Parshat Chukat – Rabbi Eliezer Shenvald
The crisis of "Mei Merivah" (the waters of conflict) in our parsha joins a series of crises around the essential need for water, especially during Israel's journey in the desert. We need to take a close look at the Torah's special outlook on the need for water and at the crises arising from this, like the struggles of the Avot to dig wells. From this we can learn about Judaism's unique strategic approach to the subject of water.
As early as the exodus from Egypt, before the splitting of the Red Sea, the first crisis over water erupts at Marah. (Shemot 15:22) Afterwards was a period of calm in the oasis of Elim, but the problem returned more severely in "Masah u Merivah" at Refidim (Shemot 17:1) where for the first time water was miraculously drawn from a stone. An exceptional miracle was revealed there, one that was "reserved" from the six days of the Creation: "The mouth (opening) of the well." (Avot 5:6) And from then on, by virtue of Miriam, "Miriam's well" accompanies Am Israel on its journeys in the desert. Everywhere that Israel camped in the desert, even though it was in a place devoid of water, they were miraculously able to find water (according to the Maharal, Derech HaChaim on the aforementioned Avot, and the Ramban here. And not like Rashi in Shabbat 35a – that the stone itself followed them.) This is a great miracle in its scope! Especially when we consider the parched conditions in the desert and the vast quantities of water needed for a great population over such a long period of time.
The Mei Merivah crisis in our parsha occurs in the fortieth year, at the end of the period on the desert and on the eve of our entry into the Land of Israel. At this time Am Israel already left the desolate desert and reached the inhabited region of Kadesh. Am Israel is at an "interim" stage, ending the period in the desert under miraculous leadership, and preparing for the entry into the Land of Israel and living under natural leadership. (Hanatziv, HaEmek Davar, Bamidbar 20:1,5) "And immediately after the death of Miriam (See Ta'anit 9a), the spring was dried up, and the people were deprived of the first condition for their continued existence: "And there was no water for the people"! And when they reached Kadesh, they rejoiced in returning to a settled land, but suddenly they felt the lack of water, which they didn't suffer from during all their travels in the desert.
Because of this they thought that Moshe and Aharon had disappointed them – and deceived them! (Rabbi S.R. Hirsh, here, 2-3) We must be aware that the Torah gives legitimacy to the essential need for water and the nation's request at Kadesh: "They weren't punished like they were for other complaints, because they were in the right because they didn't have water." (Chizkuni, Bamidbar 20:2)
Therefore the Torah doesn't criticize the request itself, but only the way it was expressed and the deterioration of the situation as a result. (Sforno Bamidbar 20:3) On the other hand, there is the understanding that the need of the world and humanity for water is a sensitive and volatile issue since the days of Creation. "In no other complaint do we see the expression "conflict" except about water, (and this we see in the Torah) twice. Here, in Masa and Merivah (Shemot 17:7) since water is the source of discord, as the Sages said (Bereshith Rabbah 4:6): Why wasn't it written "and it was good" on the second day of Creation? Because that was the day that controversy was created, as is written: (Bereshith 1:6) "And (He) separated between water and water." And the Kabbalah says explicitly: "He who begins a dispute releases water" (like one who opens a dam) (Mishlei 17:14) the fact that the waters were parted and were separated from each other is the origin of dispute and the beginning of every controversy, as we see in the quarrel against Yitzchak's shepherds over the water, since all this has been in its nature since the first waters, and (a second time): they argued with Moshe - who was taken from the water, and whose hand ruled over the waters at the Red Sea and at the stone – (saying) why don't you draw water from the flintstone now as well?" (Cli Yakar, Bamidbar 20:3)
The crisis of "Mei Merivah" ends with Moshe striking the stone and water emerging, and with the severe punishment of Moshe and Aharon, although "the transgression of Moshe and Aharon at Mei Merivah isn't publicized in the Torah…and there is much discussion among the commentators about this sin." (Ramban on Bamidbar 20:8 and Abarbanel) However the Rambam explained that the transgression was Moshe Rabbenu's angry and disproportional reaction to their legitimate demand for water, and that potentially could have shown that this was also G-d's 'attitude' toward their request. (Rambam Shmonah Prakim, end of Perek 4. See Ramban and Abarbanel who disagreed with him.)
The parsha ends with Shirat HaBe'er (the Song of the Well) on the great miracle of its supplying water. "That Bnei Israel sang this about Moshe, that by his merit the well resumed after it had stopped when Miriam died."
The parsha sharpens man's essential need for water. In the national context, this is a strategic need which comprises one of the foundations of the economic existence of a country. Water is a strategic natural resource which the survival of individuals and households depends on, as well as agriculture, industry and the rest of the ecological environment. Water sources dictate the map of national and strategic boundaries. The quantity of water supplied to a region defines its potential for development. So water is a subject of great importance to every national leadership.
Over history, sources of water have been at the center of tensions and struggles between states. In the Land of Israel, where sources of water are scarce and there are desert regions, there is a struggle over water which began with the Avot and their struggle over the wells, and continues today in the "war over the water" of the '50's about the water sources of the Kinneret after the construction of the Movil HaArtzi which is intended to carry water from the Kinneret to Israel's center and the Negev.
In the Land of Israel, the water economy is dependent on the kindness of Heaven and on rain: "You will drink from the rain of the sky." (Devarim 11:1) Like all strategic fields, there is a combination of human action and Divine aid - physical and spiritual elements. In the management of this economy we must do all we can to develop it: to make sure water flows to different areas, to plan, conserve and even to enrich the supply with purified water (today 20% of our consumption!) All that being said, there is still one factor which is not dependent on us but on Divine Providence: Israel is "A land which The Lord your G-d regards, His eyes are always upon it from the beginning of the year to the end of the year." (ibid)
In the days of the Beit Mikdash, on the Festival of Succot when we are "judged regarding water" (Mishna Rosh Hashana1,2) the spiritual aspect of the need for water stands at the center of the Temple service of the Water-Libation and Simchat Beit HaShoeva. It also is at the heart of the special prayer of the Cohen Gadol in the Kodesh Kodeshim on Yom Kippur. (Yoma 53b) Today as well it occupies a central place in our daily prayers: the seasonal "Gevurot Geshamim" (Mashiv HaRuach u Morid HaGashem) and "Bakashat Geshamim" (Ten Tal u Matar Livracha), as well as in special prayers and fasts when the rains are late in arriving.