A lot happens in this week’s parasha, and I am going to share the thought I had on the beginning of the parasha. The parasha opens with the instructions to the ritual for purifying people who come in contact with a dead body. The ritual involves cremating an unblemished red cow, and splashing a person who needs to be purified with water sprinkled with a little red cow ash. This ritual is described as a “chukat olam” – a “forever statute”.
Having detailed the ritual, the parasha returns to the narrative:
“The children of Israel and the entire nation came to the desert of Zin on the first month. And the people sat in Kadesh, and Miriam died there, and she was buried there. And the nation had no water, and they united against Moses and Aharon.
And they quarreled with Moses and Aharon, saying: “If only we had died the way our brothers before the Lord. And why have you brought God’s congregation to this desert to die there, us and our livestock?” (Numbers 20:1-4).
At first glance, it appears that the nation is worried about survival: “why did you … bring us to this bad place … and there is no water to drink” (Numbers 20:5). But they could also be upset about their inability to properly perform their newly assigned burial ritual, which requires spring water. They had just been told that they are all going to die in the desert, that they will be impure when they come in contact with a dead body, and that the only way to get pure again is to be splashed with some ash water. And then, one of the most prominent people in their community dies, and they cannot perform the purification ritual because they are stuck in a desert without water.
This may seem like a far-fetched explanation, but here is a little support for it. I highlighted the word “livestock” above, because that is the the translation for the Hebrew word “בעירנו” that the Chabbad translation provides. But I didn’t find anywhere else where that word refers to livestock (if you know otherwise let me know please), and the root of the word actually is flame, or fire – so maybe that word refers to the red cow ash, that needs water to be “alive” and working for the ritual.
Moses and Aharon are really flustered by the people’s demand for water. Although God tells them to get water by talking to the rock, Moses ends up hitting the rock, twice. Water gushes out, but God is upset and tells them that do believe in him enough, and so they won’t be completing the journey to Israel. I’m not sure how all of this ties together, and I would love to hear your thoughts!