A Different River (Parashat Chukat)

Long ago the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed the truth that “You cannot step twice into the same river.” The reason is obvious. Because the water is always moving, the river is changing from one minute to the next. Though it may look the same to an outside observer, there is very little consistency in a rushing deluge. In an era, long before the discovery of molecules, Heraclitus understood that water is not a constant entity but rather an amalgam of distinct pieces that add up to a whole.

Heraclitus’ observation was not confined to Greece. It is inherent in our Rabbis’ fascinating critique on this week’s Torah portion.

This week we learn the story of Moses’ downfall. The people are thirsty and are complaining that they lack sufficient water. After approaching God, Moses is instructed to gather the people and speak to a rock that will yield its bounty. Yet, when the moment arrives to follow God’s commandment, Moses explodes in anger and frustration at the people. He hits the rock, calling all of those assembled rebels. For his outburst, Moses is punished and told that he will be unable to lead the people into the promised land. The episode then ends with a postscript:

These are the Waters of Meribah—meaning that the Israelites quarreled with the LORD—through which He affirmed His sanctity. (Numbers 20:13)

However, our Rabbis are unsettled by this description. They understand the profound truth of Heraclitus. If someone wrote these words after the episode at Meribah, then the waters that continue to pour forth from the rock until this day are not the “waters of quarrel.” Those spilled a long time ago. They must be other. Why then, would the tradition call all waters from this oasis “Waters of Meribah?”

To answer this question they introduce a parable:

This can be compared to the son of the king who took a stone and blinded his eye. The king would say about every stone, “This is the stone that blinded my son’s eye.” This is why it is stated, “These are the water of dispute, where the Children of Israel contended [with God]. (Midrash Tanchuma Chukat 11)

In essence, the insight of the Rabbis is that mundane object can become vehicles for relived trauma. The king was profoundly scarred when his son was blinded. And from that day forward, stones came to symbolize for him the pain of his sons injury. Though ordinary, these everyday natural entities became insidious mnemonics for him. Every time he would see them, even if they looked nothing like the stone that blinded his son, he would be reminded of what it meant not to be able to protect his child from harm. These rocks would prompt him to think about the danger and injustice of the world.

Likewise, a trauma occurred at Meribah. And though water is often thought of in the Jewish tradition as living, cleansing, and pure, from the point of view of Moses and the generations to follow it is also tainted. Every time Jews enter a Mikveh, every time they wash their hands, each Rosh Hashanah during Tashlich, we face the source of Jewish discord and remember the downfall of Moses. All water is that water. The river is the same, wherever we step in it.

The mundane can carry tremendous burdens. As someone who watched, at a young age, as a dog was stopped inches from attacking my sister, I understand what it means to fear all dogs because of one dog. It took well into my adult years before I was able to see each individual dog for who he or she is.

Yet, though this kind of transference is a natural human phenomenon, it often stands in the way of enjoying the world as it is. It’s one thing to have rocks and water trigger fears and regrets, but all too often we invest people with the power to remind us of our traumas as well. A bad experience with a boss or girlfriend, neighbor or teacher can taint all others who stand in their place. And when that happens, our past torments can keep us from ever getting close to others and to developing relationships of meaning.

The task of those suffering from trauma is to situate our troubles in a place and time, to know that the rock that blinded the king's son lies helplessly over there, the water that sealed Moses’ fate has already been drunk by the thirsty desert sands, the person who hurt you so long ago lives in a different place and time.

Doing this will give you the courage, so that when you are ready, you might step back in the river and greet the brand new current.

 For more writings by Rabbi Katz check out his book, The Heart of Loneliness or his blog