Some thoughts on the Torah portion, Chukat — also spelled: Chukkat, Chukkas, and Hukat — Numbers 19:1-22:1. This is part of a series of weekly “gathering sources” posts, collecting previous material on the weekly Torah portion, most originally part of a 2010 series called “Opening the Book”:
Great Source(s): Miriam’s Well
Language and translation: Bards? Rhapsodes?
A Path to Follow: Rise Up, O Well
Something to Notice: A Very Big White Space
See also: Then Israel Sang
Note to those trying to follow the Gathering Sources series: posting went off schedule with Shavuot. Sorry. This post comes in advance of the reading of Chukat, in most of the Diaspora on July 13, Shabbat, beginning on mincha July 6, and missing posts will appear soon.
“Then,” after safely crossing the Sea of Reeds, the Egyptians’ pursuit thwarted, “Moses and the Israelites sang…Miriam took her timbrel…and all the women followed her” (Exodus/Shemot 15:1, 20-21). “Then” — forty years later, after God tells Moses: “Assemble the people that I may give them water” (Numbers/Bamidbar 21:16) and without apparent prompting or leading — “Israel sang this song:”
Come up, O well — sing to it —
The well which the chieftans dug,
which the nobles of the people started
With maces, with their own staffs.
–Numbers/Bamidbar 21:17-18 (JPS translation**)
Miriam’s death (verse 20:1) is juxtaposed with another water crisis:
The community was without water, and they joined against Moses and Aaron. The people quarrelled with Moses, saying, “If only we had perished when our brothers perished at the instance of YHVH!…” (Numbers/Bamidbar 20:2-3)
This juxtaposition is one of the sources for the concept of “Miriam’s Well,” a movable source of water that followed the Israelites due to Miriam’s merit. (The cloud of glory, accompanying the Ark, was in Aaron’s merit; the manna, in Moses’ [Talmud tractate Ta’anit 9a].) For more on Miriam’s Well — including 15 traditional sources and one modern study — see entry #496 in Tree of Souls by Howard Schwartz (Oxford University Press, 2004).
Verse 21:27 begins the third bit of quoted poetry/song in this portion:
The portion Chukat — Bamidbar/Numbers 19:1 – 22:1 — includes a bit of poetry sometimes called the “Song of the Well” (21:17-18):
Rise up, O well!Continue Reading
(19:1) YHVH spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: This is the ritual law that YHVH has commanded…. (19:22) Whatever that impure touches shall be impure; and the person who touches the impure one shall be impure until evening.Continue Reading