By Liat Jackman
Former Shlicha (Montreal, 2003-05)

Forty years have passed.  We arrive at the desert of Zin, Miriam dies. But what is the first thing that happens? We run out of water, complain about water, and about leaving Egypt. Has nothing changed?  Have 38 years not left their mark?

Although on the surface the complaint seems the same, if we look carefully it is different. They are not complaining that they will die, as inShemot, rather that they would die here. They say “If only we had died with the death of our brothers before the Lord” (Bamidbar 20:3).  According to the Ibn Ezra, with the generation of the desert. In verse 5 they complain that they were brought out of Egypt  “to bring us to this evil place; it is not a place for seeds, or for fig trees, grapevines, or pomegranate trees”. It seems that although they are complaining about water, they are worried they will die here instead of being able to go to Eretz Israel. In parashat Shelah when the spies are sent to the land, these fruits are also mentioned; they bring back figs, grapes and pomegranates.  So here they are complaining that here is not Eretz Israel. In Shemot there was no sense of destination.

The Netsiv, Rav Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (1816–1893) in his commentary on the Torah, Haemek Davar, points out that we are now in a very different situation. For 40 years they walked in this big desert without complaining, they understood they hadnt reached their goal yet. Now suddenly they complain? Yes they don’t have water – but they have been getting all they need, so why expect it to change? He explains that in this last year G-d is gradually changing His conduct with the people. Until this year G-d provided constant miracles for daily survival. As they are transitioning into being in Eretz Israel, living a more natural life with indirect Divine Providence, there is a gradual shift to a more natural existence. Like a toddler being weaned who is fed little by little until he can eat fully on his own, so too Hashem gradually allowed us to live more naturally. When Israel saw that there was no water, they understood that it wasn’t a punishment, but to get them used to a different existence. So why complain? Because they tried to find water naturally but couldn’t! So how are they supposed to survive?

As a result, according to the Netsiv, the response to their complaint needed to be different from 40 years earlier. Moshe should take the staff, as there will be a miracle, but to talk rather then hit the rock, because He wanted Moshe to teach them what to do in times of need. How does a Jew respond to lack of water now? They come together, learn, do teshuva and pray to G-d to give them rain. So Moshe should say some Torah to all assembled and pray to G-d. After Moshe would do this, the water would come. As a result, when the people come to the land, they will know how to live without constant miracles.

Things did not happen this way. But there is a lot we can learn here. Firstly to remember how to ask Hashem for help.  Secondly, listen more carefully. To be open to hear changes, even if something sounds the same. We often hear our children and think “oh, I’ve heard this before”. Really? To try to adjust, move on, hear exactly what this specific generation is saying. This is not a simple task! We might not succeed. But we can certainly try to respond differently and allow new things to happen.

In memory of my father, Moshe ben Yehuda Aryeh z”l
whose first yahrtzeit will be this Shabbat, Parshat Chukat.