Chukkat: Obituary for Miriam the Prophetess and one of the leadership triumvirate

We have learned this week of the death of Miriam bat Amram v’Yocheved of the tribe of Levi. Born in Egypt, the oldest child in the family with two younger brothers Aaron and Moses, Miriam kept faith with the religious tradition of her ancestors in the darkest times, even prophesying the birth of her youngest brother Moses and predicting that he would be the one who would deliver their people to freedom (BT Sotah11- 12b). Along with her brothers she was part of the leadership that brought the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt and into the desert. Sadly she has not lived to see the end of the journey, but her leadership – particularly of the women – was critical to its success.

Miriam had a particular affinity with water. Even her name reminds us of it, variously translated as ‘bitter seas’ (Mar Yam) or even “doubled water” (depending on whether one sees the letters mem reish as deriving from bitterness or of water. We first meet her at the water’s edge, saving her little brother Moses adrift in the Nile reeds. (Exodus 2:4-9) She is a powerful figure at the Sea of Reads and her song of praise became the basis for the rather more famous (and more fully recorded in bible) song of her brother, Shirat haYam. (Exodus 15) Luckily the Dead Sea Scrolls have recorded more of her verses than the biblical editor thought fit to include.(4Q365).  And of course we must not forget Miriam’s well which followed her in the wilderness and which provided much needed refreshment for the Children of Israel, was a miracle provided because of her merit. (Ta’anit 9a).

Bible called her a prophet and indeed Miriam was a great prophet of Israel, though sadly she has no book named for her prophesies, an oversight to be much deplored.

Her name might also allude to the idea of rebellion – a role model for all Jews, Miriam thought for herself and did not acquiesce to the ideas of others without challenge. It was this characteristic that gave her the will to challenge her parent’s decision (and that of the other Jewish adults) to no longer have relations in order that no children would be born – some say that they all divorced so as to prevent a new generation being born into slavery. But Miriam’s refusal to be party to this pessimistic arrangement meant that not only did she and her brother Aaron dance and sing at the remarriage of their parents, but that other families followed suit. Her rebellious spirit was vital in keeping the people alive and hopeful. (BT Sotah 12a; Mekhilta de-Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai 6). Indeed such was her role in preserving the last generation to be born in Egypt, there are some who say that the midwife Puah was in fact Miriam herself.  In part this connects to her rebellious nature. There are those who say that she was insolent (hofi’ah panim – lifted her face) toward Pharaoh when she heard his edict to kill all baby boys born to the Hebrew women, and looked down her nose at him. She told him: “Woe to you on the Day of Judgment, when God will come to demand punishment of you.” Pharaoh was so enraged at her behaviour that he wanted to kill her. She was saved only because Yocheved intervened, saying “Do you take notice of her? She is a baby, and knows nothing” (Ex. Rabbah, 1:13).  Miriam found it hard to keep her mouth shut at that, but luckily she did so.

While it is not clear who Miriam married – indeed if she married at all – there are some who say she married Caleb and other who say she married her uncle Uzziel. Clearly these marriages were unimportant in the public sphere in which she worked, but it is said that her children were sages and kings because she had stood up to the evil decree of Pharaoh and also persuaded the Hebrews to continue to procreate. Bezalel is said to have descended from her, as is King David.

While this writer does not see the need to describe family for Miriam – either to explore whether she married or had children – it is gratifying that the midrashic tradition felt, in its own terms, that she deserved to be rewarded for her integrity and willingness to speak truth to power. We note that the sons of Moses walk out of history and that two of Aaron’s sons offer strange fire to God, with only the younger two continuing into priesthood, with its ultimately difficult and chequered history.

Miriam was musical, a great timbrel player, and a wonderful song leader and dancer who lifted the spirits of all who saw her. Her liveliness and optimism, coupled with a strong character and a willingness to speak out, make her a superlative role model for Jews everywhere. Her association with water, the living waters from which everything can draw its sustenance, is no accident. Water flows where it will, as did Miriam.

Even when Miriam criticised the fact that her brother Moses had married a Cushite woman and apparently put away Zipporah, the wife of his youth and mother of his two sons, she did so from a position of integrity, challenging her younger brother’s autocratic behaviour and as a result of her good and close relationship with Zipporah, a Midianite woman married into the Israelite leadership family (Sifrei on Numbers 12). She was concerned that Moses was no longer visiting Zipporah who was thus condemned to having no marital comfort and would not be able to bear more children.(Avot de R.Natan ch 9; Sifrei Zuta 12:1; sifra Metzorah 5).

While she was smitten with a skin disease as punishment for the harshness of her words, it must be noted that the whole camp waited for her to heal before moving on. For seven days even the Shechinah, as well as the priests and the Israelites stayed in camp while her tzara’at took its course (Mishnah Sotah 1:9) and it is well understood that this exceptional treatment was a reward for her work supporting Moses as a baby and enabling him to be reunited safely with is mother as his wet nurse, as well as helping in the leadership of the people in the many desert years.

While Miriam died on tenth of Nisan in Kadesh in the wilderness of Tzin, (Sifrei on Devarim 305) her death is recorded here in Chukkat along with that of Aaron. All three of the siblings are buried on the heights of Avarim close to the land of Israel, and Miriam, like her brothers  would later, died by the kiss of God as her soul was gently drawn back from her body (BT baba batra 17a), an ending known as the death of the righteous.

She will not be forgotten. In modern times she is remembered at the Pesach seder with a Cup of Miriam filled with water, and a special prayer; while others add a piece of fish to the seder plate to reference her particular affinity with water.

Sadly however the characteristics of Miriam are sometimes hidden from view or even actively ignored – her prophecy and the determination she had to make her voice heard by people more senior than her are a fundamental part of her character. She spoke out, her voice was heard and followed – in both her capacity to advise and in her song leading, even if her brother then took credit for some of her best works. She was not quiescent in the face of a community that didn’t want change, or that was prepared to put up with injustice and oppression. She was active in both the birth and the rearing of Moses, keeping faith with her idea that here was a child who could be a leader and redeemer of the people. She was an equal partner in leadership, she had her own ideas and her own way of going about things. She was nobody’s ‘yes woman’. Her integrity, her strength of character, her fluidity, her determination to keep life happening, all meant that Miriam’s was a voice that shaped the people, she was heard in the public space, she was respected even when she sometimes said things in a less than careful way, she was warm and caring and people knew it. Moses could be distant, his shyness and insecurities causing him to hide away sometimes. Aaron could be arrogant in his priestly garments and status. But Miriam was accessible to the people and they loved her for it, as she spoke out on their behalf and fought for their rights.

Both the editors of the received text and the creators of midrash have not always dealt kindly with her. There is a rabbinic propensity to see her as bitter or as rebellious to the established order, her voice (already edited at the song of the sea) is not heard again in bible after the episode of the tzara’at; her death is reported without ceremony or sadness.  There are some notable exceptions to the blurring of Miriam in history. The prophet Micah tells us of God’s comment “I sent before you Moses, Aaron and Miriam” (6:4). I cannot help but think that her gender was a problem to later commentators and redactors, something that sadly continues to this day. Yet Miriam is described in bible as a prophet, she sings her own song, she leads the people and she keeps her brothers safe and in relationship with the people.  She is patently a popular leader. When we lose Miriam we lose a righteous and able leader. When we lose the stories of her we risk losing the participation of modern women in the public sphere, rebellious, sassy, open, fluid, willing to speak truth to power and to challenge both adversaries and relatives who would rather we were quiet.

Some women have suggested fasting on the tenth of Nisan as her yahrzeit. That is fine should women want to do this, but I would suggest that we would do her greater honour by speaking out, by rebelling against injustice and against the desire to push women into the private and domestic sphere where they might more easily be controlled, and by bringing the swirling waters of justice and of challenge into the society in which we live.

Chukkat: the fully lived life is not about length, but about limits or serious anger, serious consequences

The shadow of death hovers over parashat Chukkat.  It begins with the instructions for the ritual slaughter of the red heifer, and the cleansing rituals that those who had contact with a dead body must follow, and it records the deaths of both Miriam and of Aaron. It tells of the deaths by plague of those who rebelled against Moses’ leadership and it ends with two mighty battles.

One can read the whole Sidra as being about the coming to terms with mortality, and the limits of human existence.

At the centre of the Sidra is a powerful story which also deals with the limits of a human being. We hear of an incident which seems on the face of it quite minor, yet which has far reaching impact.  After the death of Miriam, the people complain about the lack of water, and God commands Moses to take Aaron’s  rod – the one which sprouted leaves and flowers when left overnight in the Mishkan – and with that miraculous sign in his hand, to order a rock to produce water in front of all the people waiting there.  Moses does indeed take the rod, but instead of using words, he strikes the rock. He seems to be at the end of his patience, angry and fed up with the people he is leading. Water gushes out at his action, but God informs him that because of his behaviour, he will not now enter the land he is leading the people towards.

It has been said about Moses that all of his sins – whether the impulsive murder of the Egyptian task master in his youth, the breaking of the stones containing the commandments, or the striking of the rock – show elements of anger and violence, of his unbridled self will and of his temporarily ignoring the real and present will of God.  A modern commentator (Rabbi Norman Hirsch) wrote that “the sin of Moses at Meribah is characteristic of the man, one of a series of sins, and serious. Why serious? Because civilization depends upon humility.  Without a sense of limits that flows from the awareness of a moral law and an ethical God, every brutality, every corruption, every atrocity becomes possible”

When people allow themselves to act without limitations, to let their anger overtake them, and to forget the reality of other people – their needs, their fears, their humanity – then atrocities not only become possible, they become inevitable. Once humility is overridden, and once people forget that God’s will is rooted in moral and ethical imperatives rather than in pride or land or material  success – then there are no boundaries, and our own characteristics and needs take over for good or for ill.

Moses fails ultimately in the job he has been set to do. His failure is in his unwillingness to control the righteous indignation he feels on behalf of God.  It shows itself in his need to demonstrate to others the rightness of his analysis.  His failure doesn’t lie in the feeling of anger as such, but in the way he uses it and allows it to use him.  In this story the demise we are witnessing isn’t to do with physical death, nor with a metaphysical response to the end of life – this time the fatality is Moses’ leadership and his ability to take the people into their next stage of the journey.  Because Moses shows that he is unable to change himself, his anger is ultimately stronger than him, and because he doesn’t seem to believe any more that he should rein his emotions in to prevent doing damage around himself, his leadership will come to a premature end.

Anger is not in and of itself a negative emotion.  Anger against an injustice can be a powerful propellant for change.  It can be a constructive force leading to a different way of being in the world.  Jewish tradition does not judge anger negatively, nor does it preach a tradition of humility for the sake of it.  If anything the two sentiments are simply different sides of the same coin, and either of them used to the exclusion of the other are likely to produce unfortunate events.  But anger that is allowed to dominate, anger that clouds the vision to such an extent that nothing else can be seen, is a very dangerous quality, and not even Moses could be allowed to indulge himself in it.

The thread that runs through the narrative here in Chukkat is that of the limits to a life.  Einstein wrote that “there is a certain satisfaction in the fact that natural limits are set to the life of an individual so that at its conclusion it may appear as a work of art”, and certainly in retrospect one can often discern a pattern that may not have been obvious during the living of the life – a pattern that suddenly shows a completeness not otherwise seen.  This is certainly the case both with Aaron and with Miriam, who leave nothing of importance undone by the time of their deaths. But for Moses this is sadly not true – he never deals fully with that all consuming rage and so it breaks out repeatedly in his life – one can even see traces of it in his resistance to dying and to passing on his authority to Joshua.  One lesson we learn is that length of life is not necessarily the same as fully lived life – in 120 years Moses is still unable to resolve his issues satisfactorily and even God becomes weary.   Moses limits his own life because he pays attention only to his own feelings and not to those of the people around him. It remains a flaw in his character to the end, and something that niggles us as we read torah to this day.  How come Moses wouldn’t – or couldn’t – overcome it? And if he couldn’t do it – what chance do we have with our own character flaws?

I suppose the answer lies in the continuation of the story. After Moses’ outburst God tells him that because of it he will not be leading the people into the Promised Land. At that point Moses would have been justified in giving it all up, but instead he seems to have picked himself up and found a way to continue leading the people to their destiny – even while knowing that he would not now share in it.

He shows that his vision can still be clear, that he can get over his attacks of despair or of rage and function as a proper leader, leaving his own needs to one side.

The story of Moses’ striking of the rock challenges us to look at our own characters, our own willingness to forgo humility in favour of some more selfish need, our own repeated patterns of behaviour.  It reminds us of the needs for limits – both those which emerge from a sense of an ethical God, and the boundaries around our own existence – both of which should contain any excesses we might otherwise consider.  The story reminds us too of the force that anger has that can mask any self awareness or awareness of the other, the way we can forget the humanity of the people around us – with tragic consequences should we go on to act on that ignorance.  And it reminds us of the power of keeping going, even when the future may seem dark and hopeless, for in that keeping going some redemption may come.

Chukkat: how to remove the ritual impurity that is confusion so that we see the world more clearly

The sidra Chukkat is named after the instructions about the red heifer – instructions that even the learned commentators on Hebrew bible found mysterious and puzzling beyond understanding. A person made ‘tum’ah’ – unclean through contact with a corpse, was to be sprinkled with special water made with the ashes of a sacrificed perfectly red cow with absolutely no blemish upon it. The ritual is given in great detail over five verses, and is described as Chukkat Olam – a law for all time.

In the midrash Tanhuma, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai is described as telling the outer world that this ritual is one of exorcism, of ridding oneself of something awful – but tellingly to his own disciples he declares “the corpse does not defile, nor does the water cleanse. The truth is that the ritual of the red heifer is simply a decree of the Sovereign above all Sovereigns, and we are not permitted to transgress it…”

So our portion is named for a ritual that has no rational meaning, and that we cannot in truth really understand – something that we just do because God tells us to do it. It is a difficult concept to embrace in the twenty first century for modern progressive Jews.

But maybe we might understand it more if we don’t focus on the nature of this law as being an illogical diktat from on high, but we look instead at the nature of tum’ah that the ritual is designed to remove.

In the 19th Century, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch commented on the relationship between tum’ah – described as ritual impurity, and timtum – confusion. He suggested that the connection between them was that of the intensity of physical experience, that what renders a person ‘tam’ei’(ritually impure) is the state of being emotionally overwhelmed and unable to focus on the present context. This idea builds on the Talmudic comment that the nature of tum’ah is one ‘she’metamem et halev’ – one that blocks or paralyses the heart. Essentially to be ritually impure means to lack any mindfulness of self or context, to not be able to locate oneself fully in the world.

Ritual impurity – tum’ah – then can be seen as a function of the clarity of our consciousness, or lack of it. It is something that has to be removed, unblocked, or given a new frame and lens through which to understand what is happening and so change our response to it.

Suddenly this apparently irrational ritual of the red heifer has meaning – we have to do something to change our world view, do something to clarify our perceptions and to move on.

It is no accident I think that the sidra also contains the reporting of the deaths of first Miriam and then Aaron. When Aaron dies the community mourns and sheds tears for him for thirty days, but in the case of Miriam’s death the mourning is not reported – instead we are told that the source of the water dried up and the Israelites became thirsty and frightened.

A frequently quoted Midrash on this text tells us that Miriam had been the source of water for the Israelites, so that when she died the water too went away, but Rabbi Moshe Alsheich’s comment is I think more interesting – “Because they did not shed tears over the loss of Miriam the source of their water dried up”.

Because the children of Israel did not know what to do at the sudden loss of the woman who was the source of water, the source of life, their response was one of confusion – timtum – and of anger. We know about the anger because its most potent expression was that of Moses in response to the anger of the people. Against God’s instruction simply to speak to the rock he made an emotional speech accusing the people of rebellion and then he struck the rock not once but twice in front of the community, and the water poured out of it. Moses’ anger almost burns the page as we read it. Bereaved, lost, his world turned upside down, and with a community who are simply unable to cope with what has happened, his response is to give way to his fury – a completely human reaction but unfortunately not one that was helpful to anyone. Both he and the community are trapped in a state of tum’ah – blind confusion where no possibilities of renewal can be perceived, where everything is terrible and lost and lonely, and the future a bleak and frightening place.

The anger is the first response of the timtum, but it is ultimately a very damaging one – for this anger Moses and Aaron will not enter the Promised Land. The healing response comes after the death of Aaron when we are told “All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron for thirty days”. These tears are curative, part of the necessary process of mourning. And restorative life giving water comes in response to the waters shed in the tears.

The tears bring relief from tum’ah, from the intense confusion and pain and depression caused by the loss of Miriam and Aaron. But tears alone do not bring full cleansing – the waters of the ritual are mixed with the ashes of the red heifer, the emblematically perfect animal sacrificed for this ritual.

What can we use instead of the ashes to help ourselves out of the state of tum’ah?

Some mix whiskey with their water, but it will only help the tears to flow and ultimately prolong the state of timtum.

Some sacrifice themselves, their joy in life, their interest in the world, sinking into depression and despair.

Some sacrifice their future, holding on the state of anger and confusion, in order to punish the one who put them there.

Many rabbinic traditions (BB10a) suggest that instead of ashes we use tzedakah – for as our liturgy for the Yamim Noraim tells us, tzedakah, acts of righteousness and charity, save from death (proverbs10:2) or at least will blunt the severity of the decree against us.

Tzedakah, deeds of righteousness and charity, along with our freely flowing tears and expressions of our inner pain, do seem to be the way towards cleansing ourselves from our state of tum’ah, our pain filled confusion of timtum. But it is hard to do. Maybe this is why the heifer of the bible had to be so perfect, so completely red, so unusual that few have ever been born. It is hard but not impossible. For the people did it – they learned to mourn for Aaron fully, they learned to let go of the feelings of fear and confusion and express them in a structured and ultimately contained way. Only after that did they begin to live again, and to go on to new things, symbolised by the water which once again was accessible to them, the living waters of restoration and new ways of being.

Chukkat: “The importance of not knowing everything” or “Certainty is the enemy of Faith”

“Rabbi Joshua of Sakhnin taught in the name of Rabbi Levi that the Evil Inclination criticizes four laws as without logical basis, and Scripture uses the expression “statute” (חֹק, chok) in connection with each:.(Numbers Rabbah 19:5)

 These statutes which are not susceptible to explanation are: The laws of Yevama – of a levirate marriage where a man is obliged to marry the childless widow of his deceased brother. (found in Deuteronomy 25:5-10). The laws of shaatnez, the mingling of kinds (Lev 19:19 and Deut 22:11) which prohibit an individual from wearing cloth that is made of both wool and linen in one garment, from interbreeding  different species of animals, and from planting together of different kinds of seeds in the same area. The ritual of the scapegoat (Leviticus 16) where on Yom Kippur one goat would be laden with the sins of the people and sent out into the wilderness to Azazel, while another was offered to God, and the ritual that appears in this week’s sidra, that of the Parah Adumah, the perfectly red heifer, the ashes of which will purify that is ritually impure.

 Now I am not entirely sure that there are only four laws in Torah that do not have a logical basis, nor am I sure that if I had to find reasons for at least two of them that I could not do so, but I was interested in this statement because it resonated for me as I tried to think of how I would defend a number of Jewish practices today should I be required to do so, and I realize that should I try to do so on rational and logical bases I would indeed find myself on shaky ground.  For when we try to understand or to defend religious practices using an intellectual or rational structure we will fail miserably for these are not intellectual or rational activities, they are activities of faith. When we eat Kosher food and forgo certain delicacies our friends rave about; when we circumcise our sons, when we put a mezuzah up on our doorpost or take precious time off work or school to pray together as a community on one of the festivals or give Tzedakah – we might make a quasi-logical argument about community or history or custom, but in fact we are in the realms of faith, and faith isn’t about justifying our religious behaviour it is about living it and feeling it and being part of it.

 Richard Holloway, recent former Bishop of Edinburgh until he left the Church having lost his faith in God memorably wrote that “The opposite of faith is not doubt, it is certainty” I have always loved this statement – doubts about what we do are never a problem Jewishly, it is fine to question God, to quarrel with God, even to feel our distance from God on occasion, but certainty – that is something else. On the one hand it leads to zealotry, to closed minds, to fundamentalism and on the other it leads away from faith, away from God, as the certain mind chooses to dispense with the illogical, irrational, unjustifiable tenets of faith.

 The ritual red heifer is classically one of the unknowable rituals and statutes of bible, and I like it. I like knowing that our ancestors sought ways to God we cannot access, and yet we can tell the story and still feel a sense of belonging to it. I myself would not want to be involved in yevama, in shaatnez, in the ritual of the goat sent to Azazel or the Parah Adumah, but I like the stories of them, the fact that our ancestors believed in their efficacy, that they remind us that religion is not about a mechanistic view of the world, it is about mystery, about intention, about habit, about what we do in the world because we are obliged and required – we are pulled into belonging through ritual whether we understand it or not, and to excise all that we cannot explain would be to leave a colder, bleaker, more stripped experience that would leave no room for faith.

chukkat

  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 k.d.sh 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.