By Rabbi Ariel Abel
This week’s reading begins with the theme of ritual purity. The principle underpinning the ceremony of purification was that whoever was pure could enter the Sanctuary, and, later on in history, the Temple Mount area.
One of the details of the purification processes was that those who handled the materials involved in the ceremony required purification themselves. Why was this the case? Our sages tell us that even Moses could not understand this ritual.
For this reason, it was called a “Chukah” – a statute fixed by the Torah with no apparent logic. However, on the social level, this is quite comprehensible. The Torah recognises that volunteering to help others engage in the community involves a degree of compromise of our own levels of “purity”.
Water is needed for the purification process. Water is also a constant theme throughout this week’s reading. When the water supply runs dry, the people complain against Moshe and Aaron. Moshe hits a rock, disqualifying himself from leading the people into the Promised Land. The Israelites ask for safe passage through the lands of potential enemies, and offer to pay even for the water they consume.
The “Song of Israel” is all about a well of water, which according to tradition refers to the miraculous well of Miriam. Water is the basic essential element that allows life to sustain itself. The Land of Israel is described as unique in the Middle East as subsisting on the kindness of the Creator. Only when the Creator sends rain will crops grow.
Therefore, the period of 40 years in the desert was a preparation in faith and reliance on the Creator before settling in a land that was not irrigated by a main water artery such as the Nile in Egypt. In Torah terminology, water is more than a liquid. It is the chief symbol of faith on Providence and the desert is the resort to which the faithful, such as Elijah and Jeremiah, retreat in times of faithlessness.
The agricultural flourishing of the modern state of Israel is in itself a sign of ancient promise in the modern era, the fulfilment of biblical prophecies that the desert will bloom.
For this reason, David Ben-Gurion led by example, leaving the urban environs to retire in Sde Boker, in the Judean Desert, where he and his wife are buried.