Parashat Chukat is the thirty-ninth weekly portion in the Torah and the sixth in the Book of Numbers (19:1-22:1). Notably, this is the shortest portion in Numbers at eighty-seven verses, but it contains some of the most consequential passages in the entire Torah.
Chapter 19 is dedicated to the laws of impurity resulting from contact with the dead. This requires a weeklong purification process, utilizing water which has been mixed with the ashes of a red heifer, scarlet wool, cedar and hyssop. (The last three of these are familiar to us from the purification ceremony for tzara’at in Parashat Metzora).
The rest of the portion is narrative, as the Torah describes the whirlwind of events in the first half of the fortieth year. Miriam dies and the people are left without water; Moses and Aaron strike the rock instead of speaking to it, and they are condemned to die as well—which Aaron does at the next stop. Moses seeks safe passage from Edom and is denied, leading to a detour and an attack by the Canaanites of Arad. The Israelites are thirsty once again, and they are soon given a well. They once again seek passage, this time from the Amorite King Sihon, but he attacks them, as does another Amorite monarch, Og. Israel defeats both and takes their territory, which becomes Transjordan, the East Bank.
The obvious question is what ties all of these elements together, and the answer may be as simple as H2O. “Water” is mentioned twenty-six times in the portion; “well,” six times; and “river,” five.
Indeed, this makes a lot of sense considering the fact that, in the previous portion, God strikes down sinners with the other elements of creation: fire consumes Korah’s group when it offers incense; the earth swallows up Dathan, Abiram and their families; and an airborne plague strikes the mobs which gang up on Moses and Aaron the following day.
Water is the sole remaining element which has not been a vehicle for punishing Israel; indeed, as the portion opens, it symbolizes purity and reaffirms life. That is why it is so important for Moses and Aaron to produce it by gentle speech. When Moses loses his temper instead, it creates a crisis, so that the rest of the portion is focused on the need for access to water. It concludes by the Jordan, a spot which the Israelites will continue to occupy until the end of the Torah—and of Moses’ life.
The portion from the Prophets comes from the eleventh chapter of the Book of Judges, in which Jephthah contends with the Ammonites, who want their land back three centuries after the conquest of Transjordan. Jephthah explains that Israel never attacked Ammon or Moab, but rather Sihon and Og. However, the Ammonites remain unconvinced, forcing Jephthah to fight and defeat them. While most communities conclude at this point, Yemenite Jews go on to read the last seven verses of the chapter, describing the tragedy of Jephthah’s daughter.