As a teacher in high school and also as an Israeli, I hear every day complaints about the situation in Israel, about some of the problems that appear in the Jewish law or in the Israeli law. When I answer my students- I always say: don’t be like the people of Israel in the wilderness- don’t complain and that's it- do and change the reality that you are complaining about!
One of the most famous complaints in the wilderness was about the lack of water- the first is found in Exodus 17, as written:
"וַיִּסְעוּ כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּדְבַּר-סִין, לְמַסְעֵיהֶם--עַל-פִּי יְהוָה; וַיַּחֲנוּ, בִּרְפִידִים, וְאֵין מַיִם, לִשְׁתֹּת הָעָם. וַיָּרֶב הָעָם, עִם-מֹשֶׁה, וַיֹּאמְרוּ, תְּנוּ-לָנוּ מַיִם וְנִשְׁתֶּה; וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם, מֹשֶׁה, מַה-תְּרִיבוּן עִמָּדִי, מַה-תְּנַסּוּן אֶת-יְהוָה. וַיִּצְמָא שָׁם הָעָם לַמַּיִם, וַיָּלֶן הָעָם עַל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיֹּאמֶר, לָמָּה זֶּה הֶעֱלִיתָנוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם, לְהָמִית אֹתִי וְאֶת-בָּנַי וְאֶת-מִקְנַי, בַּצָּמָא. וַיִּצְעַק מֹשֶׁה אֶל-יְהוָה לֵאמֹר, מָה אֶעֱשֶׂה לָעָם הַזֶּה; עוֹד מְעַט, וּסְקָלֻנִי. וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, עֲבֹר לִפְנֵי הָעָם, וְקַח אִתְּךָ, מִזִּקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וּמַטְּךָ, אֲשֶׁר הִכִּיתָ בּוֹ אֶת-הַיְאֹר--קַח בְּיָדְךָ, וְהָלָכְתָּ. הִנְנִי עֹמֵד לְפָנֶיךָ שָּׁם עַל-הַצּוּר, בְּחֹרֵב, וְהִכִּיתָ בַצּוּר וְיָצְאוּ מִמֶּנּוּ מַיִם, וְשָׁתָה הָעָם; וַיַּעַשׂ כֵּן מֹשֶׁה, לְעֵינֵי זִקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. וַיִּקְרָא שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם, מַסָּה וּמְרִיבָה: עַל-רִיב בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְעַל נַסֹּתָם אֶת-יְהוָה לֵאמֹר, הֲיֵשׁ יְהוָה בְּקִרְבֵּנוּ, אִם-אָיִן"
"The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, traveling from place to place as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. So they quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the LORD to the test?” But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?”Then Moses cried out to the LORD, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The LORD answered Moses, “Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he called the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the LORD saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”(Exodus 17:1-7)
When the people of Israel went out of Egypt, they followed him probably because of the miracles that he did with the help of G-d. At that point, the Israelites are after crossing the red sea and before they got the Torah and the Ten Commandments from G-d in Exodus 20. Maybe they believe in G-d as written at the end of chapter 14 (Exodus 14:31), but they didn’t show their commitment to G-d, due to the lack of covenant. I want to suggest here that the lack of water caused them not just physical problems, but also to a spiritual problem. In the Hebrew Bible, Isaiah in his words about the future, said:
"לֹא-יָרֵעוּ וְלֹא-יַשְׁחִיתוּ, בְּכָל-הַר קָדְשִׁי: כִּי-מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ, דֵּעָה אֶת-יְהוָה, כַּמַּיִם,לַיָּם מְכַסִּים."
"They will neither harm nor destroy on my entire holy mountain; for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea."(Isaiah 11:9)
Where there's water there's a belief in G-d. When they lost the water in the wilderness they tried G-d according to the words above.
We next meet these complaints about water in Numbers 20: 1-13, as written:
" וַיָּבֹאוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל כָּל-הָעֵדָה מִדְבַּר-צִן, בַּחֹדֶשׁ הָרִאשׁוֹן, וַיֵּשֶׁב הָעָם, בְּקָדֵשׁ; וַתָּמָת שָׁם מִרְיָם, וַתִּקָּבֵר שָׁם. וְלֹא-הָיָה מַיִם, לָעֵדָה; וַיִּקָּהֲלוּ, עַל-מֹשֶׁה וְעַל-אַהֲרֹן. וַיָּרֶב הָעָם, עִם-מֹשֶׁה; וַיֹּאמְרוּ לֵאמֹר, וְלוּ גָוַעְנוּ בִּגְוַע אַחֵינוּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה. וְלָמָה הֲבֵאתֶם אֶת-קְהַל יְהוָה, אֶל-הַמִּדְבָּר הַזֶּה, לָמוּת שָׁם, אֲנַחְנוּ וּבְעִירֵנוּ. וְלָמָה הֶעֱלִיתֻנוּ, מִמִּצְרַיִם, לְהָבִיא אֹתָנוּ, אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם הָרָע הַזֶּה: לֹא מְקוֹם זֶרַע, וּתְאֵנָה וְגֶפֶן וְרִמּוֹן, וּמַיִם אַיִן, לִשְׁתּוֹת. וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן מִפְּנֵי הַקָּהָל, אֶל-פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, וַיִּפְּלוּ, עַל-פְּנֵיהֶם; וַיֵּרָא כְבוֹד-יְהוָה, אֲלֵיהֶם. וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. קַח אֶת-הַמַּטֶּה, וְהַקְהֵל אֶת-הָעֵדָה אַתָּה וְאַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ, וְדִבַּרְתֶּם אֶל-הַסֶּלַע לְעֵינֵיהֶם, וְנָתַן מֵימָיו; וְהוֹצֵאתָ לָהֶם מַיִם מִן-הַסֶּלַע, וְהִשְׁקִיתָ אֶת-הָעֵדָה וְאֶת-בְּעִירָם. וַיִּקַּח מֹשֶׁה אֶת-הַמַּטֶּה, מִלִּפְנֵי יְהוָה, כַּאֲשֶׁר, צִוָּהוּ. וַיַּקְהִלוּ מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן, אֶת-הַקָּהָל--אֶל-פְּנֵי הַסָּלַע; וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם, שִׁמְעוּ-נָא הַמֹּרִים--הֲמִן-הַסֶּלַע הַזֶּה, נוֹצִיא לָכֶם מָיִם. וַיָּרֶם מֹשֶׁה אֶת-יָדוֹ, וַיַּךְ אֶת-הַסֶּלַע בְּמַטֵּהוּ--פַּעֲמָיִם; וַיֵּצְאוּ מַיִם רַבִּים, וַתֵּשְׁתְּ הָעֵדָה וּבְעִירָם. וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל-אַהֲרֹן, יַעַן לֹא-הֶאֱמַנְתֶּם בִּי, לְהַקְדִּישֵׁנִי לְעֵינֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל--לָכֵן, לֹא תָבִיאוּ אֶת-הַקָּהָל הַזֶּה, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַתִּי לָהֶם. הֵמָּה מֵי מְרִיבָה, אֲשֶׁר-רָבוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-יְהוָה; וַיִּקָּדֵשׁ, בָּם"
"In the first month the whole Israelite community arrived at the Desert of Zin, and they stayed at Kadesh. There Miriam died and was buried.Now there was no water for the community, and the people gathered in opposition to Moses and Aaron. They quarreled with Moses and said, “If only we had died when our brothers fell dead before the LORD! Why did you bring the LORD’s community into this wilderness, that we and our livestock should die here? Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to this terrible place? It has no grain or figs, grapevines or pomegranates. And there is no water to drink! ”Moses and Aaron went from the assembly to the entrance to the tent of meeting and fell facedown, and the glory of the LORD appeared to them. The LORD said to Moses, “Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink.”So Moses took the staff from the LORD’s presence, just as he commanded him. He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank.But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.” These were the waters of Meribah, where the Israelites quarreled with the LORD and where he was proved holy among them. "
The lack of water here created a new reality for Moses- from a leader that is sure and confident to a leader that needs the help of G-d to solve the problem of his people that already said "I do" – when G-d asked them to be his people. When Moses didn’t realize that he is one of the people that said those two words, he gained water but lost the opportunity to enter the Promised Land.
Want to hear more about water? Join us to the Biblical Hebrew Summit and learn about the family of Moses. One of the lectures revolves around the water in Miriam's life.
See you there, Eli.