Priceless Gold Reduced To Ashes
ושרף את הפרה… את ערה ואת בשרה ואת דמה על פרשה ישרף
“Someone shall burn the cow before his eyes, its hide, and its flesh, and its blood; with its dung, shall he burn.” (Bamidbar 19:5)
A woman was a servant in the king’s palace. One day, the woman’s toddler was playing in the palace, when he soiled the pristine, polished floor. The king saw the foul sight and immediately demanded that the child’s mother — and no one else — come clean up the mess. Similarly, after the sin of the Golden Calf, G-d spoke to Moses and Aaron, commanding the Jewish people to observe the mitzvah of the Red Heifer sacrifice with the intent that it should serve to “clean up” the sin of the Golden Calf.
Rashi develops many parallels between the Ref Heifer (the ashes of which were used to purify the impure) and the Golden Calf. Just as the Golden Calf was fashioned by fire, the body of the Red Heifer was to be consumed by fire. Rabbi Goldwasser points out an interesting contrast between these two cows. The making of the Golden Calf involved a transformation from an inanimate object (gold) into something that became alive, through fire. On the other hand, the ashes that were needed to carry out the Red Heifer sacrifice came about in a reverse process: something alive would, through fire, become inanimate (ashes). Rabbi Yaakov Yisroel Bifus comments (Lekach Tov) that one can see that the power of fire (and other elements of nature such as water, wind, and earth) can be used to build the world or destroy it.
On a deeper level, the relationship between the Red Heifer and the Golden Calf teaches us that what may first appear to be act of destruction may really be an act of creation. In the case of the burning of the Red Heifer, an opportunity is created — the opportunity to reclaim purity. Similarly, what might appear on the surface to be an act of creation may, in fact, be destruction, such as the almost irreversible damage that ensued because of the Golden Calf.
Immediately before the outbreak of the Second World War, a yeshivah student took a long walk in the forest. Unbeknownst to him, he crossed over the Russian border. He was arrested, charged with treason, and incarcerated for five long years. Denied contact with his family and friends, he paced his prison cell, questioning what he could have done to deserve all his anguish and suffering. Upon his release after the war, he made his way back to the yeshivah and discovered that all of the other students, as well as the rabbis, had been shot, leaving him the only survivor. Being arrested and put in prison, accused of a crime he was not guilty of, was in reality an act that saved him from certain death.
World events and even small events in our lives that appear devastating may, in fact, be the preliminary stages for creating new opportunities.
The Death of the Righteous Brings Atonement
ויבאו בני ישראל כל העדה מדבר צן בחדש הראשון וישב העם בקדש ותמת שם מרים ותקבר שם ולא היה מים לעדה ויקהלו על משה ועל אהרן
“The Children of Israel, the whole assembly, arrived at the Wilderness of Zin in the first month, and the people settled in Kadesh. Miriam died there, and she was buried there. There was no water for the assembly, and they gathered against Moses and Aaron.” (Bamidbar 20:1-2)
This week’s portion, Chukat, opens with the laws of the Red Heifer, which describe how a person reestablishes ritual purity after having become impure via contact with the dead. Then, in an unusual shift, the narrative jumps ahead thirty-eight years to the death of Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, and a righteous woman in her own right.
Rashi comments that the juxtaposition of the Red Heifer and the death of Miriam teaches that just as the offerings brought on the Altar bring atonement for the nation, so too, the deaths of righteous people atone for the nation (Talmud, Moed Katan, 28A).
Immediately following the death of Miriam, the verse states that there was no water for the nation. For nearly forty years, the Jewish people had been supplied with water by means of a miraculous well, which followed them in their travels in the desert. With Miriam’s passing, the well ran dry.
Rashi explains that this was a deliberate message from G-d to the Jewish people. In essence, G-d was informing the nation that the water had come to them entirely through Miriam’s merit. They had failed to appreciate that properly, and now that she was gone, so too was this miraculous source of water.
In light of Rashi’s understanding, these events raise a question. Atonement is usually associated with G-d’s kindness and forgiveness. Indeed, Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, when the Jewish people are forgiven for their sins.
Here, however, the death of Miriam appeared to have had the opposite effect. Instead of being forgiven, the Jewish people were deprived of their source of water. How can this apparent contradiction in Rashi’s understanding of these events be resolved?
The first step is to take a deeper look at the concept of atonement, as it applies to the death of righteous people.
Rabbi Meir Simcha Hakohen of Dvinsk (1843 – 1926) explains that the sprinkling of the ashes of the Red Heifer (together with the water) brought about purity after contact with the dead. Likewise, doing teshuvah (repenting and improving one’s ways) brings about purity as well. When a righteous person dies, it should cause us to pause and consider the ramifications of the loss. The realization that even the righteous among us eventually pass on, should spark stirrings of repentance within each person to make improvements in his or her conduct and character.
When this repentance happens on a national scale, atonement is achieved. However, if this realization does not occur, then the passing of the righteous person will not bring about atonement.
Rabbi Moshe Alshich (1508 – 1593) notes that the Jewish people did not shed tears for Miriam when she died, as they did for Moses and Aaron upon their passing. This distinction indicates that they had not properly valued and appreciated Miriam, and thus G-d dried up the waters of the well to emphasize the strength of her merit that they had now lost.
There are also times when a righteous person will choose to disguise his actions for reasons of personal modesty and humility. This, too, can result in the nation not properly taking stock when a righteous person dies. The following story illustrates this point:
In the city of Cracow, there once lived a wealthy Jew named Shimon. His wealth was well known to the people of the city. Unfortunately, so was his stinginess, thus branding him as ‘Shimon the Miser.’ When he passed away, he was buried in a disgraceful manner on the outskirts of the cemetery, which was set aside for the lowly members of the town.
The Friday afternoon following the funeral, the Rabbi of Cracow, Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman Heller (1579 – 1654), sat in his home engaged in Torah study. Suddenly, one of the poor men of Cracow was at his door. “Rabbi, could you please help me? This week, I don’t have even one coin in order to buy food for Shabbat.”
“What do you mean by this week?” asked Rabbi Heller. “What did you do until this week?”
“Until this week,” the poor man answered, “every Friday morning, I would find a parcel under my door containing the amount of money I needed to buy food for Shabbat. Yet this morning, there was nothing!”
At that moment, another pauper walked in. He, too, came to ask for money for Shabbat. He was followed by another pauper and yet another.
The Rabbi immediately understood that Shimon had apparently provided scores of Cracow’s poor with money for their Shabbat needs, but he had done so in secrecy.
The Rabbi then called for the entire community to gather in the synagogue. Wrapped in a tallis, the Rabbi opened the ark and declared, “We, the people of Cracow, are gathered here today to beg forgiveness from one of the righteous who lived in our midst. His greatness went unnoticed by us. We denigrated him and called him ‘The Miser.’
“In the name of the entire community,” cried the Rabbi, “I hereby beg for total forgiveness from Shimon, who was a righteous and holy Jew!”
Years later, when Rabbi Heller was nearing death, he requested to be buried next to the righteous Shimon.
Our generation is the last generation to have contact with Jews who had lived through the time of the Holocaust. Many Jews of that generation undertook, with great struggle and self-sacrifice, to rebuild their lives, their families and the Jewish community after the many years of suffering.
Many of these people performed quiet acts of heroism, both during the Holocaust and throughout their lives, which they may not have fully shared with their children or grandchildren.
We would be remiss if we did not take note of the passing of these special individuals and their generation. Their passing should cause us to reflect, celebrate their lives, and to draw inspiration as to the kind of legacy we wish to create for future generations of our own. With our own repentance and desire to grow, we can ensure that G-d’s spring of blessing will never cease to flow.
Drought Leads to Confusion and Anger
וירם משה את ידו ויך את הסלע במטהו פעמים ויצאו מים רבים…
“Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock with his staff twice; abundant water came forth…” (Bamidbar 20:11)
For 40 years in the desert, the Jewish people were miraculously provided with water from the Well of Miriam, which existed in the merit of Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron. When Miriam died, the well dried up, and the Jewish people complained. G-d told Moses to gather the Jews and to speak to a rock which would spout forth water, thus sanctifying G-d’s name.
Moses gathered the people, but instead of speaking to the rock, he hit it. G-d grew angry with Moses because he failed to follow His command and honor Him in the eyes of the people. He punished Moses, saying he would not lead the Jews into Israel and would die in the desert.
There are three glaring questions: One, why didn’t Moses do what G-d told him? Two, why did G-d care if the miracle came through hitting the rock or through speaking to it? Three, why did G-d punish Moses in a manner that seemed to punish the entire nation, depriving them of their leader?
After Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge, G-d removed him from the Garden of Eden (Bereishit 3:24) and placed a special sword at its entrance. This marked a turning point in human history. G-d’s original plan was for the world to run by His word alone: He would command, and humans would listen. When Adam disregarded G-d’s word and ate the forbidden fruit, G-d changed the order of the world so that it would run not by His word, but by His sword. Since then, the history of man has been dominated by the sword—thousands of years of battle, conquest, and forced rule.
The Jews were about to enter the land of Israel after 40 years of a spiritual existence, sustained by spiritual food, water, and protection. They were on such a high level that G-d wanted to restore the world to its previously exalted state, run by His word. He commanded Moses to speak to the rock in front of all the Jews so that they should see that the word of G-d would once again conduct world affairs and even nature itself.
Moses, however, having witnessed so many of the Jews’ rebellions and failings, did not feel they were ready to follow the word of G-d so precisely. He hit the rock, symbolizing his perception that the Jews were only capable of living in a world run by the sword. Even though his intentions were good, ultimately this act showed Moses’s lack of faith in their ability to live in a higher state. G-d did not allow Moses to lead the Jews into Israel, because a leader who doesn’t fully believe in his people will never successfully raise them to higher spiritual levels.
The lesson for us is clear. If we want to inspire others or be regarded as a leader—whether in our workplace, family, or classroom—we have to truly believe in the people we are trying to lead. This will inspire them to live up to the ideals we set for them. This will further facilitate our role in the world as the people whose ultimate purpose is to return this world to one in which it is G-d’s word and not the sword that shapes the destiny of mankind.
Do the Right Thing
על כן יאמרו המשלים באו חשבון תבנה ותכונן עיר סיחון
“Therefore, the rulers would say: Come to Cheshbon, let it be built and established as the city of Sichon.” (Bamidbar 21:27)
On a literal level, this enigmatic verse discusses the battles between two of the non-Jewish peoples who lived at this time and commemorates the victory of one over the other. However, the Talmud (Bava Batra 78b) homiletically reinterprets our verse as coming to teach an important life lesson in values and priorities.
The Talmud explains that the verse can be read as quoting not rulers over kingdoms, but rather rulers over their own base instincts and evil inclinations. The words which literally mean “come to Cheshbon” refer not to the name of a city but to the importance of making a reckoning. The Torah is thus quoting the advice of the masters of self-control to make a reckoning of the reward for performing a mitzvah versus the loss incurred by its performance, and the potential gain from sinning relative to its downside.
The Talmud concludes that the individuals who make the appropriate calculation will be built in this world and well-established in the World to Come. While it is certainly understandable that a person who righteously makes such a reckoning will be well-compensated in the next world, in what way does a person tangibly benefit from doing so in this world?
Rabbi Shalom Schwadron (d. 1998) was once giving a speech on this very topic when a man approached him at the end of the lecture and related a story which answers our question. The man was an old Russian Jew, and his story took place just before the rise to power of the Communists. At that time, the Jews in Russia felt secure, and the man had a lucrative job in the jewelry business.
One day he was going to work a bit early when he heard somebody calling for a 10th man to complete a minyan so that somebody with yahrtzeit could say the Mourner’s Kaddish. Because he had a few minutes to spare, he agreed to be the 10th man. Much to his chagrin, when he entered the room, he saw only five other men. When he turned to leave, the man with yahrtzeit begged him to stay a few more minutes until the minyan could be completed.
After much time, the real 10th man was found, but this man was fuming at the thought of all of the money he was losing in missed business deals. Still, he assumed that there would be one quick Kaddish and then it would be all over. He was left speechless when the man with yahrtzeit proceeded to start from the very beginning of the morning prayer service. As they had only an exact minyan, he had no choice but to remain hostage, growing more livid by the moment.
When the service was finally over, he angrily ran toward his office. When he got there, he was informed that that very morning the Bolsheviks had attacked and ransacked the offices, killing most of the Jews in the process. If he hadn’t stayed to allow another Jew to say Kaddish, his kids would be saying Kaddish for him!
Many times in life we are confronted with dilemmas between what we know deep down is the “right” thing to do and what we want to do to get ahead, or what appears to be more fun. When faced with such a choice, we should follow the advice of the “rulers” to make a calculation and to realize that by doing the right thing, we stand to gain not only in the next world but also in this one.
For Discussion Around the Shabbat Table
Q: The Torah discusses a person who “scorns” the word of G-d and breaks His commandments, declaring that such a person will be cut off from G-d and his sin will be upon him (Bamidbar 15:31). The Talmud (Sanhedrin 99a) understands this verse as referring to a person who studies Torah but neglects to teach it to others. Although there is a positive mitzvah to teach Torah to others, it is difficult to understand why the failure to do so should be judged so harshly?
A: Rabbi Avrohom Yaakov Pam explains that the very fact that a person is able to keep his learning to himself reveals that he doesn’t grasp the sweetness of the Torah that he studies. If he appreciated and personally experienced its beauty and depth, he would literally be unable to contain it within himself. As proof, Rabbi Pam quotes the Chatam Sofer who writes that Moses was the only human who understood the mysteries of the purification of the Red Heifer. Nevertheless, the fact that he wasn’t permitted to share it with anyone caused him so much agony that he actually preferred not to have been privy to this mystical secret!
It follows that if a person studies Torah and doesn’t feel compelled to teach it to others, he obviously doesn’t appreciate the value of the Torah that he learned. While it is beyond our ability to fully comprehend the Torah’s harsh punishment for not sharing the Torah we study, we can certainly use this verse as a motivator to share our knowledge with others. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Rashi writes (Bamidbar 20:1) that this chapter describes a new era in the national history, as 38 years had passed since the events described up until now and all of those who were to die in the wilderness had already passed away, leaving an entire nation of righteous Jews who were to merit entering the land of Israel. If those remaining alive were righteous, why do we find that almost immediately (Bamidbar 20:2-5) they began protesting over the lack of water in a manner reminiscent of that used by the wicked who had already perished? (Keter Shlomo, Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh)
Rashi writes (Bamidbar 20:1) that the death of Miriam is juxtaposed to the section containing the laws of the red heifer in order to teach that the death of the righteous effects atonement similar to the bringing of sacrifices. Why would this lesson be taught specifically through the death of Miriam, and why would it be compared to the red heifer and not to one of the more classical sacrifices?
Q: Rashi explains (Bamidbar 20:2) that upon the death of Miriam, there was no longer any water for the people to drink as the well which had sustained them with water had only existed in the merit of Miriam. How can this be reconciled with the Gemora in Bava Metzia (86b) which states that the well was provided in the merit of Abraham’s kindness in welcoming guests and providing them with water to drink?
A: The Maharsha (Taanit 9a) answers that the well initially appeared in the merit of Abraham’s actions. However, if only for Abraham’s kind deeds, the well would have remained for a short period of time and then departed. In the merit of Miriam, the well which had come due to Abraham remained with the Jews throughout their journeys in the wilderness until her death. The Torah Temimah challenges this explanation, questioning how the merit of Miriam, who sustained the well for 40 years, could be greater than that of Abraham, who was only able to make it last a short while. One possible answer is that the first opinion maintains that initially bringing about a miracle takes infinitely more merits than sustaining it once it has already begun, and in this sense Abraham’s merits were indeed greater than those of Miriam’s. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
In denying Moses’s petition to enter the land of Israel, the Torah uses the word לכן, therefore. The Baal HaTurim writes (Bamidbar 20:12) that the word לכן has the same numerical value as מדה במדה – “measure-for-measure”. In what way was Gd’s decree that Moses and Aaron wouldn’t be allowed to enter the land of Israel considered a measure- for-measure punishment for their sin in hitting the rock to bring forth water instead of speaking to it? (Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin)
As the Jewish people were about to enter the Land of Israel, Moses sent a delegation to the kingdom of Edom (descendants of Esav). His request to pass through the land in peace was refused under threat of war, and Israel was forced to retreat.
Moses was aware of the longstanding enmity the Children of Esau held toward the Children of Jacob (Rashi, Bereishit 33:4). He was also aware of the impending military conquest. What strategic advantage was there to gain in first approaching and then having to retreat from a sworn enemy of the Jewish people?
The laws of the Para Aduma (Red Cow – see 19:1-22) introduce us to the concept of “Chukat HaTorah,” the category of Torah laws that are beyond our ability to comprehend. The Para Aduma procedure, with its ashes seemingly paradoxical property of purifying the spiritually impure while causing the previously pure agents of the Para Aduma procedure to become impure, is the ultimate Chok. A Chok (or Chukim in plural) stands in distinction from Mishpatim (literally: judgments), laws which are necessary for civilization (ex: laws against stealing, murder, etc.) and Eydot (literally: testimonies), laws which bear testimony (ex: Shabbat, which offers a weekly reminder of G-d’s creation of the world in 6 days and ceasing physical creativity on the seventh day; and Pesach (Passover), which reminds us of our miraculous redemption from bondage in Egypt).
1) As it is human nature to have a deeper appreciation for things we understand (how many people really like modern art??), why would G-d intentionally include commandments in the Torah whose rationale is beyond human comprehension?
2) Although each of the Mishpatim and Eydot have comprehensible components, many (sometimes most) of the details are beyond our ability to understand. How then are Chukim appreciably different than Eydot and Mishpatim?
The law of the Red Heifer is categorized as a chok—statute, which by definition is beyond human understanding. Rashi notes that the nations of the world will taunt the Jewish people by asking, “What is the purpose of this commandment?” In response, the Torah declares that this is a “decree of the One who gave the Torah, and it is not for anyone to question it” (Bamidbar 19:2).
- The Jewish people were founded on the principle that we are obligated to seek truth and do G-d’s will in the face of any and all challenges. Defending ourselves against the mockery of our detractors is not something we are generally taught to worry about. What benefit is there in answering such “taunting detractors” who clearly have no interest in hearing the response?
- The Torah uses the phrase “this is the chok (decree) of the Torah” in conjunction with two mitzvot: the purification of the Red Heifer, and the laws of koshering utensils (Bamidbar 31:21-24). What do they have in common, and why would this phrase be used specifically in connection with them?
Q: The mitzvah of the purification process of the parah adumah (red heifer) is considered the quintessential “chok” – a mitzvah which seems to defy human logic and which we perform only because G-d commanded us to do so. The apparently counter-intuitive nature of this mitzvah is based on the fact that the impure person upon whom the ashes of the red heifer are sprinkled becomes pure, yet the pure person who sprinkles them becomes impure in the process. Is this indeed the case?
A: The Gemora in Niddah (9a) explicitly rules that both the person upon whom the ashes are sprinkled as well as the person who does the sprinkling emerge from the process completely pure. If so, what is indeed the apparently contradictory aspect of this mitzvah? The Gemora concludes that although both of these individuals are pure, a person who carries the container with the ashes of the heifer (who may also be the person who does the sprinkling) becomes impure by doing so. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Q: Rabbi Avraham Gombiner, known as the Magen Avrohom, writes that it is the custom of pious individuals to fast on the Friday of the week in which Parshat Chukat is read, in observance of a tragic event which occurred on that day. What tragedy took place and why did it invoke this dramatic custom?
A: On this day in the year 1244, 24 cartloads of the Talmud and other holy books were publicly burned in France by non-Jews due to allegations of heretical and rebellious teaching contained therein. Rabbi Hillel of Verona, a student of the great Rabbeinu Yonah – who was living at the time – wrote in a letter that his illustrious teacher noted that just 40 days prior to this episode, the Jews had publicly burned in that very spot a number of copies of the controversial philosophical writings of Maimonides, such as Moreh Nevuchim (Guide to the Perplexed). He saw in this tragedy a Divine punishment being meted out for their actions, and viewed it as a Heavenly message supporting the legitimacy of the teachings of Maimonides. The Jews of the time regretted their actions and prayed for Divine forgiveness, thus ending the bitter controversy over the philosophical views of Maimonides.
Although fasts commemorating historical events are normally established on the calendar date on which they occurred, the Rabbis of the time mystically inquired regarding the nature of the decree, and received the cryptic reply דא גזירת אורייתא – “this is the decree of the Torah.” This is taken from Onkelos’ Aramaic translation of the second verse in Parshat Chukat(Bamidbar 19:2), a message they interpreted as alluding to the fact that the decree was connected to the day’s proximity to the reading of Parshat Chukat. The fast day was therefore established on Erev Shabbat preceding the reading of Parshat Chukat. The Magen Avrohom further notes that the terrible pogroms (commonly referred to as the Pogroms of Tach V’Tat, 1648-9) when two entire Jewish communities were brutally destroyed, also took place on the Erev Shabbat preceding Parshat Chukat. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Jumping Points for Discussion and Further Study
WHEN YOU JUST DON’T GET IT
“This is the decree of the Torah, which G-d commanded, saying; ‘Speak to the Children of Israel, and they shall take to you a completely red heifer, which is without a blemish, and upon which a yoke has not been placed.’” Bamidbar 19:1
This is the Decree of the Torah – The Torah referred to it as a “decree.” I have decreed it, and you are not permitted to question it. – Rashi
This is the Decree – Who can cause something pure to emerge from an impure source? Only G-d! Abraham the patriarch was born to Terach the idolater, King Chizkiyahu from Achaz…we’ve learned that a small outbreak of Tzaraat causes one to be pronounced impure, yet if it spreads over his entire body he is declared pure? Who could have decreed that this be so? Only the One Above…Those engaged in the preparation of the Red Heifer are rendered impure, while those upon whom its blood is sprinkled are pure? The Holy One Blessed is His Name says, ‘This is my decree and you may not question it.’ – Medrash Rabbah, Bamidbar 19:1
In the course of the study of Torah, we spend an inordinate amount of time trying to make sense of the commandments with varying degrees of success. Some commandments resonate favorably with modern man, while others leave us struggling to comprehend their rationale. The law of the Red Heifer teaches us that this inability to comprehend is no accident and must never pose a hindrance to our level of observance. For at no point in our long history did every commandment make perfect sense to us. Nevertheless, recognizing that they all stem from an impeccable source, we agreed to perform them at all times regardless of our level of comprehension. Failure to comprehend is no excuse for failure to observe.
IT’S CLEAN UP TIME
“And G-d spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying…” 19:1
Red Heifer – Why are all animal offerings brought from male and female animals, whereas the Red Heifer was brought only from females? This can be compared to the child of a maidservant who despoiled the king’s palace. They said, ‘Let the child’s mother come and clean away the filth.’ Similarly, let the heifer come and atone for the calf.” (i.e. the Golden Calf which had wrought so much harm.) – Midrash Tanchuma 8:8
“Whoever touches the corpse of any human being shall be contaminated for seven days. He shall purify himself with it (i.e. the ashes of the Red Heifer) on the third and seventh day, then he will become pure…” – Bamidbar, 19:11,12
“You shall give it to Elazar the Kohen, he shall take it outside of the camp…” – Bamidbar 19:3
The ashes of the Red Heifer were used to purify a person who had become contaminated by coming in contact with a human corpse. Yet, the Medrash explains that it is a form of atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf. What connection could there be between the two? Before the sin of the Golden Calf, the Jewish people returned to the pristine state of Adam and Eve prior to the sin of the Tree of Knowledge. This sin resulted in death becoming an inevitable facet of the human condition. The inevitability of death returned only after they’d sinned with the Golden Calf, causing them to plummet from their previous ascendant spiritual level. Consequently, contamination from a corpse exists only because of the Golden Calf, which brought about the return of death. This explains why a Heifer is called upon to clean up after “her” Calf, by removing the contamination caused by death. It also explains why the High Priest must be intimately involved in all aspects of its preparation, since the Golden Calf occurred under the leadership of Aaron, the original High Priest.
“This is the decree of the Torah, which G-d commanded…” Bamidbar 19:2
This is the Decree of the Torah – The Torah referred to it as a “decree.” I have decreed it, and you are not permitted to question it. – Rashi
Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said, “One should not say, ‘I cannot stand the meat of swine, I don’t anyhow like wearing Klayim [mixtures of wool and linen], adultery simply holds no appeal to me.’ Rather, one must say, ‘Perhaps I am tempted by these things, but what can I do? My father in Heaven decreed that I mustn’t partake of them!’” – Yalkut Shimoni, Vayikra 20:626
This is the Decree of the Torah – Although there’s nothing wrong with attempting to perceive the rationale behind the mitzvot, the ideal attitude one should adopt when performing the mitzvot is one of indifference to anything but the will of the Almighty who bade him to act in this manner. One who approaches the commandments with this attitude demonstrates a high level of subservience to the Almighty, and makes himself a worthy recipient of His blessings. – Dvash V’Chalav
D’vash V’Chalav explains that this is the reason we refer to the third meal of Shabbat as, “Shalosh Seudot” [Three meals], as opposed to the more grammatically correct title, “Seudah Shlishit” [Third meal]. Typically, one partakes of the first two meals of Shabbat with a hearty appetite, whereas the third meal which follows hard on the heels of the first two is often a struggle due to a lack of appetite. If one partakes of this meal as well, it indicates that his prior eating was not motivated solely by gastronomic pleasure. Rather, it was an attempt to glorify the Holy Shabbat, and fulfill the will of the Almighty who bade us to partake of festive meals. Otherwise, he would have readily forgone the third meal altogether. Thus, the third meal sheds a favorable light upon the first two, and is therefore credited with those as well, which is why it’s referred to as, Shalosh Seudot – Three meals, for it justifies our participation in the first two.
A UNIQUE WOMAN
“The entire congregation of the Children of Israel came to the wilderness of Zin in the first month, and the people settled in Kadesh, and Miriam died and was buried there. There was no water for the congregation, and they assembled against Moses and Aaron.” Bamidbar 20:1-2
There was no water for the congregation – From here we derive that the well that supplied them with water throughout their forty years in the desert was in Miriam’s merit. – Rashi
The entire congregation of the Children of Israel – Among this congregation were many great and pious individuals. Nevertheless, their merit was not equal to that of Miriam, for once she passed, their merit could not sustain it. – Ohr HaChaim
Amazingly, Miriam was the only woman who passed away in the desert, for the decree of death was only pronounced upon the males. Why then, did she perish when she surely was not among those who deserved to die? Medrash Asfah explains that it was due to the fact that the well only existed in her merit, and the time to remove it had finally arrived. So long however, as she was alive, her merit was too great to allow it to be removed. Therefore, she first had to be removed from the scene and only then could the well be removed. While we can never truly fathom the true breadth of her greatness, this insight from the Medrash offers us a glimpse into just how elevated a soul Miriam truly was.
NOT SO WELL
“The entire community of the Children of Israel arrived at the wilderness of Zin, in the first month. The people settled in Kadesh, and there Miriam died, and she was buried there. There was no water for the community, and they assembled against Moses and Aaron.” 20:1,2
Miriam died there – Why is the portion concerning Miriam’s death adjacent to the portion of the Red Heifer? To teach that just as the sacrificial offerings bring atonement, similarly the deaths of the righteous bring atonement. – Rashi
The entire community – The entire first generation, which had left Egypt, already passed. Their children, all righteous, were now poised to enter the Land. – Rabbeinu Bachya
There was no water – From here we derive that all forty years spent in the desert, the well which provided them water existed solely in the merit of Miriam. – Rashi
Miriam died…there was no water – Perhaps this is the reason for the custom [Y”D 339] to spill out the water in the vicinity of a recently deceased person, for it is a means of informing others of the passing, rather than to articulate the unfortunate news directly. –Baalei Tosafos
Perhaps the reason why this is taught specifically at the death of Miriam is because she provided the example in the Torah of the need to carefully guard our tongue, when she had spoken negatively of Moses and been stricken with tzaraat.
Or HaChaim wonders why the verse needed to add the words, “the entire community,” if it already said, “the Children of Israel?” Are they not the same things? He answers that the title “Children of Israel,” is usually used to describe the Jewish people when they occupy an exalted spiritual level. When the term, “Am” (nation) is used, that connotes a less than stellar spiritual level. Thus, the Torah wished to indicate here that all the people, not just certain individuals, were truly righteous. This information was necessary because of subsequent events in which their behavior was heavily criticized by Moses and could be construed as the work of the less than righteous among them. Therefore, the Torah prefaced the incident with an assurance that the people were truly righteous, and indeed, Moses was criticized for his uncharitable attitude toward them.
WATER, WATER – WE NEED WATER
“There was no water for the community, and they assembled against Moses and Aaron. The people quarreled with Moses and said, ‘If only we had died as our brothers died before G-d. Why did you bring the congregation of G-d to this wilderness for us, and our livestock to die there?’ Bamidbar 20:2-4
For neglecting to mourn Miriam in a manner befitting her stature, the well that they had merited in her behalf and which supplied them until this point, was withdrawn after her passing. – Assorted Commentaries
Would that we had died – We wish that we had died.
As our brothers died – As our brothers died from the plague, as death from thirst is even more dreadful. – Rashi
“The word ‘water’ also refers to Torah.” – Talmud, Tractate Avodah Zarrah 5b
It is worth noting that although the people protested the lack of water perhaps a little too vehemently, they were not punished for their insolence, because as Rashi notes, death by thirst is a very frightening prospect. That a lack of water should be considered such a fearsome prospect is noteworthy for another reason as well. Water is a metaphor for Torah, and just as a person cannot accept its absence, one must be equally dissatisfied when it comes to a lack of Torah, without which the soul experiences similarly intense pangs of thirst.
“And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice; water rushed out in abundance, and the community and their livestock drank. G-d said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the presence of the Children of Israel, therefore, you will not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.’” Bamidbar 20:12
To sanctify Me – For, if you had spoken to the rock and it had brought forth water, I would have been sanctified in the eyes of the community. They would have said: ‘This rock, which can neither speak nor hear, and does not require sustenance, obeys the word of the Omnipresent. How much more so should we act in a similar manner?’” – Rashi
To sanctify Me – Why indeed, didn’t Moses speak to the rock as he was instructed? Moses’ love for the Jewish people was so great that he feared that if He would speak to the rock and it would obey his command, it would reflect negatively upon the Jewish people the next time they failed to do likewise. Rather than create an opportunity for them to fail, he chose to be the disobedient one and hit the rock instead. – Yalkut Yehoshua
“The reason Moses did not merit to enter the Land of Israel was because he addressed the Jewish people in an angry tone and said, ‘Listen now, O’ rebels, shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?’” – Rashi, Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 101b
Maharsha points out the apparent contradiction in the words of this verse and those of Rashi in Sanhedrin [quoted above], which offer a different reason for his inability to enter the Land. Here the verse implies that it was for hitting the rock instead of speaking to it, whereas in Sanhedrin, Rashi attributes his anger for this failure. Maharsha explains that certainly the primary reason was hitting the rock instead of speaking to it. Had he controlled his anger however, and been more tolerant of the human frailties of the Jewish people, he too would have been treated in kind by the Almighty and forgiven for his own disobedience. Because he assumed an uncharitable attitude toward the Jewish people, he too was held strictly accountable by the Almighty for his mistake.
THE POWER OF LOVE
“When the entire assembly saw that Aaron had perished, they wept for Aaron thirty days, the entire House of Israel.” Bamidbar 20:29
The Entire House of Israel – The men and the women alike, bitterly mourned his passing because he devoted himself to increasing the love between them. He often went out of his way to ensure that peace reigned in a tumultuous home. – Rashi
The Entire House of Israel – The Torah’s insistence that the entire assembly cried over the death of Aaron, teaches us that not once in the forty years that the Jewish people spent in the desert, did a man accidentally kill his fellow. For had that occurred, the offender would have been sent to a “City of Refuge” and returned only upon the death of Aaron, and actually rejoiced over his passing. Since they all cried, this must not have been the case. – Meshech Chochmah
It seems almost impossible to believe that Aaron could have had such a remarkable impact on the nation. Yet, the Torah testifies that his boundless love for every Jew had such a powerful ripple effect upon the people that even accidental deaths were assiduously avoided during his lifetime. Aaron’s sterling example of how to love a fellow Jew is one that stands for all generations.
FORGIVE AND FORGET
“And the people came to Moses and they said, ‘We have sinned, for we have spoken against G-d and against you. Please pray to G-d that He should remove from among us the [fiery] serpents. And Moses prayed on behalf of the people.’” Bamidbar 21:7
And Moses prayed – From here we derive that one who is asked for forgiveness should not be hardhearted and should hurriedly grant his forgiveness. – Rashi
And Moses prayed – “This teaches us the great humility possessed by Moses who did not hesitate to pray on their behalf although he was a prime target of their complaints. It also demonstrates the extraordinary power of repentance, for as soon as the people owned up to their indiscretions they were immediately set on the path to forgiveness.” – Medrash Rabbah 19:23
In a similar vein, we find that Abraham prayed on behalf of Abimelech although he had sought to violate his wife Sarah (Bereishit 20:17), and Job prayed on behalf of his friends [42:10]. Furthermore, adds Rabbeinu Bachya, one who fails to grant forgiveness upon sincere request is called a “sinner,” as the verse makes clear in the Book of Samuel [ Samuel 1:12:23]. Maimonides writes that if we are quick to forgive others, G-d will be quick to forgive us as well.
FRIEND OR FOE?
“G-d said to Moses, ‘Make yourself [the image of] a venomous snake, and place it upon a banner, and anyone bitten will look at it and live.’ Moses made a copper snake and placed it on the banner; whenever a snake bit a person, he would gaze upon the copper snake and live.” Bamidbar 21:8-9
A copper snake – Why copper and not gold, silver, or any other metal? The Hebrew term for copper is “nechoshet,” which is related to“nachash” – serpent. By speaking against the Almighty, they behaved in the manner of the primordial serpent who also spoke negatively against the Almighty. By gazing upon the serpent, they would comprehend their sins and immediately repent. – Rabbi Saadya Gaon
In ancient times, mirrors were made out of copper. By making this serpent out of copper, the message to them was that instead of worrying about the poisonous serpents in their midst, they needed to look in the mirror and see their own reflection. The fault lay not in the serpents, but in their own selves.
How did visualizing a serpent enable the people to survive venomous snake bites? The goal was to help the people understand that a snake neither kills nor heals; the Almighty does. If He wishes, a snake can be poisonous, but if He desires, the very same snake can cure a person at the brink of death. Nature is just G-d’s way of concealing His presence. Our job is to see past nature and recognize the Divine Hand guiding all of nature.
NO GOOD DEED GOES TO WASTE
“And G-d said to Moses, ‘Do not fear him. For in your hand I have given him, his entire nation, and his land, and you shall do to him as you did to Sichon, King of the Amorites, who lived in Cheshbon.” Bamidbar 21:34
Do not fear him – This assurance was necessary because Moses was fearful lest the merit of Og, King of Bashan, who assisted Abraham [many years earlier when he informed him of his nephew Lot’s capture] stand him in good stead and prevent his downfall at the hands of the Jewish nation. – Rashi
“And the refugee came and he told Abraham the Hebrew…and Abraham heard that his brother [i.e. nephew Lot] was captured…” Bereishit 14:13-14.
– This refugee was none other than Og, who ran to inform Abraham of the capture of his nephew Lot. His intent, however, was dishonorable. He hoped that Abraham would die in battle and Sarah would be left for him to marry. – Rashi
Although Og’s intentions were anything but principled, the Torah tells us that Moses feared their merit many years later. Such is the power of a good deed that even when ill-intentioned, it has the power to protect its executor hundreds of years later. If this was true of the kindness of Og, a wicked man to the core, how much more so is it true of the kindness of Abraham, who acted solely for the will of the Almighty! We, his descendants, continue to reap the benefits of his beautiful deeds thousands of years later.
Hey, I Never Knew That
Chukat deals with the laws of purity and impurity. Maimonides concludes these laws in his Mishneh Torah (Mikvaot 11:12) as follows: “It is clear… that the concepts of purity and impurity are Scriptural decrees, not matters determined by a person’s understanding… Similarly, immersion in a mikveh… because impurity is not mud or filth that can be washed away with water. Instead, the immersion is a Scriptural decree and requires the focus of one’s heart. Therefore our Sages said, “When one immersed, but did not intend to purify himself,” it is as if he did not immerse. Although it is a Scriptural decree, there is an illusion involved: One who focuses on purifying himself becomes purified once he immerses, even though there was no change in his body. Similarly, one who focuses his heart on purifying his soul from its impurities, wicked thoughts, and bad character traits becomes purified when he resolves within his heart to distance himself from such counsel and immerse his soul in the waters of knowledge. And Ezekiel (36:25) states, “I will pour over you pure water, and you will be purified from all your impurities and from all your false deities, I will purify you.”
The laws of purity are chukim, Divine statutes that the human mind cannot comprehend. The purpose of chukim is to teach us that human understanding is not a prerequisite for doing that which is right, and the criteria for determining good and evil are not within the province of the human being. The concepts of good and evil are neither relative nor subjective, but are defined by Divine law. Morality based solely upon human reason or conviction is inadequate; sincerity and belief do not ensure moral behavior. The laws of purity also teach humility, and morality requires humility in our relationship with G-d, Who is the ultimate source of moral authority. The Hebrew word for statutes, chukim, is the same as the word used to refer to the laws of nature, which teaches that just as laws of nature are unaffected by our understanding, so are the Torah’s laws. Gravity will cause someone to fall even if he does not understand how it works, and fire will burn even if we are unaware of the physics of combustion. As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes, “The components of the Torah remain the law even if we have not discovered the cause and connection of a single one.”
Word of the Week
“You shall place on it מים חיים — living water…” (Bamidbar 19:17). The word chaim is usually translated as “live,” “alive,” or “living.” When it is used to describe water it means water directly from a flowing spring, where, since the water is continuously moving, it is “living.” It also means that the water is healthy and clean, so even if it is flowing, if it is bitter or tainted it is not called “living water.” One more meaning of chaim regarding water (and other foods) is that it is in its natural, uncooked state. The Mishnah (Parah 8:9) requires all three of these conditions for something to be considered “living water”: directly from a flowing spring, not bitter, and not cooked, in accordance with the meanings of chaim (Haktav Vehakabbalah,Bamidbar, ibid)
After the Jews complained about the lack of water, G-d told Moses and Aaron, “[T]ake your staff and speak to the סלע – selah – in front of them and it shall give its waters” (Bamidbar 20:8). Targum Onkelos translates selah as a rock, as does Maimonides. However, Rabbi David Kimchi (Sefer Hashorashim) understands selah as a cliff, and similarly Rabbi Hirsch translates it as an elevated rock. According to Rashi, the selah was a specific rock which followed the Jews in the desert and which had produced water in the past in Miriam’s merit, hence the Well of Miriam. In Modern Hebrew selah usually refers to bedrock.
Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliyashiv was asked if it is correct for a customer at a Jewish-owned restaurant or hotel to say the “Blessing for the Host” during Grace after Meals. He is, after all, paying for the meal and is not really a guest. He answered that it is appropriate to bless the owner, as he is certainly benefiting from the existence of the restaurant and its convenience. He added that there is support for this from the Torah portion this week. The Jewish people, when requesting passage through Edom, offered to buy food from Edom, even though they had their own provisions. Rashi (Bamidbar 20:17) notes that this teaches us that when one stays somewhere, one should specifically buy food locally in order to benefit the host (e.g. the innkeeper). The Torah wants us to benefit our host, and a blessing is an appropriate way to fulfill this idea (Chashukei Chemed, Berachot 46a, paragraph 3).
The Torah portion this week discusses the laws of impurity due to contact with the dead, either through touching a corpse or being under the same covering. A kohen may not generally visit a grave or be under the same covering as a grave. Rabbis throughout the generations have been asked by kohanim as to whether they may visit the grave of a tzaddik, a righteous person. Some maintain that the body of a deceased tzaddik does not impart impurity as is implied by a famous statement of Rabbeinu Chaim, the kohen (Tosafot, Ketuvot 103a) that had he been present at the funeral of Rabbeinu Tam, he would have made himself impure for his honor. He based this on the Talmud that states that on the day of passing of Rabbi Judah the Prince, it was proclaimed, “Sanctity (according to Tosafot, the sanctity of the kohen) is annulled today.” Others point out many sources that imply strongly that even the body of a tzaddik imparts impurity and hence a kohen may not treat them any differently than other deceased Jews (Pitchei Teshuvah, Yoreh Deah 672:2, Sdei Chemed 9, p. 56,Minchat Asher, Bamidbar 49).
Parsha at a Glance
This week’s portion opens thirty-eight years after the events described in last week’s portion, Korach. The Jewish people stand ready to conquer the Land of Canaan.
The portion begins with the laws of ritual impurity, a status incurred through contact with the dead. The purification process involves being sprinkled with water that has been mixed with the ashes of the Red Heifer.
The laws of the Red Heifer fall under the category of a chok, the class of mitzvot whose laws are beyond the realm of human logic or rationale. Nevertheless, the Red Heifer has remained a subject of deep study and fascination for Jewish scholars throughout the ages.
The narrative now shifts to the death of Miriam and the cessation of the Well of Miriam, which had provided the nation with water during the entire journey in the desert.
Panicked, the Jewish people raised their voices in complaint over the lack of water. In a poignant episode, G-d commanded Moses to speak to the rock and bring forth water – but Moses hit the rock instead. As punishment, G-d told Moses that he would not be allowed to enter the Land of Israel.
A diplomatic overture to pass through the land of Edom was denied under threat of war. G-d commanded Moses not to disturb Edom and to lead the Jewish people on a longer route around Edom’s borders.
Aaron, the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) and brother of Moses, also passed away. He was allowed to see his son Elazar succeed him before he died. Aaron’s passing was mourned by the entire Jewish nation for thirty days, an honor merited through his devotion to bringing peace between man and his fellow.
Amalek then attacked and managed to take a captive before the Jewish people’s prayers were answered, and G-d delivered them from their hands.
Beset by the rigors of travel, the Jewish people again complained to Moses, this time about the manna, which had nourished them for nearly forty years in the desert.
G-d sent deadly serpents into the camp in response. Moses was told to fashion a copper serpent and place it on a high staff. Anyone bitten would be cured by redirecting his thoughts and looking up to this sign.
Aware of the impending conquest, the Canaanites hid in mountain caves, hoping to ambush the Jewish people as they passed through a canyon below. As the Jews approached, the Clouds of Glory smashed the two sides of the canyon together, crushing the Canaanites where they hid. Their blood ran red into the river below, an open miracle which inspired the Jewish people to compose a special song of thanksgiving to G-d for His protection.
Sichon, the powerful Amorite king, also refused a diplomatic request by the Jewish people to pass through his land in peace. Unlike with Edom, G-d granted Moses permission to go to war. The Jewish people emerged victorious and conquered his land.