My Children, My Well

Parashat Chukat 5781 / פרשת חֻקַּת
Torah Portion: Numbers 19:1-22:1

One of the greatest joys in my life is fatherhood. Not only because I take pleasure in being with my children. Not only because I delight in watching them grow into compassionate adults. Not only because I am proud of their achievements. But also because my children have helped me be present in the world. Because they’ve helped me be a more compassionate person. Because they’ve inspired me to achieve. Because they’ve taught me. They are for me a wellspring of Torah.

In the famous rabbinic collection of pithy aphorisms known as Pirkei Avot (6:6), we read that “Torah is acquired through 48 things.” Among these “things” through which we acquire Torah are joy, an understanding heart, and feeling loved, but also “a minimum of sleep,” “critical give and take with others,” “sharing in the bearing of a burden with another,” and humility. These and all the other things are integral to my life as a parent.

Not all of these things are easy and fun, of course. What parent hasn’t experienced strings of sleepless nights when their children are babies? What parent hasn’t engaged in lively exchanges, sometimes heated and angry, with their children. And what parent hasn’t needed a partner or a village to share the burden of parenting some of the time, if not always. Who hasn’t felt totally humbled by their children? All these things AND joy and love and an understanding heart are part and parcel of fatherhood for me.

Even the mundane and aggravating parts of fatherhood are worthwhile. There’s laundry and food preparation and schlepping and kvetching and all those other things that are part of living in the world with growing beings underfoot. But we find Torah in these parts of parenting, too, if we choose to see them that way. A friend once said to me, “We love what we put work into.” Nothing could be truer than loving our children.

As the Israelites made their way through the wilderness, they encountered boredom, hunger, thirst, rebelliousness, warfare, death, lack of faith and quite often the wrath of God. And yet we learn that it was through these experiences over 40 years that the Israelites acquired Torah for themselves. In the first year, Moses acquired Torah directly from God, but it took another 40 years for Israel to really ingest and absorb Torah for themselves. 

Once, shortly after Miriam died (Num. 20:1) , the wells that had sustained Israel throughout their journey only because of Miriam’s merit — the Sages teach us — dried up. These wells, according to the great hassidic master Rabbi Yehudah Leib of Ger, otherwise known as the Sefat Emet, symbolize the Oral Torah, that Torah which is acquired through the stream of life as we experience all of these 48 things of which Pirkei Avot speaks. And so, you can imagine, how parched our ancestors became in those days following Miriam’s death, how thirsty for Torah they were.

But then something wonderful happened. First, God brought forth water from a rock (20:11). And then God led Israel to a place called Be’er (21:16), which means “Well.” And the Torah says, God brought them to that place with a well, “which is the well where the LORD said to Moses, “Assemble the people that I may give them water.” You see, God didn’t abandon the Israelites. They still had water. They still drank in from the source of Torah. But they also had to work to dig the well and make the waters flow.

The Torah continues (21:17-18), “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.” In the midst of their difficult journey, in the midst of a series of unfortunate events, Israel sang! They sang to the well that fed their bodies and their souls.

Notice that they didn’t sing to God, and they didn’t sing because they experienced a miracle. They sang because they worked to dig that well in Be’er, and their work was good. With their own hands, they made the waters flow and that water would sustain their bodies. In the same vein, through their own encounters with whatever life put in front of them, they learned the Torah that sustained their souls.

So here we are on the Shabbat of Father’s Day weekend. As I pause to think about my journey of fatherhood, I give thanks to God for the many gifts and blessings that have graced my life. I, too, want to sing a song to the children I have co-parented with my own two hands and who have, in turn, taught me Torah, for Jacob and Katie are the well I have dug and their lives are the water that nourishes my soul. And I am grateful.

Psalms 128

(1) A song of ascents. Happy are all who fear the LORD, who follow His ways. (2) You shall enjoy the fruit of your labors; you shall be happy and you shall prosper. (3) Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine within your house; your sons, like olive saplings around your table. (4) So shall the man who fears the LORD be blessed. (5) May the LORD bless you from Zion; may you share the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life, (6) and live to see your children’s children. May all be well with Israel!

Chukat and the Game of Life

Parashat Chukat / פרשת חקת

Torah Portion: Numbers 19:1 – 22:1

This week’s parashah reads like a board game, with the Israelites moving ahead a space, hitting misfortune, moving back several spaces, and then getting lucky and moving forward toward the finish line. The opening chapter of the parashah, rather than fitting in with the game itself, feels like the game’s complicated instructions that will only make sense once you start playing the game. Much happens to the Israelites in this parashah board game for better and for worse, and by the time it is over we’ve discovered an important lesson about dealing with life’s travails.

Let’s start with the instructions. Parashat Chukat begins with the bizarre details of the ritual of the “red heifer” (Numbers 19:1-22) through which one is spiritually cleansed after having become spiritually contaminated by coming into close contact with a corpse. Part of this ritual requires someone to burn the heifer, reducing it to ashes, and as that person executes his responsibilities, he and the presiding priest are made impure. That is, their contact with the ashes of the heifer that will cleanse another person will, in the end, defile them and require them to wash their clothes and bathe their bodies in order to become clean once again.

It’s hard to make sense of this ritual. Why does it unfold the way it does? Why do the ashes purify one person and contaminate another? What did the heifer look like in actuality, and where did it come from? We cannot know the whys and wherefores of the red heifer ritual for sure because it could only be performed in the Temple in Jerusalem by the priests, and, of course, neither the Temple nor the priests themselves longer exist. It’s all a mystery beyond our comprehension, which, the rabbis teach, is exactly the point: sometimes God commands us to do things we do not understand, but the idea is to do them out of faith without questioning. Similarly, I’ve read and heard the instructions to complex board games that I simply could not understand, but I had faith that somehow by following the instructions the game would proceed as it was supposed to and things would begin to make sense. The only problem with the Red Heifer game, though, is that it’s a “game” that can’t be played anymore! How frustrating!

So, with the instructions/prelude behind us, we see that the Israelites move one step forward to Kadesh in the “wilderness of Zin” (Num. 20:1). Just as they are settling in, however, Miriam, the prophetess and Moses’ sister, dies. Then, things really spiral out of control: the Israelites find themselves without water (20:2); Moses strikes a rock twice to produce water, despite God’s explicit instruction to simply “order the rock to yield its water” (20:6-11); Moses and Aaron get the news from God that neither of them will get to cross into the Promised Land (20:12-12); the king of Edom refuses to give the Israelites passage through his territory and turns them away. In the span of just 21 verses, Israel hits upon hard times and their forward movement is halted. Unfortunately, their next advance from Kadesh to Mount Hor (20:22) is followed by a string of more setbacks: Aaron dies (20:28); Israel is attacked by the king of Arad (21:1); serpents attack the people, killing many of them (21:6). By this point, it looks like the Israelites are on a losing path.

Just then, a miracle occurs and the forward momentum kicks in once again: Israel comes upon a well at Beer and breaks out in song (21:16-20). Refreshed, Israel defeats in succession the Amorites (21:21-32) and King Og of Bashan (21:33-35), neither of whom granted Israel the right to pass through their territory in peace. Finally, the game ends with Israel making it as far as “the steppes of Moab, across the Jordan from Jericho” (22:1). Victory! (Well, almost. We’ll have to wait until the Book of Joshua for the next installment of the game.)

What are we to learn from Israel’s experience in this “game”? There are two lessons. First, life can be messy, complicated and hard to understand from time to time, but we must strive to accept our reality and keep our sights set on what we deem truly important. In the case of the Red Heifer, biblical Israel enacted this ritual with all its mystery and believed that being do so they could deal with death effectively. They neither refused to follow God’s strange commandment nor stopped caring for their dead. They accepted the ritual of the Red Heifer at face value, and this allowed them to carry on. We, too, don’t need to understand our reality all the time, but we do need to work with what we’ve been given in order to move forward.

The second lesson is simply that, while life is full of setbacks, the setbacks should neither define us nor deter us from striving for success. In Chukat, lots of bad stuff happens to the Israelites. They grumble and say they wish to be back in Egypt. However, they eventually find their stride, gain confidence, and enjoy a series of major successes. The Israelites do not give up on God, and God does not give up on them.

Had we chosen to read the parashah only through the death of Aaron, we never would have come to the well at Beer. We certainly wouldn’t have seen Moses and the Israelites camping in the steppes of Moab. Were we to give up on life with every defeat — floods, acts of hatred, the death of loved ones — we would never be able to experience the great blessings God has in store for us.

As we play the game of life, it behooves us to assess our circumstances realistically, come to peace with where we’re at and keep on playing. Though we may suffer setbacks from time to time, let us recover quickly and prepare ourselves to keep progressing toward the winner’s circle, which is where, after all, we belong.