Parshat Chukat, Numbers 19:1-22:1
The day before this is published I will have returned safely, God willing, from a visit to my beloved native Arizona desert. It is a place of austere grandeur and a fascinating ecosystem. I find it effortless to sense God’s presence there.
But it is not without difficulties. A friend of mine notes that “even the plants don’t want you to be there,” which seems to be at least partly true. And, of course, it’s very dry. The metro area had a population of, to be generous, maybe 100,000 when I was born; now it’s around 1 million. How do they get enough water?
Water is essential to life. The body can endure hunger by living off stored fat and then through using up other bodily tissues. But the body cannot endure prolonged thirst.
Dr. Sherwin Nuland z”l illustrated this point in his classic, “How We Die.” Without water the body riots, as it were. Systems function erratically and fail. The community that is the body dies.
In Chukat, our Torah portion this week, the Israelites are in the desert and they don’t have enough water. They join together against Moses and Aaron, who find it necessary to flee to the sanctuary of the Tent of Meeting. In essence, the people riot for lack of water. The community is in danger of dying — physically, to be sure, but also as a social and spiritual entity.
(This is the prelude to the well-known episode in which Moses, instructed to order the rock to yield water, instead strikes it twice with his staff and supplies his thirsty people. But that is a story for another day.)
Many of the world’s people live today without adequate clean water. We see lasting droughts and growing deserts. Any peace agreements between Israel and its neighbors will involve pacts to share scarce and precious water. The need for clean water is colliding with commercial interests even here in Pennsylvania, as we try to understand what effects fracking has on the environment. Foreign policy analysts raise concerns about wars originating in the lack of water.
Our Jewish tradition posits an analogy: Just as water is a physical necessity, Torah is like water because it is a spiritual necessity. It does for the soul what water does for the body, reviving and cleansing. Learned little by little, Torah becomes a stream of wisdom just as gathered drops of water become streams. Torah eludes the arrogant and clings to the modest, just as water descends from higher altitudes to lower. Spiritually, Torah nurtures those who study it, as water nurtures plants.
Torah in its largest sense points the way toward establishing a society that will be worthy in God’s sight. It helps us and those we teach — and our influence has been very great — to construct moral and legal codes. It helps us, in a word, to avoid riot.
May we all have abundant water and abundant Torah, and help the human family share in that abundance.
Rabbi Paul Tuchman serves as rabbi of Temple B’nai Israel in White Oak. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.