We read in Parashat Chukat of Benei Yisrael’s complaints after the Edomite kingdom rejected their request of passage, and were forced to circumvent the territory of Edom. They came to Moshe and cried, “Why did you bring us from Egypt to die in the wilderness, for there is no bread or water, and we loathe this worthless bread” (21:6). God punished the people by unleashing a deadly swarm of snakes that killed many members of the nation.
Benei Yisrael introduced their complaint by noting the absence of “bread and water,” and then clarified that although they had “bread,” in the form of manna, they “loathed” it and desired normal bread. The question arises, however, as to how they justified their charge that they had no water. As opposed to the story of Mei Meriva, which appears earlier in the parasha, where the Torah explicitly tells that the people had no water (“ve-lo haya mayim la-eida” – 20:2), in this instance it appears that they had water. It is commonly assumed that the rock which Moshe struck in Refidim shortly after the Exodus to produce water (Shemot 17:1-7) continued miraculously providing water until Miriam’s death, and the rock struck by Moshe at Mei Meriva continued providing water throughout the remaining year of the nation’s sojourn in the wilderness. Why, then, did the people claim that they had no water?
One possibility, perhaps, is that the people expressed their growing dissatisfaction with the supernatural conditions in which they lived in the wilderness. They had anticipated crossing through the territory of Edom and quickly arriving in Eretz Yisrael, where they would transition to a natural mode of existence, tilling the land and establishing an agricultural infrastructure in the land. As they found themselves backtracking to circumvent Edom, realizing that they were still far from their destination, they became exasperated and impatient with their prolonged period of supernatural living. Rather than being sustained by heavenly manna and a miraculous, traveling well, they wanted to drink rainwater and to eat bread which they produced from the earth. And thus when they complained, “There is no water,” they meant that there was no natural rainwater, and they were tired of relying on God’s supernatural provision of sustenance.
Alternatively, it has been suggested (see Rav Moshe Rubenstein’s Parperet Moshe) that Benei Yisrael complained here not about a current water shortage, but rather about their fears for the immediate future. As mentioned, the well that had miraculously provided water over the previous thirty-nine years stopped flowing when Miriam passed away, and Chazal explain that the water had been provided in the merit of her piety, and so it ceased once she left this world. The people thus may have feared that now that Miriam’s brother, Aharon, the kohen gadol, passed away, as the Torah relates several verses earlier (2:22-29), their miraculous well would once again run dry. Although there was no indication that this would happen, the people feared that they would soon find themselves without water.
If so, then Benei Yisrael were guilty here of two very common forms of negativity: failing to appreciate one’s blessings, and fretting about the future. They expressed their disgust with the miraculous manna which God sent them from the heavens each morning, and they expressed their baseless concern about the possibility that they would lose their water source. Indeed, these two tendencies are often correlated. When we look at our lives and our conditions with negativity, we focus on what we do not have, rather than feel content over what we do have, and we also find ourselves anxious about what the future will bring. Benei Yisrael’s punishment thus teaches us the importance of feeling optimistic and upbeat about both the present and the future. We should look happily and contentedly at our current conditions, imperfect as they may be, and avoid unwarranted anxiety about what the future holds.