Parashat Chukat: Talking to the Rock

[For Congregation Ner Shalom, June 18, 2010]

We’ll start with a quick confession. I talk to trees. I talk to plants. Every day on my way up and down the mountain I certainly greet the cows with a “ladies.” I talk to the cats, but that’s not considered odd. I talk to the goats next door but no one sees me. I might talk to the clouds from time to time, or to a particularly breathtaking landscape. Any object of wonder that takes me by surprise gets a “well, hello there.”

This week we read Parashat Chukat, in which Moses and Aaron are instructed to speak to a rock, and they fail.

But that’s not the first thing to happen in the parashah. We start instead by learning about the ritual of the red heifer – a rite of purification after contact with a dead body.

From there we go on to experience a most painful death. Miriam dies in the wilderness. This is now near the end of the Israelites’ 40 years in the desert. She was no longer a young woman. But her death stings and her absence is immediately felt. In the very next verse the people are thirsty. Quenching thirst was, as you recall, Miriam’s special talent. As Rabbi Shefa Gold says in her Torah Journeys book, “Miriam had a way with water.” There was a magical well that would follow her like a familiar and open at her command or at her request. The mouth of this mysterious well was created on the eve of the seventh day of creation for the sole purpose of slaking the thirst of the Israelites many generations or maybe eons later, or so goes the midrash.

Whether there was a magic well, or whether she had a sharp divining skill, or whether Miriam satisfied a kind of spiritual thirst that the people mistook for physical, we don’t know. But when she dies, the people are immediately parched.

The people, in their desperate thirst, rise up against Moses and Aaron, once again asking why they were taken out of Egypt to die in a barren wilderness, the same complaint that has dogged Moses’ footsteps since the Red Sea closed behind them, barring the way to second thoughts. Moses and Aaron go to the tent of meeting and fall on their faces. God makes Gods presence known and tells them to go speak to a stone – an enormous, fixed boulder, a cliff, in full view of the people – and it would give them water.

Moses takes his staff and assembles the people. “Listen up, you rebels,” came Moses’ challenge, “shall we draw water out of the rock for you?” And he strikes the stone, not once, but twice, until water gushes forth, a mighty flow capable of sating all the people.

The next thing that happens surprises us. God is angered at Moses and Aaron.

Lo-he’emantem bi l’haqdisheni l’eyney B’nei Yisrael.

“You did not believe in Me,” God says, “enough to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Israelites.”

You did not believe in Me.

God announces a punishment: Moses and Aaron will not lead the people to the Promised Land but will, like the rest of their generation, die in the wilderness.

What was the source of God’s anger? Wasn’t the end result what God wanted – that the people should drink? Rashi says it is because of Moses’ words to the people. Ramban says it is because he struck the stone.

The Chasidic master, Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, says that those two views are not different views at all, since Moses’ speech to the people led inexorably to Moses’ striking the rock. According to Reb Levi Yitzchak, the world was created for the People of Israel. And when the People of Israel become mindful of their connection to the divine, become re-aware that their life force comes from the holy throne, then nature will provide for them of its own accord.

The idea that Creation came into being for our benefit is a central belief in the Chasidic world. Of course we see the world differently. Not created for the People of Israel. Not created for People at all. Still, we are the centers of our own existence, and we insist on living. So we struggle to find a balance between hubris and humility; between asserting our right to survive on the planet and the caution to mind our place. (We are reminded of the insight of the Chasidic rabbi Simcha Bunam, who said everyone should have a piece of paper in his right pocket saying, “For my sake the world was created” and a piece of paper in his left pocket saying, “I am but dust and ashes.”)

Levi Yitzchak describes two kinds of leadership in his analysis of the punishment God places on Moses and Aaron. Someone who is worthy of leadership will appeal to people’s highest selves. Such a leader will remind those she leads of their loftiness of spirit and the source of their lives in the divine. Her leadership will raise the people’s sights and the level of their actions. It will, in turn, inspire Creation itself to do what it was meant to do – to provide for us – of its own accord.

But when one leads with words of harshness or with shaming, one’s intended followers are not inspired, nor is Creation. The subjects of such a leader must be coerced. And so must nature itself.

For this reason, once Moses spoke harshly and shamingly to the people, his striking of the stone was inevitable, because the stone would not be moved to give. But God didn’t tell Moses to speak to the people or to strike the stone. God told Moses to speak to the stone. Had Moses said to it, "for this you were created, to give water to a parched people in a time of need, a holy people whose source is the same as yours," the stone would have gushed water in a great fountain. But Moses bypassed this opportunity, and the stone gave only because it was coerced.

And so perhaps God’s anger was not that Moshe had disobeyed an order, but because the whole event was meant to be theatre – a demonstration to the people that everything comes from God’s power. That speaking and listening to all of Creation will result in your receiving what you need. (As the other kind of stones, the rolling kind, might have said: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you talk to the rock, you’re gonna find you’ll get what you need.”)

But Moses messed up the theatre. He instead taught that nature may be compelled, bent to our will. And that remains how our culture views the world around us. If you strike the rock hard enough or drill it deep enough, something will gush forth, even if it’s not what or when or how you wanted it.

So perhaps there is a lesson here about who we are in the world and how we might relate to Creation around us. But I think there is something else here also, something hinted at by the fact that the story immediately follows the description of the purification ritual after a death. There is something here about grief and about the return to the flow of life.

The Children of Israel in the story were thirsty not only from the dryness of the desert, but from the loss of their prophet Miriam and all she had come to mean to them. And Moses and Aaron, burdened with leadership, are also in a state of deep grief that may have undermined their natural leadership instincts and destabilized their sense of their place in Creation. Doesn’t grief do that?

Deeply afflicted, having lost in Miriam a prophet, a counselor and a sister, Moses and Aaron were quick to anger. They acted out. I understand this. I remember once, eight months after my father’s death, bursting into anger uncontrollably over some trifle, or maybe not a trifle, I can’t even remember what it was. Anger until I was crying. My grief had destabilized me.

Or maybe it wasn’t exactly blind anger that Moses and Aaron were driven to. Maybe they felt powerless in the wake of Miriam’s loss. Their words: “Listen, rebels, shall we draw water from the rock?” is ambiguous. The word “rebels” is spelled in Biblical Hebrew identically to the name “Miriam.” By re-voweling it, the sentence could just as easily mean, “Listen, are we Miriam that we can draw water from the rock?” They feel their inability. They feel it so deeply that they don’t even recognize that God’s instruction, “talk to the rock” might specifically be a revelation of Miriam's method for drawing water!*

Either way, they are obviously hobbled by grief. So shouldn’t we – shouldn’t God – cut Moses and Aaron some slack?

Maybe not, if the point of the whole exercise was to teach something about responding to grief and loss. After all, God could have had already had the tap running when the Children of Israel arrived. The unnoticed miracle of pre-running water! But instead, the scene is set so that some sort of demonstration has to happen. But instead of a demonstration about water, it is a lesson about grief.

Because grief is a rock. And grief is a deep thirst.

When we grieve, we are dry as stone, heavy, immobile. Maybe God’s intended lesson here was that you can’t overcome grief by hacking at it, by coercing it, by overpowering it. All we can do is talk to it. Hello grief, I know you come from the same holy source as life itself. You are the flipside of my joys. When I look at you, my grief, I see myself. I see who I have become, who I wanted to be, and maybe who I may yet become.

You talk to grief. And then you wait, in a slow plodding of time that feels truly geological. Until the water begins to trickle – when even a trickle had been inconceivable – and then flow and then gush. Your grief was created for you. To hold your sadness and your longing, to mirror your love, and ultimately to become a source of holiness, a source of sweetness to rival even the salt of your tears.

May we all learn to speak to the stone. To speak to nature around us. And speak to our own natures. May we trust that speech. So that all of Creation – every rock, tree, creature and every one of us – may spout forth with holiness.

* I am indebted to Ari Kamiti for this breathtaking and compassionate insight.