Sermons and Parsha'iot           Parshat Chukat: Numbers 19:1-22:1

Summary 

This Torah portion covers 38 years of Israelite history from the return of the scouts, who spied out the Promised Land, to the deaths of Miriam and Aaron. It begins with one of the most complex and puzzling laws in the Torah: the law of the red heifer - the parah adumah. (The Torah describes this as a "chukat ha-Torah" - a ritual law which cannot be derived from human reason - and from this phrase comes the name of this week'sparasha.) A red heifer without blemish was to be taken outside the camp and slaughtered. In its entirety, it was burned to ashes (along with cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson fluff). The ashes of this heifer, when mixed with water, were the only way for a person to become ritually clean after having come in contact with a corpse. The water-and-ashes were also used to purify a tent that had held a corpse. The mystery of this ritual was that any person (presumably the officiating priest) involved in this cleansing ritual became, himself, unclean until the evening.

In Chapter 20 the Israelites arrived in the wilderness of Zin and camped at Kadesh. Miriam, the sister of Moses, died and was buried there. The people complained that there was no water, and that the wretched place in which they found themselves also lacked grain, figs, vines and pomegranates. In response, God told Moses to take his rod, to gather the people, and then to order a rock to produce water as a miraculous sign of God's providence. But instead of speaking to the rock as God had instructed, Moses struck the rock twice with his staff. Water did pour forth from the rock, but God decreed that because of their actions Moses and Aaron showed a lack of faith; therefore they would not be allowed to enter the Promised Land. This place became known as the waters of Meribah, meaning "waters of strife."

At Mount Hor Aaron died. The Israelites mourned his death for 30 days. (The 30-day mourning period - called sheloshim - is still important in Jewish ritual.) Afterwards, Moses removed Aaron's sacred vestments and dressed Eleazar, Aaron's son, who succeeded him as High Priest. The people again complained against Moses. In punishment, God sent poisonous serpents against them, and many of them died. After the people repented quickly, God instructed Moses to make a copper serpent and to mount it on a pole. All who look at it recovered from their snake bites.

The Israelites continued on their journey toward the Promised Land, and successfully engaged in three battles: over Arad, over the Amorites, and over Og, king of Bashan. The Israelites then marched on to Moab, and encamped across the Jordan from Jericho. 

Commentary

  • The purpose and origin of the law of the red heifer are somewhat mysterious. Even the rabbis had difficulty explaining how its ashes could make the unclean pure. They taught that this type of law tests the obedience of the people, for they are asked to observe a commandment that does not appear to have a logical basis. The Midrash relates that though King Solomon was wiser than all men when it came to the section of the red heifer he admitted: "I said, `I will get wisdom,' but it is far from me." 

  • As soon as Miriam died, the Israelites began complaining that they had no water. The Midrash explains that a well was provided to the Israelites during their wanderings because of the good deeds of the prophetess Miriam. She prophesied that Moses would be born, she guarded the infant Moses as he floated down the Nile, and she sang the song of victory at the Sea of Reeds. For these deeds, the people merited their perpetual traveling water source, which was called Miriam's Well. With Miriam's death, the well disappeared leaving the people without water. Rabbi Yohanan said: The well also used to water all kinds of garden herbs, all kinds of seeds for planting, and all varieties of trees. You can see for yourself that it was so, for after Miriam died and the well stopped watering plants, the people said, "This is no longer a place of seed, of figs, or of vines." (Sefer Ha-Aggadah

Some Thoughts and Questions:

  1. The laws of the red heifer were never clearly understood, but such a law tested the obedience of the Israelites. Are there rules and laws which you must follow in your life (at home, at work or at school; as an American or as a Jew) that don't seem to make sense? What are they? Discuss your family rules and the reasons that they are rules for your family. Do you think any of the rules your family has are to test the obedience of the children? Why or why not? 

  2. The ritual of the Red Heifer, of course, fell into disuse after the destruction of  the Temple in Jerusalem. In our own time, however, there are a few people (ultra-Orthodox Jews in league with fundamentalist Christians) who are preparing for the rebuilding of a third Temple on the site of the Dome of the Rock. To this end, they are busy trying to selectively breed a perfect red heifer. Do you see them as mystic visionaries or as  dangerous extremists liable to ignite the Mid-East in an all-out war of religion. 

  3. The focus of the incident at the waters of Meribah is the divine decree that neither Moses nor Aaron shall live to enter the Promised Land. Striking a rock rather than speaking to it does not seem a justifiable reason for Moses to be excluded from the land. Yet, four times the Torah identifies this incident as the cause of Moses and Aaron's exclusion from the Promised Land (Numbers 20:12, 20:24, 27:14, and Deuteronomy 32:51).

    According to Ramban (i.e., Nachmanides) Moses and Aaron's sin was in forgetting that they were to serve as role models for the Israelites. When they exploded in anger at Meribah, they misled the people into believing that uncontrolled anger is allowed in a leader. God had not shown anger at the people's need for water; and because of Moses' behavior, the Israelites might imagine God as an angry deity, devoid of compassion for the people. For his part, Rabbi Levi Isaac of Berdichev maintained that Moses and Aaron were punished for how they expressed their criticism of the Israelites. When they gathered the people before them, Moses insulted them by saying: "Listen, you rebels."

    Does leadership demand a higher degree of righteousness and self-control than is required from the rest of society? What do you do when you get very angry? Can you think of some constructive ways to let people know what made/makes you angry? 

  4. Our teacher Hillel said, "Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace; be one who loves others and draws them near to the Torah" (Pirkei Avot 1:12). The Midrash says that when Aaron saw two people arguing, he spoke to each separately, saying "You do not know how much the person you argued with regrets what happened!" As a result, when the arguers met they greeted each other as friends. If Aaron heard that someone was breaking a commandment, he would visit the person, speak to him as a friend, behaving kindly and warmly. If the person was tempted to break a commandment again, the thought of Aaron and his friendship would prevent the transgression. What is the difference between loving peace and pursuing peace? Share examples which illustrate the difference. How can you be an Ohev Shalom, Lover of Peace, and a Rodef Shalom, Pursuer of Peace? How do you show that you love others?