This Shabbat’s Torah portion contains a theme which runs through the entire book of Numbers: the complaints of the Israelites. This week, their complaints are about the lack of water in the camp. Midrash tells us that the water dried up at this point in the wanderings because Moses’ sister Miriam died. Until now, say the rabbis of our tradition, sweet water had been flowing for the Israelites to drink in the harsh desert because a well followed Miriam wherever she went. Water was a large part of Miriam’s life. It was she who placed Moses in the Nile, she led our people in dance and song after our miraculous deliverance from slavery.
Whenever we find Miriam together with water we find her celebrating nature and the connection between God and the wonders of the natural world. She dances, sings and lives in harmony with the environment. And for this reason, amongst her other merits, Miriam’s well follows the Israelites in the desert, sustaining and nurturing them. But when she dies and is buried, the water ceases to flow and the well becomes as empty and dry as the harsh, cruel desert. It is then the Israelites begin complaining about the lack of water. Moses takes their complaint to God who says that Moses should go to a certain rock, speak to it, and it will produce water. Moses goes to the rock, the people are nagging and taunting him and instead of talking with the rock, he hits it twice with his rod. The water pours forth, the Israelites drink but Moses is denied entry into the Promised Land.
Throughout the ages, students and teachers of Torah have been perplexed by this passage and the seemingly harsh punishment given to Moses. For what appears to be a relatively minor indiscretion, he is denied the fulfillment of his life’s work. Most of the traditional interpretations suggest that Moses was punished for losing his temper.
But Rabbi Ephraim Rubinger offers a radical and different interpretation. He says instead of looking at Moses’ anger, we should look at the different relationships Moses and Miriam had with nature and the natural world. Until the moment when Moses was asked to speak to the rock, he had been manipulating nature for his own purposes, while Miriam praised and delighted in it. Moses tapped the energy of the world and made it change and work for him; he changes water into blood, a stick to a snake, light to dark and he splits the sea.
All this was done by God with Moses acting as agent, but still, his interaction with the natural world was all about changing it, whereas Miriam was about being with it. That was a delicate balance which worked, until Miriam died. Then it was Moses’ duty to take on the dual approach; to both use nature and be with it. That is why God wanted him to talk to the rock and not beat it. He was to stop beating nature into submission and instead learn to work in harmony with it as Miriam had done. God recognized that unless Moses was able to do that, recognize the beauty, spirituality and sanctity of the natural world, he could not lead the people in the Promised Land. Despite Moses’ fabulous qualities, without the spiritual nature that Miriam possessed, without that connection to the world, Moses could not succeed. When Moses hit the rock instead of speaking with it he demonstrated that he did not learn the lesson from Miriam. He was still trying to manipulate nature with force and it was such a grave sin that he was not permitted to lead the people into the Promised Land.
Today we often behave as Moses did, divorcing nature from spirit and emotion so that we can exploit and manipulate it to serve our own purposes. We have the power, more than ever before, to shape the world for our own ends and we are learning the lesson God tried to teach us through Moses; we cannot only master the natural world, we need to learn to be in harmony with it and connected to it. To be like Miriam; recognize the wonders of nature and praise the God who made them, then work to achieve sustainable development.