Discover more from Ya'aleh: Holiday Torah for Organizers and Optimists
The Long and Deliberate Road
Parshat Hukkat, Abortion Justice, and Pushing Forward
After 40 years of wandering, Moses and Aaron are not allowed into the Promised Land because Moses struck a rock. He did so twice out of frustration with the Israelites, who had been complaining incessantly.
וַיַּקְהִ֜לוּ מֹשֶׁ֧ה וְאַהֲרֹ֛ן אֶת־הַקָּהָ֖ל אֶל־פְּנֵ֣י הַסָּ֑לַע וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לָהֶ֗ם שִׁמְעוּ־נָא֙ הַמֹּרִ֔ים הֲמִן־הַסֶּ֣לַע הַזֶּ֔ה נוֹצִ֥יא לָכֶ֖ם מָֽיִם׃
וַיָּ֨רֶם מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶת־יָד֗וֹ וַיַּ֧ךְ אֶת־הַסֶּ֛לַע בְּמַטֵּ֖הוּ פַּעֲמָ֑יִם וַיֵּצְאוּ֙ מַ֣יִם רַבִּ֔ים וַתֵּ֥שְׁתְּ הָעֵדָ֖ה וּבְעִירָֽם׃
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ה' אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֣ה וְאֶֽל־אַהֲרֹן֒ יַ֚עַן לֹא־הֶאֱמַנְתֶּ֣ם בִּ֔י לְהַ֨קְדִּישֵׁ֔נִי לְעֵינֵ֖י בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל לָכֵ֗ן לֹ֤א תָבִ֙יאוּ֙ אֶת־הַקָּהָ֣ל הַזֶּ֔ה אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־נָתַ֥תִּי לָהֶֽם׃
Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank. But God said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” - Numbers 20: 10-12
Let’s consider, for a moment, the conditions that led up to this outburst:
Moses had to contend with years of complaining from the Israelites and a recently deceased sibling. The Israelites who provoked him had just lost a leader and source of sustenance, Miriam and her well, respectively.
Anger, annoyance, fear, despondence.
A leadership void. The loss of something essential to bodily survival.
You can’t make this stuff up.
And while I wish it was made up, it is not. The reality is that here in America, where the rights of all people who can get pregnant are under attack, we have a history of government control of bodies, including forced birth and sterilization. This most recent chapter, in which politicians set out to decimate Roe v. Wade, was decades in the making.
The road that got us here was long and deliberate. The road to get us out of here might also be long, and it better be deliberate too. As exhausted, angry, and scared as we might be, we have no other choice but to trudge forward.
As the Israelites journeyed on, they continued to face challenges among each other and within themselves. They experience adversity and miracles, danger and salvation. As they encamped in the wilderness, the Israelites found themselves proximate to, grateful for the source of water that sustained them on their journey. Here, they sang.
וּמִשָּׁ֖ם בְּאֵ֑רָה הִ֣וא הַבְּאֵ֗ר אֲשֶׁ֨ר אָמַ֤ר ה' לְמֹשֶׁ֔ה אֱסֹף֙ אֶת־הָעָ֔ם וְאֶתְּנָ֥ה לָהֶ֖ם מָֽיִם׃
אָ֚ז יָשִׁ֣יר יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֖ה הַזֹּ֑את עֲלִ֥י בְאֵ֖ר עֱנוּ־לָֽהּ׃
בְּאֵ֞ר חֲפָר֣וּהָ שָׂרִ֗ים כָּר֙וּהָ֙ נְדִיבֵ֣י הָעָ֔ם בִּמְחֹקֵ֖ק בְּמִשְׁעֲנֹתָ֑ם
And from there to Be’er, which is the well where God said to Moses, “Assemble the people that I may give them water.” Then Israel sang this song:
Spring up, O well—sing to it—
The well which the chieftains dug, which the nobles of the people started with maces, with their own staffs
Numbers 21: 16-18
Though there are accounts of the Israelites receiving water from a rock in both Exodus and earlier in this parashah, this is the first time the Israelites responded with song. It is both the labor of the community members who dug a well and the lack of complaining that led God to provide water, according to Abarbanel (15th c Portugal).
איך יאמרו על הסלע "באר חפרוה שרים כרוה נדיבי העם במחוקק במשענותם" כי הנה הסלע אשר היה בקדש לא נגע בו יד אדם להוציא מים ממנו אלא משה.
ולכן נראה לי ששאר הפעמים נתן הקב״ה מים לישראל ע״ד הפלא. אבל היה זה כאשר ישראל היו שואלים אותם ומתרעמים עליהם ומפני ההכרח היה שולח להם מים לשתות
אבל המקום הזה בארה נקרא כן לפי ששם הקדוש ברוך הוא מעצמו מבלי שישאלהו ממנו ישראל מים אמר אל משה אסוף את העם ואתנה להם מים רוצה לומר מבלי שאלתם ובקשתם כי לא אחפוץ בו מבלי שמוע תלונותיהם.
ועל דעת חכמינו זכרונם לברכה זה היה בארה של מרים שנפסק במותה ונתנו הקדוש ברוך הוא לישראל עתה בזכות משה.
How could they say about the rock, “The well which the chieftains dug, Which the nobles of the people started With maces, with their own staffs” (Numbers 21:18) that here is the well that was located in Kadesh touched not by human hands to extract water from it, other than Moses’.
Therefore, it seems to me that the rest of the time, the Holy Blessed One gave water to the Israelites by way of miracle. But that was when Israel would ask [Aaron and Moses] and resent them, and out of necessity, God would send them water to drink.
But this place is referred to as Be’erah (Numbers 21:16) because the Holy Blessed One Godself provided water without the Israelites asking for it. God said to Moses, “Gather the people and I will give them water without you having asked or requested, because I God desire [to give water] without hearing their complaints.”
According to the opinion of our sages of blessed memory, this was the well of Miriam, which ceased when she died, and The Holy Blessed One gave it to Israel now in the merit of Moses.
On our journeys, there are times for complaining. There are also moments to dig deep, to connect our wellsprings of strength, hidden as they may seem, with something bigger. When we join with others in our community, when we partner with God in bringing about the reality we want to see, we can create openings. These might be the tiniest glimmers of hope to get us through the day, or they might be exuberant moments worthy of song.
After the recent attacks on abortion access and bodily autonomy, Rebecca Traister wrote,
Insisting on hope does not equal a call to dumb cheer, empty aphorism, and baseless optimism. That is the kind of garbage disregard for reality that landed us here. Fatuous overconfidence is what permitted those in power to tell those with their hair on fire that their fear was theatrical, unhinged, overdramatic. Which is why we must retain the clarity of today’s horror, and never let anyone tell us that things are better than they are. Start with the presumption that your worst fears reflect reality and then learn from those who are already well acquainted with the world we actually live in.
Feeling angry, annoyed, afraid, or despondent does not mean all hope is lost. It means we can and must have clarity on the moment in which we find ourselves. From here, we can push forward.
Spring up O well–sing to it–which the people started with their own staffs.
Steps along the Road to Abortion Justice:
~ Sustained giving, even $5/month
~ Plug in to organizations and coalitions who have been doing the work
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Translation mine, with thanks to Rabbi Markose, Dr. Herzberg, and Max for their insights.