Torah portion: Time flies
The latest essay by our Rabbi Lisa Edwards on this week’s torah portion, Chukat, was published today in the Jewish Journal. Read it below.
I attended a memorial for a beloved colleague recently, and his widow remembered how at funerals he would invite people not to look at the birth and death dates on memorial plaques and grave markers, but to focus on the dash between the dates — that’s the part that matters.
This week, in our annual reading of Parashat Chukat in the Book of Numbers, we encounter what we might call the dash between the dates. Numbers seems to tell the story of the Israelites’ 40 years in the desert — their high and low points, that first generation’s most colorful characters, their learning to live in relationship with each other, with laws, with God.
The opening words of Numbers, which we read a few weeks ago, tell us the date: “On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt …” (Numbers 1:1). And its end chapters will place us in the last few months of the 40th year. But in the middle comes barely a mention of what transpired in the intervening 38 years.
Chukat “dashes” from the second year to the 40th year with only a vague acknowledgment that it is doing so. One chapter into the portion, we receive the briefest of death notices: “Miriam died there and was buried there” (Numbers 20:1). In fact, two of the three sibling leaders of the Israelites (Miriam and Aaron) die in this Torah portion — deaths we later learn happen in the 40th year. Also in Chukat, Moses himself is told by God that he will die soon — at the end of the 40 years in the wilderness, before the Israelites enter the Promised Land.
Included also in this parasha is a long list of where the Israelites stopped to camp along the way during their 40-year journey in the wilderness. Some of these places appear only here, and we’re not told why the people stay there or what happened.
Amid the list of such places comes the phrase u’mi-midbar Mattanah(Numbers 21:18). The midrash writers take note that u’mi-midbarmeans, literally, “from the wilderness,” and “mattanah” means “a gift,” so they looked for a different reading, a different meaning for these words other than just as place names.