This week's Torah portion (Chukat) has a hidden message about how time changes us and how, if we are not paying attention, life can rush right past us and leave us unprepared for new challenges.
The first section of the portion relates the inexplicable laws of the Red Heifer (you can read more about it here), and passes quickly to the story of the Israelites in the wilderness of Tzin, again grumbling about not having enough water. The transition from one section to the other goes like this: "The entire Israelite community came to the wilderness of Tzin in the first month…" (Numbers 20:1).
However, the seemingly simple transition from the laws of the Red Heifer to the story of the water shortage hides a secret. The time it takes to get to the "first month" is not a matter of days or weeks. It is actually thirty-eight years that pass by without comment.
How do we know that the story of the Israelites' grumbling about water happened thirty-eight years after the laws of the Red Heifer? You can discover this only by peaking ahead in the book of Numbers.
The book of Numbers began by telling us that it had been two years since the Israelites left Egypt. All of the stories previous to the Red Heifer in Numbers took placed during that year. However, in the book's final portion (Mas'ei), we read a list of all the places where the Israelites camped during their forty years of wandering. There we see (in Numbers 33:36-37) that the wilderness of Tzin was the penultimate stop on their journey before coming to the edge of the frontier with the land of Israel, forty years after leaving Egypt. In the blink of an eye, thirty-eight years passed.
This passage of time helps to explain what happened in Tzin. For the second time during the Israelites' journey, Moses responded to the people's complaints about not having enough water. In the first instance (Exodus 17:1-7), forty years earlier, Moses had followed God's instructions to strike the rock to cause water to flow to slake the Israelites' thirst. In the second instance, God told Moses to "speak to the rock" to make the water flow. The text tells us, however, that Moses ignored God's instructions. He called the Israelites "rebels" and, instead of speaking to the rock, "he raised his hand and struck the rock twice" to produce the water.
What happened? Did Moses remember the long-ago success of hitting the rock and fall back on a familiar path to produce the desired result? After forty years of leading the Israelites through the wilderness, had Moses come to believe that he didn't need God's instructions anymore and he could just rely on his previous experiences? Was Moses, in his old age, just confused about what to do and followed an old and familiar pattern?
We can't be sure why Moses lost patience with the Israelites and decided to strike the rock instead of following God's instructions to speak to it. It does seem, though, that God was not pleased with Moses' choice. God tells Moses that, because of what he did at Tzin, "You shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them" (Numbers 19:12).
Thirty-eight years is either a very short time, or it is a very long time. It is short enough for Moses to believe that what worked before will work again nearly four decades later. It is short enough that it passes in the amount of time it takes to pause between two verses.
But thirty-eight years is also long enough for Moses to forget that God – not himself and his experience – is the source of his wisdom and authority. Thirty-eight years is long enough to grow weary and unkind to the people he had devoted his life to serving. Thirty-eight years may have been long enough to convince Moses that he knew it all, when, in truth, he had forgotten it all.
We may not notice the changes that can happen in us as we grow older, but those changes can take us along wrong paths and undo us. That's not an indictment against Moses or against us. It's just part of what happens in our short, temporary lives. We cannot stay forever energetic, optimistic and hopeful. Eventually – seemingly in the blink of an eye – we can grow dependent on our old tricks, cynical about the changes in the world around us, and pessimistic about the future. Maybe that's part of what happened to Moses.
Life is short. Moses took note of this when he wrote in Psalm 90, "At daybreak, [people] are like grass that renews itself… but by dusk, it withers up and dies." And, the psalm says that the days of our lives "pass by speedily and we are in darkness." Life can pass us by.
But the psalms also reminds us that, despite our tendency to lose track of time, we can find hopeful and meaning even as we age. Moses wrote, "Yes, teach us to count our days, that we may obtain a heart of wisdom" (Psalms 90:12).
We never lose the opportunity to gain in wisdom, if we have a heart to do so. If we keep our attention on that which is eternal, and not focussed on our own imperfect and brief experience, we can continue to grow wise as we grow old. The passing of days may be fleeting, but it can also teach us to continue to say "yes" to life.