Parsha Chukat by David Hartley Mark

In Chukat, following the death of Moses’s sister Miriam (the oldest of their family), the Israelites lack water. This would not have happened during Miriam’s life, says the Midrash/Book of Legends on the Torah, because, during her lifetime, God caused a miraculous well to follow the Israelites through the wilderness, all because of Miriam’s great merit as a prophet and leader of Israel. Her death means the well’s disappearance, and more complaining—this time, sadly, from the mouths of the “Wilderness Generation,” the young Israelites who never lived in Egypt, but nonetheless idealized it as a place of “grain, figs, vines [and] pomegranates” (Num. 20:5). Hearing these accusations from those youth who were supposed to be idealistically dependent only upon God and Moses must have been particularly painful for the prophet to hear.

When God tells Moses to speak to a rock, which will then split open and gush forth water—truly, a miracle—the long-suffering prophet, the most patient and humble of men, loses his temper. “Hear now, you rebels,” he exclaims to the unruly mob, “Shall I bring you forth water from this rock?” and strikes it with his staff not once, but twice. Here, Moses’s sin is twofold: he strikes the rock rather than speak to it, and he strikes it twice, implying premeditation rather than impulsivity, as well as lessening the miracle in the eyes of the people. In that instant, God decides not to allow Moses to cross over the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land. No: Moses is condemned to die in the desert. How quickly a man’s fortune changes, and all because he loses his temper!

Another painful aspect of this Torah portion is Aaron’s death. What sort of man was he? As with all Jewish heroes, the verdict is mixed: while renowned as a peacemaker, he failed at preventing the people from building the Golden Calf during Moses’s ascent onto Mt. Sinai. Although himself the religious leader of the people, he nonetheless may have borne some jealousy toward the younger brother for whom he was meant to serve as a spokesman: witness the controversial incident where he and Miriam may have gossiped about Zipporah, Moses’s wife (Num. 12:1-16). His life was tragic, as well, losing two sons to God’s wrath on the day of their ordination as kohanim/priests (Lev. 10:1-3)—a loss that he bore in silence. And what of his (unknown) wife’s reaction? Again, the text is mute. Just before his death on Mt. Hor (literally, “Mount Mountain,” attesting to the anonymity of his burial place), Aaron gets a tiny, mountaintop glimpse of the Promised Land: a bittersweet conclusion to a life full of work on behalf of his God, his brother, and his people.

David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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