D’var Torah for Chukat: How Moshe is like an overtired parent

In this week’s Torah portion, Chukat, Miriam dies and the Israelites are without water in the desert. Midrashic tradition connects Miriam with a well, often understood as a wellspring of Torah and insight in addition to water; when she dies, the well disappears. The people, predictably, begin to kvetch. “Why did you bring us out of Egypt? We’re going to die out here!”

God tells Moshe to assemble the community, order a rock to yield water, and water will arise. But what Moshe does is a little bit different. He assembles the people, he says “Shall I get water for you from this stone?!” and he hits the rock with his stick. Water does arise, and the people drink — but God is angry, and for this transgression Moshe is barred from entering the promised land.

God is angry, tradition tells us, because Moshe didn’t trust him. God promised that if he spoke to the rock, a miracle would occur — but Moshe brings sarcasm and violence to bear, instead. “What: am I supposed to get water from a stone?”

I believe that the reason Moshe doesn’t enter the Land is that the journey is more important than the destination. It’s important to have a destination to strive toward, but the real work of the spiritual path is to find holiness in the journey itself. That said, this week I’m interested in Moshe and why he whacked the rock with his stick.

As the mother of a sometimes willful toddler, I feel empathy for Moshe as he listens to the people moan and wail. He’s dedicated himself to caring for these people and helping them “grow up” from a slavery mindset to one of freedom and covenant, but do they appreciate him? No: they take every opportunity to yell at him, to stamp their little feet and sit down on the sand and refuse to budge.

Moshe is burned out. And in a moment of exhaustion and overwhelm, he responds to the people’s negativity with negativity of his own: whaddaya want me to do, dammit, squeeze water from this stone? Maybe as he looks at the stone he’s thinking of his own heart, which right now is feeling dry and unwatered, baked hard as rock.

I like to imagine God’s response as a kind of karmic corrective. “Hey, Moses, if you’re going to talk to the kids like that? You need a time out. You’re coming back to Me.”

This year, I find in this parsha a message about self-care. If we ensure that our own emotional and spiritual needs are met, then we become able to respond to those who need us with generosity and compassion. That’s when we can use words to work magic — to cause sustenance to flow where none was there before.

This is the d’var Torah I offered at last night’s religion committee meeting. You can find my other divrei Torah on this portion in the Velveteen Rabbi Torah Commentary index.

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