Parshat Chukat: Numbers 19:1-22:1; Judges 11:1-33.
Many paradoxes occur in the Torah.
For example, Deuteronomy 15 states: “There shall be no needy among you;” (v. 4), and “There will never cease to be needy ones in your land.” (v. 11)”
In another example, upon creating the first human being, God declares people to be very good (Genesis 1:31), but just five chapters later, God describes the human being as evil (Genesis 6:5).
It should not surprise us to read in parshat Chukat the paradox of the red heifer. In describing the ceremony for removing ritual impurity after contact with a corpse, we learn that by removing another’s impurity, the “healer” then becomes afflicted with his/her own impurity!
Water, which plays a central role in Chukat, is itself a paradox. We can’t live without water. A drought, a water main break or contamination are but three of the ways people have suffered and even died from lack of sufficient water. On the other hand, too much water is dangerous as we know from floods and drownings. So water symbolizes the breath of life; it is almost always a blessing, but not without risks.
This Shabbat, after reading about the red heifer cleansing ritual (which requires water), we learn that there is no water. This is the story, of course, of Moses being commanded by God to speak to a rock. Moses, instead, strikes the rock.
What happened to all the water? Prior to creation, the entire world was water. God divided the water, separating it from the sky and from dry land. But God did not destroy the water. So where did it disappear?
Of course, the answer is that it is our job, not God’s, to find available water and make sure that there is enough for everyone, now and in the future.
Our country is currently challenged by the Colorado River, which supplies water to 40 million people in seven western states, but has been experiencing drought conditions during the past 20 years.
As U.S. scientists struggle to overcome the drying river, we see the incredible success of Israel, which leads the world in water recycling. Israel has taken seriously the need to preserve water, by creating and maintaining technology to desalinate salt water and reuse 90% of its waste water, primarily for irrigation purposes. In contrast, the U.S. recycles less than 10% of its waste water.
Like Moses, we all stand before the rock, and have the ability to find water which we cannot easily see, until we try a little harder.
Rabbi Elliot Pachter is the rabbinic adviser at the Frankel Jewish Academy, and rabbi emeritus at Congregation B’nai Moshe, both in West Bloomfield.