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.


  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.