In our tradition, Torah is comparable to water. It is critical to our survival and comprises 60% of our bodies. Since the time of the Exodus from Egypt, water has kept us humans functioning and sustained us – acting to regulate our body temperature, to flush waste, and to provide crops and nourishment. Luckily, today, finding water is much easier than it was some three thousand years ago.
In this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat, we read: “The community was without water and they joined against Moses and Aaron”. This reaction from the community is not a big surprise. After Miriam’s death earlier in the chapter, finding water became one of the greatest concerns for the people of Israel.
In the book of Numbers, chapter 20, two peculiar actions followed each other: There was no mourning period for Miriam the prophet; and no one took over her responsibilities for securing water. “Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this worthless place… there is not even water to drink!” Such a protest seemed to come from the generation who knew how to survive in the desert, and knew they could not continue without water.
God instructed Moses and Aaron to take the rod, gather the community, and, “before their eyes order the rock to yield water.” Moses and Aaron both failed this test of trust. There was a similar incident extracting water from a rock with a rod in Exodus, chapter 17. In both cases, the people of Israel complained, quarreled, and questioned God’s presence. In Exodus, however, Moses followed the word of God and was not guilty of sin.
In Chukkat, Moses and Aaron appear to commit a sin by not following God’s instructions precisely. Moreover, these two leaders are punished and not allowed to lead the community into the Land of Israel. Here, the water that grants life and support is called the “Waters of Meriba,” literally, the waters of strife.
The Midrash of Numbers, Rabba 19, explains that Moses and Aaron had to command the rock to grant water and not to strike it twice. God’s command was more physical than spiritual in this sense and provoked the lack of trust among the people. My question is, however, how were Moses and Aaron supposed to know that striking the rock would play such a role?
In the Midrash we read that the rock itself complained to God for the need to treat it justly. “You should have talked to it before you struck it.” Nevertheless, together with Rabbi Plaut, I do not think that it was such a great transgression to wipe out the merit of Moses and Aaron and all the good they had done for the community.
In our time, we can look at that not as a ‘sin’, but rather as the failure to meet the demand of the new generation, see their needs, and talk their language.
Being 43, I am thinking about the upcoming Bar Mitzvah of my son Alexander Aaron Abramovich, I am also thinking about the hundreds of young adults and children who will attend our Netzer summer camps in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. I ask myself: Do I teach Judaism in the way our new generation would comprehend it and love it and even teach it to their children in the future?
In the 1990s we, too, experienced a great miracle similar to the Exodus with the freeing of Soviet Jewry. More than one million people made aliya to Israel. But many stayed.
Today in the Former Soviet Union, among the many who are rediscovering their Jewish heritage or strengthening their connection to our people, we now have Jewish communities, youth clubs, schools, and are even training local rabbis. Young people take an active role in our youth seminars, camps, and conferences across the FSU. The new generation can read the Torah commentary by Plaut in Russian! They also have may other Jewish books translated into Russian.
My rabbinic colleagues once interviewed a couple before their wedding ceremony under a chupa. They, like many others here, were born into a time where the WUPJ was already helping revitalize and strengthen an open and vibrant Judaism among Russian speaking communities across the region.
There are those who continue to take things for granted, like a glass of water. I, for one, do not believe we need to ‘strike the rock’ twice and focus only on how difficult it was to create and establish our movement in the 90s.
Speaking to the generation of this century, we should transform our water into one that continues to give life and nourish. We should continue to promote the teaching of the Torah, and educating in its ways, as something vital to our sustenance like water. We should always listen to and help give the water of life to the next generation.
About the author:
Rabbi Grisha Abramovich serves the Sandra Breslauer “Beit Simcha” Center in Minsk and leads its role in the Religious Union for Progressive Judaism in the Republic of Belarus.
To learn more about the World Union’s activities in Minsk and across the Former Soviet Union, click here.