A commentary on Numbers Chapter 20, Chukat

The legendary well that nourished the Israelites in the wilderness symbolizes the fantasy of life-sustaining natural resources coming easily to us. If only it were as easy as our ancestors’ memories would have it—just a song from the spiritual leader and water would appear.

In fact, we wouldn’t have this Midrash if it were not for the sobering realization that it just doesn’t work that way. The desert is dry and forbidding, and the precious resource of water is not only scarce, but could disappear at any moment.

The Israelites in the wilderness were cranky and complained about water because they were afraid – what would happen if they couldn’t find enough water for themselves and their animals? Their survival was at stake, and so they whined and complained – but wouldn’t we? They wanted to be secure in knowing they COULD survive, because it was not evident how they WOULD survive.

Moses’ striking the rock in frustration was understandable – this was difficult and there was no end in sight to the constant need to find and access water. “Man, I’m tired of this!” I can hear him saying as he lifted his arm fitfully. Moses’ exasperation was born of the ongoing nature of the challenge – how long could they go on like this and remain focused on their mission to be a holy nation? They needed a better system.

The fantasy that the earth will continually offer us its abundance by the mere song of a pure heart has its own parallel in our world. We human beings constantly need the natural resources of our planet. And in the age of industrialization, we came to believe that it could be easy. It’s just there for the taking – and surely we are entitled to it! We view ourselves as masters of the earth, when we are thirsty, we demand that the earth provide it to us.

When we need minerals, we only have to dig and mine and take what we want.

When we need oil, we only need to drill.

God gave us this world, and we have learned how to manipulate, access and take what we deem to be ours to use. Isn’t that why the earth’s resources are here?

Well, Moses learned differently. The water was not easily available because the world just doesn’t give us everything easily or without a cost. The earth is not just a playground for our pleasure. It offers us what we need to survive, and we can access that if we use our hearts and minds to understand and appreciate the interconnectedness of all of creation. Accessing the earths’ rich treasures must be done in the context of remembering the essential spiritual truth that the “earth is God’s and the fullness thereof.” Once we begin to take that for granted, we can harm and destroy the earth. And then our lives are as much at stake as the planet itself.

We too need a new system. Today our survival, indeed the survival of our ecosystem and the earth, is threatened by the arrogance and greed of those who have felt entitled to just TAKE and USE the earth’s resources without regard to interconnectedness of creation. It is a system that discounts or dismisses the spiritual value that the earth is God’s, and it is ours to preserve and protect for the generations that follow us.

We are NOT the masters of the universe. We need God’s help. And we need thoughtful leaders of pure heart, like Miriam, to help us access the resources that the earth offers us. Unfortunately, we have a lot to do to fix the mess we have made so that such leaders can emerge and nourish us.

These weeks since the oil began gushing in the Gulf of Mexico, we have been reminded of the urgency of the need for change. It’s not just about this spill — it’s about the damage and devastation brought by callous, arrogant industrial concerns all around the world which poison our earth, our ecosystem and our environment. The story on the front page of the Times earlier this week about the routine and numerous oil spills in Africa were another wake up call to the need for dramatic re-thinking of what we really need to take from the earth and HOW. This is a problem for all the inhabitants of the earth – but we may need to lead it.
I have Moses’ staff in my hand and I am angry. But I am not going to strike the earth. This time, we will take it together as inspiration to use our voices to act on behalf of God.

This world has sustained our ancestors for countless generations. Once we learned how to extract huge quantities of resources from the ground or the water, we humans we shifted the course of history. We thought it was for the good. In many ways it was. But it also set off a chain of events that we ignore at our own peril. The humble, spiritual, life-sustaining path out of this is to hold ourselves accountable for doing whatever it takes to preserve this precious earth. We all have a lot of soul searching to do.

We are told that Moses did not get to enter the Promised Land because his loss of patience, perhaps a loss of faith, evidenced when he struck the rock. Are we going to be able to enter the Promised Land – and will it be there for our children? It all depends on what we have learned about the sacredness of the earth from the wisdom of our ancestors.

I am cranky and afraid like my ancestors in the wilderness. I am exasperated like Moses. But I am listening for the voice of Miriam to find the path toward setting us on the right course, in harmony with nature and God.