Chukat: Moses was Here!(?)

The entire congregation of the children of Israel arrived at the Wilderness of Zin in the first month, and the people settled in Kadesh. … The congregation had no water; so they assembled against Moses and Aaron.  (Numbers 20:1-2). … The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:  "Take the staff and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and speak to the rock in their presence so that it will give forth its water. You shall bring forth water for them from the rock and give the congregation and their livestock to drink."  Moses took the staff from before the Lord as He had commanded him.  Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock, and he said to them, "Now listen, you rebels, can we draw water for you from this rock?"  

Moses raised his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, when an abundance of water gushed forth, and the congregation and their livestock drank. The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, "Since you did not have faith in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the Land which I have given them. These are the waters of dispute [Mei Meribah] where the children of Israel contended with the Lord, and He was sanctified through them.  (Numbers 7-13)

Among the reasons we read the Torah over and over is the living reality that although it does not change, we do.  Each time we engage in a serious encounter with the text, we learn something new and/or think differently about something we already knew.  

This has certainly proven true for me upon my latest reading of the italicized text from this week’s parashah, Chukat.  “Desert (or, Wilderness of) Zin” has always just been a biblical place-name to me.  The account of Moses hitting a rock to obtain water has always seemed an allegory or invented story to explain why G-d denied Moses entry to the Promised Land.   

But then, this week, while staying at a Kibbutz in the Negev (the desert comprising the southern 60% of Israel), I walked a trail in the Wilderness of Zin. The trail followed a canyon stream, still with water in early June.  Looking up at one point, I noticed an area of cliff face darker than all of the surrounding rock.  From Boy Scout hikes and geology merit badge studies of my youth, I recognized that section of rock as porous and stained from an underground water source.    

I then recalled the verses italicized above and thought: here I am in the actual Wilderness of Zin.  It’s likely that, at the proper time of year, a hard blow or two to this cliff face would indeed result in the flow of water!  Letting my imagination flow, I thought: perhaps this was the very spot at which the fateful events recounted in Torah happened!  This stream, or the downstream pool into which it empties, might be the waters of Meribah! 

Having been raised and educated primarily in the “school” of rational skepticism, I do not believe that all of the people mentioned in the Hebrew Bible necessarily lived.  Nor do I believe that all of the events recounted therein actually happened as described if, in some cases, at all (longevity until 900+? talking animals? sun standing still? Moses not eating for 40 days and nights? Resurrected bones?).  

On the other hand, the more time I spend in Israel, and the more I see here -- archeological ruins in situ, artifacts at the incomparable Israel Museum, and just walking in places mentioned in Torah and Tanakh – convince me that much of our Scripture did actually happen.  And because it actually happened, and because I identify as a later generation of the people to which it happened, it is indeed part of my own story.  This land therefore gives my own life meaning and context.  I would wish that all other Jews could feel that, too. 

If you have been to Israel, you probably feel, at least to some extent, as I do.   “Seeing (and feeling) is believing.”  I suspect that, since your visit, you read the Torah and the rest of the Hebrew Bible with greater interest, feeling of connection, and to some extent, “historicity,” than before.  If so, have you shared your feelings with others who have not been here?  Doing so would be a gift, perhaps helping them to look at Scripture with fresh interest and new meaning.  Reliving your experiences by discussing them with others may also rekindle your own enthusiasm for the text and what it represents. 

Even with all of the daily problems highlighted in the media, I believe that time spent in Israel – ideally repeated visits and/or extended stays -- remains one of, if not the best, ways to promote Jewish affiliation and “peoplehood.” 

Please consider coming, coming back, or helping to make it possible for others to experience the Jewish home.  

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem. 

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb