This week’s Torah portion is Chukat. It covers a lot of ground. There are the mitzvot concerning purification with a red cow, the deaths of important individuals, and the continued wanderings in the desert, which are rife with complaining Israelites, plagues of snakes and destructions of enemies. It would be impossible to cover all of these events well in the length of this post, so instead I will am going to concentrate on a theme: water. I also want to explain some of the ways Jewish feminists have enriched our connection to water.
Water is first associated with the prophetess Miriam. Miriam is first called a prophetess in Exodus 15, when she takes the women of the community out to sing about their deliverance from Egypt by way of the Re(e)d Sea. Her “Song of the Sea” is thought to be, by many scholars, one of the oldest written texts of the Torah. Yet, the connection between Miriam and water starts earlier in the Torah. Miriam is Moses’ and Aaron’s sister and the one who watches over Moses when his mother, Joheved, hides him in a reed basket on the edge of the Nile (Exodus 2:4). She approaches the Pharaoh’s daughter to secure a milkmaid for her brother (Exodus 4:7).
In this parshah, the prophetess Miriam’s connection to water is profoundly different. Verse 20:1 announces her death, and the next verse reads, “The congregation had no water; so they assembled against Moses and Aaron,” (20:2). According to the logic of the Talmudic rabbis, those two verses are linked; the death of Miriam followed by the complaint of a lack of water means that Miriam was the source of water for the wandering Isrealites. Miriam’s spring water was not just life-sustaining but also healing. What puzzled the rabbis was how exactly Miriam could transport water through the desert. Over the years, there have been many theories: a rolling rock that traveled behind them; a rock that was carried with them that sprang water when they stopped to camp; and others.
How Miriam continuously supplied the Israelites with water may have confounded the rabbis, but they were clear on her significance in Jewish tradition. They honor her as the forebearer of King David, associate her with Puah, one of the midwives who helped save Isrealite boys, and comment on her reward in Belaalotecha when the entire camp waited for Miriam to heal from leprosy.
She was an amazing woman whose legacy survived not just the writing of the Torah but also the patriarchies of generations of its interpreters. Countless numbers of women have not been so lucky. Jewish feminists have developed a way to honor the legacy of the prophetess Miriam. At Pesach, we include a glass of spring water on the table and incorporate it into the ritual, similar to the glass of wine for Elijah. For more about the tradition, one can read here.
In this parshah, water is also associated with purity. The laws of the red cow illustrate this connection. Chukat starts with the command to find a completely red cow without blemishes who has never worked and bring it to Moses and Aaron. They are to then give it to Eleazar, the priest, to slaughter and burn. Its blood should be sprinkled at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting and then it should be burnt with crimson wool, hyssop, and cedar. These ashes should be gathered up and mixed with spring water and used for purification. Israelites, who encounter death by touch or entering a house where someone has died less than seven days before, require purification. The purification ritual lasts seven days, includes two sprinklings on the third and seventh day with this special red cow ash mixture, and ends a ritual bath to return to a state of ritual purity.
This specific ritual, at least since the destruction of the temple, is no longer performed (and for good reason). However, an aspect of this ritual, the immersion in water, still exists in Judaism: the mikvah. In fact, in many ways, the reimagining and transforming of the meanings and uses of the mikvah has become one of the most successful feminist contributions toward a more post-patriarchal Judaism. The feminist mikvah with which I am most familiar is Mayyim Hayyim. Rituals there include immersion affirming gender identities, after the end of chemotherapy, on becoming a grandmother, after one’s first menstruation, on healing from abuse, and so many more.
In summary, we find reminders of the power of water to sustain life, heal, and purify in Chukat. For one, the prophetess Miriam’s well provides the Isrealites with life-sustaining and healing spring water in the desert. The red cow ashes ritual illustrates how water is also purifying.
This healing, sustaining, and purifying water of Chukat, we also see in the contributions of Jewish feminists. One example is the inclusion in the Seder of Miriam’s cup, representing the healing, life-sustaining powers of Miriam’s well in the desert. Another is the feminist transformation of the living waters of the mikvah. These Jewish feminists innovations and transformations surely enrich our tradition.
Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University and Anglo-American University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies, Feminist and Ecofeminist courses.
All the photographs of water in this blog are by the author.