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AUDIO ESSAY: Torah for the Earth - Chukat-Balak

Parashat Chukat-Balak

Welcome back everyone to this week’s Torah for the Earth audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing the dual reading of Parashat Chukat and Parashat Balak. Chukat means “law (or decree) [of],” but refers specifically to the supra-rational category of mitzvot known as chukim. These are the decrees of the Torah that cannot be explained logically at all, and the line – (זֹ֚את חֻקַּ֣ת הַתּוֹרָ֔ה) “This is the decree of the Torah” – implies that there is something about the premise of this parashah which points to the essence of Torah. Parashat Chukat begins by introducing the laws of the red heifer (Heb: parah adumah), and the theme of death pervades the text: Miriam dies, Aaron dies, and Moshe strikes the rock sealing his fate in the desert, losing his right to enter the Promised Land. Due to a shortage of water and food, the people cry out against G-d and Moshe, and fiery serpents attack the Israelite camp. Battles against the Amorite kings, Sihon and Og, soon ensue, before the Israelites settle on the bank of the Jordan River – opposite the decisive city of Jericho. In the portion of Balak, Balaam (the prophet of the Nations) is hired by the king of Moab to curse the children of Israel. En route, G-d sends a messenger to block Balaam’s way, and something quite unique occurs: the she-donkey carrying Balaam speaks to deliver a message from G-d. In one of her animal writings, philosopher Elisabeth de Fontenay asserts that “the donkey of Numbers will go down in history as a one-off, or what is otherwise known as a hapax.”[1] In what seems like an interruption to the narrative ark of the Israelites, the story of Balaam’s donkey is an incredibly unique and rare moment in Torah whereby a domesticated animal is given a voice and a perspective in the story. In contrast to the talking snake from Genesis 3 (which we have come to expect as normal), the donkey’s speech comes to represent a singular – and special – shift whereby G-d’s voice takes on a particular form to instill a teaching. When G-d’s messenger asks Balaam, “For what reason did you strike your she-donkey these three times?” (22:32), a possibility arises: that’s Balaam’s frustration and beating of his donkey, when coupled with G-d’s retort, suggests that we have a divine mandate to reduce the suffering of living creatures.[2] In Judaism, this is a biblical commandment, a concept to avoid animal cruelty, known as tzaar baalei chayim.

Both of these Torah portions have an incredible amount to offer the contemporary reader, with respect to an environmental message. Parashat Chukat contains one of the most mysterious, and extensively debated, passages of the Torah. This is the story of Moshe hitting the rock to get water, after being told by G-d to speak to the rock, which is an act that prevents Moshe from leading the Nation of Israel into the Promised Land. With the death of Miriam, our attention also turns to water – a prophet who stood by the Nile to watch over her brother Moshe, sung praises to G-d after the splitting of the sea, and who provided a miraculous well of fresh water that accompanied the Israelites throughout the desert.[3] Following her death, water ceased to flow and we read: “there was no water for the assembly (Heb: וְלֹא־הָ֥יָה מַ֖יִם לָֽעֵדָ֑ה)” (20:2). Some commentators note that this was because the death of Miriam was not mourned, and this was a grave mistake that affronted Miriam and angered G-d.[4] But there are two ways we can think about this water crisis through the lens of an ecological hermeneutic. 1) Firstly, when the people gather against Moshe and Aaron, and complain about a lack of water, Moshe describes them as “rebels.” In Hebrew, this word is morim, which is a permutation of the name Miriam.[5] In fact, a permutation of her name (used to describe the Jewish people) appears in each of the three main narratives detailing a water crisis following the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt.[6] From the Talmud (Taanit 9a) we learn that it was from Miriam’s merit that fresh water was provided in the wilderness; and from the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 1:2), we come to understand that it was due to her gratefulness for a miracle, which occurred through water (splitting of the sea), that she was gifted the element.[7] And so, to describe the congregation as “rebels” is to suggest that the people deviated from – or didn’t appreciate – the expression of merit and gratefulness that provided them with water. 2) Secondly, Moshe strikes the rock after being told to speak to the rock. One rabbinical explanation points to the phrase לְעֵֽינֵיהֶ֖ם – Moshe is told to speak to the rock “in their eyes.” The implication here is that Moshe “had to speak to the rock in such a way that the people would see something, rather than merely know it.”[8] The Torah is often likened to water, and – in particular – is associated with the ‘revealed’ Torah.[9] Traditionally, this would mean the practical, legal teachings of the Talmud and Halachah. But perhaps speaking, rather than hitting, signifies that we too need behave in such a way that the world can see a demonstration of Torah – that the demonstration of principle first requires a gentler dialectic to then precipitate a basic necessity of life.

The fact that Miriam’s death, and the lack of water, is juxtaposed to the most enigmatic mitzvah in the Torah – the red heifer (which is needed after contact with a corpse) – suggests that there are (perhaps) aspects of the situation that we will never understand. But that is, ultimately, the great mystery of death; it is a transformation of form that will forever elude our faculties of reason. Perhaps this is pointing to the nature of our dialectic when we encounter a fear of death, and our expression of gratefulness for natural phenomena that we cannot understand. In her book Loving Water Across Religions, Elizabeth McAnally coined the term “aquasattva” to speak about human beings who integrate their ecological activism with gratefulness and a “concern for the well-being of water in all its different manifestations.”[10] The failure to mourn for Miriam is connected to a concern for water – literally, because there was a lack of it, and spiritually, because it was a “gift”[11] from G-d that came through nature. With Miriam’s death also came the responsibility to perpetuate the revelation of Torah; without her merit, the people had an obligation to inspire a form of gratefulness underlying the spiritual essence of natural events. The people were not wrong to complain that there wasn’t any water to drink; a lack of water can lead to a painful death. And this is being echoed in our time, where water scarcity is a real danger, and even in places where water is accessible, good water – (and by this, I mean) clean, healthy, living water – has become somewhat of an endangered species. Behind the panic over a basic necessity of life also sits an underlying fear of death, and a friction in the mind about how to coax the spiritual meaning out of such a mystery. The people’s inability to grasp the importance of gratefulness in this process may have been what provoked Moshe to lash out in anger and imitate the very friction that caused the people to “rebel.” Rashi explains that “the people’s intemperance provoked [Moshe] to anger” and this led to an error in judgement.[12] He struck the rock knowing this was not how the miracle was supposed to happen. Seeing takes time, care, effort and a pluralism of the mind that has a concern for water in all its different forms. It’s about facing our fear of death and the mystery of the unknown. And, sometimes, seeing is about not understanding the mechanics of nature, but rather about being grateful for the “gift” that arrives.

In Parashat Balak, when Balaam is confronted on the road by G-d’s messenger, the messenger is described as a satan(22:22). In Hebrew, this word means adversary or impediment, which would explain why Balaam initially didn’t see the messenger. Sometimes it is difficult for us to see that which is restricting our movement forward. For this reason, the donkey isn’t a symbolic foil to Balaam. They donkey is an active partner in helping Balaam to discern – and subsequently – overcome his adversary. This says a lot about the human need for giving animals an active voice in our own spiritual process. In Proverbs 12:10 we read: “The righteous one knows the needs of his animal’s soul.”[13] The Hebrew word that is used in this verse is nefesh – the lowest aspect of the soul that we share with all living creatures. The story of Balaam and his donkey can teach us about how read natural events, and how to partner with the animals that can help us on our journey. It highlights the importance of acknowledging the many different forms that G-d arrives in our lives and overcoming the impediment to that reality. It’s about giving voice to the voiceless and power to the misrepresented. It’s about listening to, and being grateful for, the divine message that come through nature.

Thank you all for listening. That’s all for now, and I’ll catch you next week.

Topics Include: Water in the wilderness, integrating our ecological activism with gratefulness, and reducing the suffering of all living creatures


McAnally, Elizabeth. Loving Waters Across Religions: Contributions to an Integral Water Ethic. Orbis Books, 2019.

Scherman, Nosson. "The Stone Edition of the Chumash: The Torah, Haftoras and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings." (1993).

Stone, Ken. Reading the Hebrew Bible with animal studies. Stanford University Press, 2017.

[1] Stone, Reading the Hebrew Bible, p.96 [2] Stone, Reading the Hebrew Bible, p.115 [3] Miriam’s Well, Heb: Be’erah shel Miriam – “The rock (20:8). – the definite article the indicates that this was a known rock. The Sages teach that G-d had created a rock that He used often as a source of miraculous waters…that same rock accompanied the people throughout their wanderings, as long as Miriam was alive. After her death, it ceased to yield water and was hidden (Ramban).” (Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.843) [4] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.843 [5] Miriam and morim share the same root – mem, reish, yud, and mem [6] These three words appear in events that occur in Exodus 15 (The Bitter Waters of Marah), Exodus 17 (Water From the Rock), and here in Numbers 20 [7] [8] Commentary by Chiddushei HaRim – Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.845 [9] [10] McAnally, Loving Waters Across Religions, p.129 [11] The Talmud (Taanit 9a) describes 3 gifts in the desert – the well of water (Miriam), the pillar of clouds (Aaron), and the manna (Moshe). [12] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.844 [13] Stone, Reading the Hebrew Bible, p.115

The Torah for the Earth Podcast and Audio Essays are Copyrighted to Charles Scott Forbes Jr, 2019.

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