Traveling with a group of teens through the (Arizona) desert. We just left our first attractions at the Salt River (hey guys, bathrooms anyone before we go?) and stopped at a gas station to get refreshments (bathrooms anyone?) and now on the road from Phoenix to Sedona (2 hours to go) when the inevitable happens: “Michal, I need to go to the bathroom. Can I use the bathroom on the bus?”
“I’m a little tired”, says one of the teens, when I show up with my “cheer-leading” good morning at breakfast before we head to the Grand Canyon. “Can I not go on the hike today?”
“We need stuff from the store! We need to talk and hang around in the lobby! We…”
Over and over, especially on such a trip, we have to evaluate: How legitimate is the complaint? How valid the request?
In this week’s Torah reading of Chukat, we read (Numbers 21:5-6):
ה וַיְדַבֵּר הָעָם, בֵּאלֹהִים וּבְמֹשֶׁה, לָמָה הֶעֱלִיתֻנוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם, לָמוּת בַּמִּדְבָּר: כִּי אֵין לֶחֶם, וְאֵין מַיִם, וְנַפְשֵׁנוּ קָצָה, בַּלֶּחֶם הַקְּלֹקֵל. 5 And the people spoke against God, and against Moses: ‘Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, and there is no water; and our soul is tired of this light bread.’
ו וַיְשַׁלַּח יְהוָה בָּעָם, אֵת הַנְּחָשִׁים הַשְּׂרָפִים, וַיְנַשְּׁכוּ, אֶת-הָעָם; וַיָּמָת עַם-רָב, מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל. 6 And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died.
But just a chapter earlier we read the famous incident of Moses hitting the rock, which – right or wrong – he did in response to exactly the same situation: the people complaining that there is no water. That time (Numbers 20:1-13), Moses and Aaron prayed on the people’s behalf and G-d Himself told Moses to get them water, which means– their complaint was completely valid!
The midrash tells us that while traveling in the desert, along with the people, there traveled a well, so that they always have water. That well was on behalf of Miriam. Therefore, when Miriam died, the water source stopped. Perhaps Moses and Aaron were mourning their sister’s passing and didn’t notice what happened? One way or another, once they realized that there actually was no water, they did what they could to provide the people’s basic needs.
I am not getting into the whole – speak to the rock / hitting the rock debate. I just want to point out two very similar situations one chapter after another, when the people ask for water. Why is one of them answered with water and the other one, with snakes and death?
There is a one word that makes the difference: in 21:5 they add the description to the bread, better yet in Hebrew and much more forgiving in the English translation: here “the light bread”, better – “that nothing bread”, or per google translate, “the bad bread”. And that’s a whole different thing.
Further, right before calling the manna, G-d’s bread, a bad / nothing / light bread, we get a glimpse of their spiritual state (21:4):
ד וַיִּסְעוּ מֵהֹר הָהָר, דֶּרֶךְ יַם-סוּף, לִסְבֹב, אֶת-אֶרֶץ אֱדוֹם; וַתִּקְצַר נֶפֶשׁ-הָעָם, בַּדָּרֶךְ. 4 And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way to the Red Sea, to compass the land of Edom; and the soul of the people became impatient because of the way.
Literally: “and the people’s soul was short along the way” – they were impatient and had it. We saw that “kotzer” – shortness of soul or here “impatience of spirit” – long ago, when we were slaves in Egypt. We should know already that “shortness of soul” leads to trouble, as we have no bandwidth to deal with anything:
ט וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה כֵּן, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ, וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה. 9 And Moses spoke so unto the children of Israel; but they hearkened not unto Moses for “impatience of spirit”, and for cruel bondage.
It gives me great comfort to know that that Torah allows for valid complaints. Right or wrong, pretty or not, they don’t have to be submitted politely. It’s ok to cry out when we hurt; it’s ok to ask, even demand, for what’s rightfully ours. “Thy will be done” is not our path. When there is no water, we can, and even should, stand up and speak out, loud. Whining though gets a push back: you don’t like the flavor of G-ds bread? That’s too bad. But if you’re really thirsty, I’ll do all I can. And how to know which is which? Yes. Some days that’s easier than others.
Water is a constant – in life, in the desert and throughout this portion: the rock, the complaining, and now we are introduced to a well: אז ישיר ישראל… עלי באר “Spring up, oh well”, says the text (Numbers 21:17-18). A well, metaphorically, is not water hidden inside a rock, which nothing short of G-d and a miracle can get out. It’s something people create in order to reach into depth beyond us to bring up a lifegiving supply. Many poetic midrashim compare the water to Torah, and likewise here, the Torah is like underground water, hard to access, while the commentaries, what we call the Oral Torah, is like the well, a vehicle for us to reach down and draw up life.
And with that, we’re off to Glen Canyon Dam to learn more about water in the desert…