Parshat Chukat: But It Was Only a Rock!
Over the past 15 months, I have begun talking to the television more and more — I never used to talk to the television. I always found it amusing when I heard other people warn the characters in a movie not to go into the basement because the killer is hiding there. But now, I can honestly say that my view of how I watch television has changed. In fact, I’ve noticed that all the time spent watching our devices these days has resulted in many changes in how people interact with what they see on their screens.
While I have begun to interact with the television screen as if the people I’m seeing are actually on Zoom, and therefore I can speak to them, I’ve noticed the opposite has happened to other people. Some of my colleagues have mentioned that when they teach on Zoom, their students sit back in their chairs and watch the class, expecting it to unfold the way a television show would unfold. There is less interaction, less conversation, almost no dialogue. The students are watching their computer screens the same way they are watching their television screens, and the expectations have transferred.
I am guilty of the opposite. Since I teach often on Zoom, I have developed the habit of talking to any screen I see. I have become that person who warns the characters in the movie not to go to the basement (though you have to wonder about a script where none of these characters don’t seem to know not to go to the basement…but I digress).
It raises the question of how, and why, we would consider talking to an inanimate object at all. Yet, many times we do. If our car won’t start, we try to persuade it with our words. On some level, we build relationships with the material things around us. But we will always view them as objects, and so we do not judge if someone is rude to their computer, or perhaps strikes a rock in their garden.
Which can only raise the question of the incident in this week’s Torah reading, parshat Chukat, when Moses is told by God to speak to a rock and bring water for the people, but instead, Moses hits the rock. As a result, God tells Moses he will never enter Israel, and we all wonder how the consequences could possibly fit the action — it was only a rock!
While we are bewildered at the imbalance of it, the midrash introduces an entirely new nuance to us. This was no ordinary rock. According to the midrash, the entire time we’re in the desert, there’s a well providing water for us. This was Miriam’s Well, and it was a gift to Israel that was based on the merit of Miriam. Wherever Israel travelled, the rock was carried with them. When Israel camped, the rock was placed in the centre of the encampment and all the tribal leaders came to the rock, staff in hand. Together, each leader drew a line in the sand with their staff from the rock to their tribe’s camp. Once all the lines were drawn, water flowed from the rock into the lines, and irrigated the camp. Miriam’s Well sustained everyone in the desert. Her lifelong bond with water was embodied in the rock that manifested her guardianship.
But then Miriam died, the water stopped, and all of Israel complained to Moses. The rock won’t release the water without her. God tells Moses to speak to the rock and show Israel that the material world around them can be elevated to holiness. Moses was to model the potential that exists when we elevate the mundane to the holy.
Unfortunately, Moses repeated a pattern he learned in Egypt. When he first saw an Egyptian beating an Israelite slave, he killed the Egyptian. But, being raised in Pharaoh’s palace afforded Moses the authority to command the Egyptian to stop, yet he responded with violence. When Moses breaks the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, he is again resorting to a moment of violence, and now, standing by the rock with all the people getting impatient and angry, Moses, again, chooses an expression of power over an expression of conciliation.
Moses’ upbringing as an Egyptian prince makes him the perfect leader for the Israelite slaves, but those same attributes make him the wrong leader for their children. If Moses leads the next generation into Israel, they will never leave Egypt behind. They will never see that expressing power is not always the only choice.
Judaism teaches us that the objects in our world are there to fulfill our needs, but they also show us we can elevate some moments of interaction beyond the physical.. When I talk to my television, warning fictional characters of unseen dangers, I have not actually accomplished anything. But if I view talking to the television as my way of creating a comfort level with screen interaction, opening myself to interacting with others while on Zoom, rather than remaining the silent observer, then I am learning to use the objects around me to elevate the moment.