to sanctify God and to have faith – and because of the striving against God, then something different has happened to them.

            There are times when we look for purpose in our lives and times when we simply jog along with them. Times when we need to believe and times when it doesn’t seem so important. Times when we can believe and times when it seems impossible

This is the very first time the new generation, the ones for whom miracles were the everyday occurrences of manna and water, of needs being met without much effort and battles being won without much loss, had to face something different. Miriam has already died, there is a shortage of water, Aaron and Moses were both getting older and there must have been a general understanding of the mortality of the leadership who had been there from the beginning, who spoke to God, who knew (or appeared to know) the purpose of the wandering.

This generation had to see something special; they had to see words bring about change. It was time for them to take on some of the obligation to God that up till now had been taken on for them. Moses and Aaron may or may not have failed in the way the carried out God’s instructions, in many ways it doesn’t matter, what matters is that an awareness was brought about that this new generation were not yet ready  to take on the task of their elders. It was time for something to hasten their readiness. And so I read these verses not as sanctifying God so much as preparing and altering the people in readiness to take over the work. That by their striving against God they were creating a relationship which would change them. “Va’y’kadesh bam” is not God being sanctified by the waters of Merivah, a concept which eludes me to be honest, but the people being made ready to be holy by their actions at that time.

All of us need to grow and to alter, to take on the burden of the work that others have done before us, be it for the community or within the family; promotion at work or a change of career – we grow up and we grow. It is not something we have a choice about, and that too is made clear in this sidra. But what is also made clear is that however much we don’t want to take on the work, however much we strive against it, we cannot escape it – the very act of striving against it changes us…. So we might as well take it on with good grace.

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