Our tragic loss of imagination: Chukat/Balak

Chukat/Balak 12 Tammuz 5780/July 3, 2020

Reading Chukat and Balak together makes for a rich reading. This narrative includes a cow, snakes, rocks, closed borders, a talking ass, and curses turned into blessings. Furthermore, if one considers just this list, it would be impossible to ignore the fact that the Torah describes snakes in two places, significant cows in three, and a rock with water in two places. This narrative also spans the transition between two different generations, the generation of Egypt and the generation of the midbar. Finally, the Torah marks that transition by describing the process of moving from a condition of tumah to a state of tahara after coming into contact with death. I might say that the Torah marks the transition from the generation of oppression to the generation of wilderness by describing a ritual designed to heal the impact of post traumatic stress. The people need such a salve: within one short series of events, Miriam the prophet dies, Aharon the High Priest dies, and Moshe is condemned to die in the wilderness. The young generation is immediately bereft of stable leadership and a vision of the future. At the same time, never have Benei Yisrael enjoyed a greater, more powerful opportunity for re-newed vision and opportunity. The arc of these two parshiot moves from the death of old leadership to powerful visions of the future articulated, much to his chagrin, by Bilaam as he looks out over the tents of Jacob.

This first time Moshe hits a rock, Benei Yisrael were encamped in Rephidim after leaving Egypt:

From the wilderness of Tzin the whole Israelite community continued by stages as God would command. They encamped at Rephidim, and there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moshe. “Give us water to drink,” they said; and Moshe replied to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you challenge God?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people grumbled against Moshe and said, “Why did you bring us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” Moshe cried out to God, saying, “What shall I do with these people? Before long they will be stoning me!” Then God said to Moshe, “Pass before the people; take with you some of the elders of Israel, and take along the staff with which you struck the Nile, and set out. I will be standing there before you on the rock at Horev. Strike the rock and water will issue from it, and the people will drink.” And Moshe did so in the sight of the elders of Israel. The place was named Massah and Merivah, because Benei Yisrael quarreled and because they tested God, saying, “Is God really present among us or not?” (Shemot 17:1-7)

In parashat Chukat, the nation has returned to Midbar Tzin! It is almost a replay of the initial experience:

After this, BY came to Midbar Tzin on Rosh Chodesh, and the people stayed at a place  called, Kadesh. Miriam died and was buried there. Then, there was no water, so BY organized themselves against Moshe and Aharon. The people argued with Moshe: “We wish we had died when Hashem killed our relatives [during the rebellion of Korach], instead of dying here of thirst! Why have you brought Hashem’s people into this wilderness for us and our animals to die there? Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this horrible place? There is no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates here! There is not even water to drink!” Moshe and Aharon left BY and went to the entrance of the Ohel Moed and fell on their faces. Then, Hashem’s presence appeared to them. (Bemidbar 20:1-6)

There is a significant difference between the two episodes. The first instance occurred shortly after the exodus with the previously enslaved generation. They needed constant reinforcement of their primal experiences of redemption. Moshe brought the staff of the makkot and hit a rock. Freedom, miraculous at its core, nourishes from Heaven and slakes the parched thirst of slavery. The people drank.

The second instance occurs with the generation of the wilderness, as Rashi explains. These people have no memory of Egypt. All they know is the freedom of pure potential, a life of journey and possibility. At Mt. Sinai, they stood together, filled with inspiration and a sense of purpose, a one person with one pulse.

Now, however, 38 years later, they lack imagination. They lack inspiration. They have no confidence to imagine a future for themselves other than the stories of the past in Egypt. Their energy has been depleted after 38 years of wandering. The journey through the wilderness has not inspired them, despite the powerful rabbinic teaching that Torah was revealed in the wilderness because it is a place of absolute imagination. “To accept Torah, one must make oneself as open and free, hefker, like the wilderness.”  (Bemidbar Rabbah 1:7; Bavli Nedarim 55a) God gave our origins as a people a great gift; we had to journey in the midbar. The rabbis emphasize this truth: God led them in the midbar for forty years…Said the Holy One: I will lead them through the midbar and they will eat manna and drink the water of the miraculous well, and Torah will settle inside of their bodies. (Midrash Tanchuma, Beshallach 1) The goal is to become a nation transformed, to embody revelation. The travels through the midbar were an internal journey.  That journey could teach humanity to partner with the Creator and redeem the world. That journey was structured to be sacramental, to transform people into creators of a humanity with a sacred vision of life in all of its complexity and diversity. (I saw a reference to this quote by Erich Fromm, which I cannot locate but which speaks to this idea about the spiritual journey in the midbar: “The desert is not a home. There are no cities. There is no property. It is the place of nomads who have all that they need, life’s essentials, not belongings. Life in the desert is preparation for a life of freedom.” Perhaps this is from his work, You Shall be as Gods, but I cannot locate the source.)

The people now, however, became blind. Symbolically, their source of inspiration and vision, Miriam’s well, dries. Miriam, the source of the water, dies. This was a moment for this young generation to re-make itself. God seizes the opportunity, and instructs Moshe, brandishing that same staff, to speak to the rock. Speak to the rock of Miriam’s well; speech, imagination, vision–those are divinely inspired, and I, God, shall show the people that water can again flow in their midst. Indeed, the word, midbar, means not only, “wilderness,” but also “leadership” and “speech.”

However, re-imagining their world proves to be too difficult. The people remain attached to their false image of the past. They start to scream at Moshe. Rashi quotes the midrashic expansion of this moment: “Hit it! Hit it! Hit any rock! Hit! Hit! Hit! Moshe could not take a moment to think clearly. All the rocks looked alike. The rocks echo the two tablets of stone once the letters flew back to Heaven as the people danced around the golden calf. The people here, too, were frenzied. Moshe panics. He hit, and then again, releasing a generous flow of water. Of course God would provide water. What God wanted, however, was to ennoble the people, to re-imagine a humanity fashioned in God’s image. Moshe fails the moment, ending his leadership. Aharon, shortly afterwards, dies atop Mt. Hor. Something different is required. Something new.

Benei Yisrael continued to travel, encountering other nations. Their first encounter with the nations is filled with fear and hatred of immigrants, refugees, of the other. Edom and Arad closed their borders. First, the crisis of water challenged the people’s imagination. Now, closed borders fomented warfare and a longer, circuitous journey. Exhausted, the people cling desperately to their fractured memory of Egypt: Why did you make us leave Egypt? There is no water! There is no food! And the Manna disgusts us! (Bemidbar 21:1-9) God sent poisonous snakes to bite the people. Only a copper snake on a pole, forcing the people again to look Heavenward as Rashi explains, can heal them.

The first snake in the Torah, in the Garden of Eden, was an original source of falsehood. Chava saw that the fruit of the tree of knowledge was pleasing to the eye. She was naturally filled with passion and energy. The snake lied to her, driving a wedge between her and her Creator. (That God, from humanity’s perspective, may have “misunderstood” that human beings can not remain passive inside of a garden is a different matter.) The result of that first snake’s engagement with people was alienation, ‘etzev. People became alienated from each other, from the earth, and from the Creator of the world. Chava saw that passion and ambition, the powerful forces of our yetzer hara, nourish our imaginations, enable us to build and create and love and protect and dignify. In the midbar, it was as if that first snake returned to bite the people again, forcing them to look Heavenward. And of course, looking Heavenward requires looking inwards, too.

Their travels brought the people to the border of Moav. Balak hired Bilaam to weaken Israel by cursing them. There, too, the Torah describes “seeing.” Bilaam is the inverse of the first humans in the Garden of Eden. Their eyes were opened, and from that moment humanity was charged with the test of discerning truth from falsehood. God hoped that one small group of people would learn and model how to avoid idolatry, how to nourish their imagination, how to nourish and protect the earth, how to live with humility and not abuse power. God placed God’s divine hope in one group of humanity to work tirelessly for a redeemed world filled with chesed  and justice. Now, at the edge of Moav, the materialistic prophet Bilaam cannot see what his ass sees clearly before her. When God places the blessings in his mouth, the Torah describes Bilaam as the “one of discerning eye,” shetum ha’ayin. Of course, the word for “eye,” “ayin,” also means, “a source of water.”  Bilaam projects a beautiful image of Israel encamped in the valley below him. He sees a people of imagination, strong in their values and faith, strong in their vision and sense of purpose, despite the fact that they remained homeless. Life is the journey, nourished by spirit and trust and love.

All of this points to the tragic loss of our imagination, resulting in a spiritual drought. The ability to imagine the world differently, to project a redemptive vision, to see the menacing angels standing in our path, are the inherited gifts of our sacred history. The wilderness provided us with a tabula rasa, which we squandered. Our faith in the future and in the world dried up. Our passions succumbed to the false gods of Egypt, and so the snakes of Eden returned to bite us.

I noted at the outset that the Torah describes three cows. They are the egel hazahav, the eglah arufah, and the parah adumah. The egal hazahav is an idol. The eglah arufah ritualizes the absolute requirement for a people to take responsibility for everything that takes place in their society. The parah adumah signifies the possibility that no matter how much death one encounters, no matter how tameh a society becomes, re-purification is always possible.

These three animals signify this moment of our journey as a people. Today, as in the parasha, we are stuck between idolatry, impurity and neglect. Society yearns for monuments, statues, and idols, instead of tearing down what they represent. We have arrogantly disregarded the warning signs of the natural world, and as a result contemptuously infect each other with no regard to the fragilities of the old, the poor, and the disaffected. We need Miriam’s well; our imaginations have dried. This society has been murdering people of color for centuries while the eglah arufah ritualizes the demand for assuming responsibility for the profaning of life. Just as are ancestors, we too cannot afford to yearn for the falsehood of Egyptian domination over an oppressed people. We dare not abdicate responsibility for the sins embedded in this society’s foundation. We need Miriam’s well, and the purifying waters of the red heifer, for a renewal of spirit and life. God tried to teach us how to gain the courage and imagination to reconstruct life with health, dignity, humility, and faith. God created humanity with that potential. The time has come to speak to the rock, and turn it into a river of living waters.

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Rabbi Dov Lerea is currently the Head of Judaic Studies at the Shefa School in NYC. He has served as the Dean and Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, as the Director of Kivunim in Jerusalem, as the Dean of Judaic Studies of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, and as the Director of Education at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire. Rabbi Dov has semicha from both JTS and YU. He is married and is blessed with sons, daughters-in-law, and wonderful grandchildren. He loves cooking, biking, and trying to fix things by puttering around with tools.
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