On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - Chukat: Thirsting for Wisdom

In Judaism, mayim, or water, is not only crucial to sustaining life, but it is also a symbol of wisdom and Torah. Parashat Chukat addresses the thirst that the Jews have while wandering the desert after Miriam the prophet dies, which also represents the yearning for the wisdom and nourishment that Miriam provided. The Jewish people are thirsty and eager to drink from the well of tradition. Rabbi Rick Jacobs discusses Parashat Chukat, the Torah portion read on 7/16/16.

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[URJ Intro:] Welcome to Episode 25 of “On the Other Hand: 10 Minutes of Torah,” a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, we reflect on more than 2,000 years of Jewish wisdom in just 10 minutes, with modern day commentary on the weekly Torah portion.

Of course, we do think that there are plenty of ways to interpret Torah. We want to hear what you think. So, talk to us on Twitter. Our handle is @URJ. Like us at facebook.com/ReformJudaism, and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.

This week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, talks less about Parashat Chukat. He asks us what happens when people become filled with intolerance for others. He goes on to ask us-- how do you find wisdom to learn from and lead with the people who surround you?

[Rabbi Rick:] This week, we focus our attention on Parashat Chukat. It’s from the middle of the Book of Numbers. And the Jewish people are on their journey through the wilderness, through the desert. And if you've ever been on a journey through the desert, you can actually get pretty hot. You can get very thirsty. And the search and need for water becomes primary.

So, we learn in Parashat Chukat that the prophet Miriam dies. She is the sister of Moses and Aaron. And the tradition tells us that, right after she died, the Jewish people were especially in need of water. Water seemed to be scarce. And so, it helped to suggest a Midrash that, as the Jewish people wandered through the desert, there was a well of Miriam that followed them.

So, wherever they were, they could not only drink from those waters, but, in our tradition, water is also a beautiful image of Torah, of wisdom, of learning. And when Miriam dies, they lose that access, not just to the actual water, but to the nourishment that comes from great sages-- like Miriam.

We have 22 mentions of water in Parashat Chukat. It's literally all over, in all the different settings. Perhaps the most dramatic moment in the life of Moses-- and, believe me, there were many dramatic moments in the life of Moses-- was the time that God commanded him, when the people didn't have water, God commanded him to speak to the rock. And in so doing, he could bring forth water for the people.

As many know, the moment wasn't what God instructed. Instead of speaking to the rock, Moses took his staff and he struck the rock twice. The tradition tells us that because of that insubordination, Moses was not given the privilege of reaching the promised land. And a lot of us say, really? It didn't seem like such a big offense. A life of literally blessing and leadership and inspiration, and, one moment, he missed, and he didn't get to go to that promised land? Seems awfully harsh.

But the commentators get inside what actually happened. And of course, there is the possibility that what happened is that he lost his temper. And religious leaders can also, like anyone, lose their temper. But for Moses, this is particularly egregious.

And a beautiful teaching from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who is the rabbi in Efrat, Israel-- an Orthodox rabbi, but one who has a beautiful, warm embrace of Reform Judaism, and non-Orthodox Jews in particular. He says we missed the point of that story. It wasn't that he got angry. But he missed the point of speaking to the rock.

The commandment from God is dibartem el ha’selah. It's plural. It doesn't just mean speak to the rock. It means speak with the people. Speak with those who are on the journey with you. It's not just about you, Moses. It's about the Jewish people being able to draw inspiration and wisdom from one another. And that's not a little thing to always remember, a religious leader of a community, of a country, of a larger denomination-- it ain't about us. It's what we can build together.

There's a very powerful teaching about this very subject from Rav Kook, who was the first chief rabbi of Israel. He was an extraordinary guy, not only the fact that he was 6' 8"-- he was the tallest person in the land of Israel. Nobody had seen anybody this tall. But he saw this story, and he found in Moses his behavior an example of what sometimes happens when people become too righteous and too filled with intolerance for others. And he saw that in his day.

Well, I think, for us, we know that that's a challenge every day, not just at the turn of the 20th Century. But frankly, it's a huge challenge for us. So, each of us, on our journeys, will have opportunities-- hopefully, not only to drink water, but to drink wisdom. We'll have the opportunity to learn from not just great sages who fit the more stereotypical image, as all those paintings of rabbis with beards give us-- Miriam is the same prophetic stock as Moses.

And she had a gift, not only of celebrating, and leading the Jewish people across the Red Sea-- she was a prophet. And she brought holiness into that community. And when she dies, it is a loss for our people. So, let's find those sources of wisdom, those sources of water that will quench our thirst for meaning, for hope, for direction.

And let's find a way not to let our anger get the best of us. And most important, let's find the ability to learn and lead with those around us-- dibartem el ha’selah-- "Speak to the rock. Speak with one another about the holiness, about the journey, about the goals, about the purpose." Parashat Chukat, 22 mentions of water-- mentions of water at a very, very dry, hot time. We are thirsty, let us drink deeply from the well of our tradition.

[URJ Outro:] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of “On the Other Hand: 10 Minutes of Torah.” If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org, and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. “On the Other Hand: 10 Minutes of Torah” is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

Until next week – l’hitraot!