Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations may derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
A parsha of contrasts: tamei /tahor [ritually impure/ritually pure]…lofty cedar/lowly hyssop
A colorful parsha
• Red da’am (blood)…Edom (a nation)…parah aduma ( the color)
• Gold (as in Golden Calf)
• Copper (which creates a pink/rose color when added to gold; nechash necoshes—copper snake)
A parsha about death, loss, bereavement and mortality
Death defiles. Contact with a corpse is the main source of tumah
Ceremony of para adumah (red heifer) which eliminates tumah (ritual impurity)
Miriam dies during the fortieth year of the Israelites’ wanderings
Israelites complain about lack of water
Moshe is instructed by God to provide water by speaking to the rock but instead he strikes it twice
God informs Moshe and Aharon that they will not lead the Israelites to the Promised Land because of their failure to sanctify Him in the presence of the nation
Edom refuses to allow the Israelites passage through its land
Aharon dies, is mourned for 30 days and is replaced by his son Elazar
Israelites defeat Canaanites (Amalek in disguise?)
Attack by venomous snakes in response to Israelites’ complaints
Copper serpent on a pole
Vanquishing Sichon and the Amorites
People of Bashan are destroyed and their lands seized
What is a Chok?
The traditional definition of a chok is a Divine law that has no rational basis, often not making sense (to us). Rabbi Menachem Leibtag thinks a chok is about constancy: Divine decree of a fixed law or statute (Korban Pesach); something that does not change (laws of astronomy); something that occurs on a regular basis (Jewish Holidays). Some Chukim are beyond our comprehension.
The Para Adumah Ceremony
In Sefer Vayikra, the word Torah usually means “procedures”. The opening verse of this week’s parsha, “zos chukkas hatorah”, is then translatable as “these are the immutable, unchangeable (chukas) procedures that need to be followed” in the parah aduma (red heifer) ritual:
• Slaughter of unblemished red heifer (that had never borne a yoke) by the priest, outside the camp
• Sprinkling the blood of this heifer seven times towards the Ohel Moed entrance
• Burning to ash the carcass together with (lowly) hyssop; and wood branches from the mighty and tall cedar; and a piece of scarlet wool
• Mixing ashes with fresh water then…
• Sprinkling the mixture on the person who came into contact with a corpse (and now in a state of tumah, ritual impurity) on day 3 and day 7 of the purification process
• Collecting ashes and storing them outside the camp
After the ceremony, the person who was tameh (impure) becomes tahor (pure) but the priests who participated in the preparation of the ashes and water of purification and were tahor when they began the ceremony mysteriously become tameh when they finish!
Symbolism of Para Adumah
Some suggest that this ceremony makes the point that the priests, though considered elevated in their dedication to the Temple service, can become tameh like the rest of us when they come into contact with death.
Some speculate that the priests’ becoming tameh was a mechanism to protect them from feelings of grandiosity and superiority.
R. Joseph Bechor Shor (cited by Nechama Leibowitz) thinks the goal is avoidance of death worship by discouraging association and consulting with the dead. People needed to be discouraged from using human skin for coverings and human bones for articles.
Some focus on the combination of the majestic cedar wood with the lowly hyssop as representing opposite human personalities and how these extremities may be associated with death (of spirit)
Sforno thinks that witnessing the mixture of opposite extremes [lowly hyssop and tall, “arrogant” cedar] can help one regain the middle road. The root-word of aduma is blood. The red color represents either life or death or forgiveness.
Philo of Alexandria sees the mixture of water and ashes as a reminder to Man of the elements that form him. Knowing oneself is the most profound form of purification.
The Parah Adumah had to be completely red, without blemish and without having borne a yoke.
Chasidic thinking sees in this a message that one who feels he is without blemish certainly has not accepted the yoke of heaven.
Some observers view the red heifer as a symbolic expiation for the sin of the Golden Calf.
We probably will never comprehend what it is in the ritual ceremony that reverses tumah -- slaughtering the heifer; burning it; the sprinkling of water and blood. R. Yochanan ben Zakkai explained to a heathen seeking a rational explanation for the ceremony that the sprinkling the ashes is a cure for a disease of defilement and should be thought of as exorcising a demon. But to his students he acknowledged that the ashes and the water have no intrinsic purification ability. It is a Divine commandment, one that even the wise King Solomon could not fathom.
The ashes of the red cow were divided into three parts. One portion was left in the Temple for the priests who worked there. One part was left on the Mount of Olives (outside the city) for the purification of the priests who prepared the parah aduma. The third part was placed outside the walls of the Temple courtyard as a reminder for the Israelites. According to the Mishna, the ceremony of the parah aduma was performed once by Moshe, once by Ezra and only seven times after. With the destruction of the Holy Temple, the ritual disappeared.
Understanding Tumah and Tahara
It is noteworthy that there is no Biblical injunction against being in a state of tumah. A person's status in this regard is relevant only regarding the permissibility of entry into holy places (Mishkan / Temple/ Mount Sinai).
We think tumah can best be understood in psychological terms. Our hypothesis is that tumah is a state of cognitive loss; a "death" or "dispirited" state during which one is so deeply depressed, apathetic, and/or guilt-ridden (on some level) that he/she no longer has the capacity to enter into any relationship--not with God and not with other human beings. It is in the holy places that we have the opportunity to engage God by bringing korbanot (root word meaning “to come close to”).But the person who is tameh is incapable of experiencing such a relationship, so his appearance there is pointless.
Contact with death precipitates a state of tumah. A corpse is considered the "ultimate father of all tumah” because contact with death triggers a primordial uneasiness, fear (of one's own mortality? of disease?) and negativism that can absorb all of the person's emotional energy. Death of a loved one can evoke negative emotions including sadness, resentment, anger, feelings of unfairness, and guilt. The person who encounters death is self-absorbed, sad, and often depressed. These feelings interfere with one's ability to connect with others.
By understanding the psychological underpinnings of tumah, perhaps we can get some measure of insight into aforementioned paradox of the parah aduma that is "m'tahayr temaim" [makes the impure pure] and "m'tamay tehorim” [makes the pure impure].
A person who heretofore had been in a state of tumah (as a result of contact with a corpse) experiences a seven day period of isolation during which he has a chance to reflect on and rebuild his mental health in preparation for his return to Society. The ritual of the para adumah with all of its symbolism is the final step in recapturing the ability to re-engage God and Man, i.e., state of being tahor.
The priests who are fully engaged in the service of God start off being tahor when they perform the ritual. But the contact with death (of the heifer) can trigger the aforementioned galaxy of negative feelings i.e., tumah!
A Thirsty Nation Demands Water
It is believed that during Miriam’s lifetime a well accompanied the Jewish people that provided them with critical water supply during the desert wanderings. Miriam dies. The water supply dries up. [Note: in Chassidic thought, water that facilitates the digestive system in carrying nutrients to all parts of the body represents Torah, which nourishes all segments of the Jewish nation. Miriam was especially devoted to small children. Her physical death brought with it some loss of national spirit.]
The people complain. Moshe and Aaron flee to the Ohel Moed and “fall on their faces” (to pray? to appease the demonstrators? in frustration and disgust? to separate their minds from the outside commotion and turning inward as a means of relying on their own resilience?)
God tells Moshe to “take THE rod (to assemble the nation?)… and speak to the rock before their eyes… and you shall bring out water from the rock”. Moshe takes the rod (the same? another one?) and speaks harshly to the assembled nation: “listen here you rebels, shall we bring out water from the rock?” An enraged Moshe raises his hand (holding the rod), hits the rock twice and abundant waters come out to quench the thirst of the congregation and their cattle.
God’s response: “Because you did not believe in Me (alternate translation: were not supportive enough of Me) to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel therefore you shall not bring this congregation into the land I have given them. These are the waters of Meriva…where He was sanctified in them.”
Clearly Moshe Did Something Seriously Wrong…
…to deserve such a harsh punishment but the Torah does not share with us what it was. Nechama Leibowitz surveys commentators’ views…
• Rashi, later followed by Shadal, says Moshe hit the rock instead of talking to it. Had he spoken to the rock as instructed, the people would have reasoned that if even an inanimate rock performs the will of God, how much more so we humans are obligated to follow His commandments!
• Ramban focuses on the “shall we…?” in which Moshe seems to give part of the credit to himself and to Aharon instead of attributing the water-extraction to God alone.
• Ibn Ezra faults the two leaders for their undignified,unstatesman-like reaction to the nation’s demand for water (fleeing and falling on their faces)—and also for the unnecessary hitting of the rock twice. The leaders display a lack of respect for the people and their need for water.
• Saadia Gaon understands the phrase “talk to the rock” to mean “talk to them (the Jewish people)...near the rock …” about God’s ability to miraculously extract water from a stone. Instead, Moshe berates them and strikes the rock twice.
• Haketav V’HaKaballah focuses on God’s command to speak to the rock L’EYNEHEM, “before their eyes”. Since sounds and speech are absorbed by ears, not eyes, it must mean that God was not referring to the physical eye but rather to the mind’s eye. Not physical sight but Insight. Moshe‘s failure was in wasting the opportunity to help the nation “see” (understand) the enormous capability of God.
• Rambam draws our attention to the tone of Moshe’s pejorative description of the people: “listen here YOU REBELS” (or fools or “teachers” who presume to teach leaders).The people looked up to their leader and emulated his behavior. But instead of being patient, Moshe became angry and exasperated. For a man in his position such public behavior amounted to a desecration of God’s name.
• Joseph Albo notes that God subjects Nature to the control of believers. In the Korach incident, Moshe took the initiative to announce that the “earth would open its mouth”—and God complied. In response to the demand for water, Moshe and Aharon should have taken the initiative to explain that a rock would split and water would flow. They should have confronted and assured the people that God will provide. Instead, they acted cowardly, became panic-stricken, fled from the people and fell on their faces praying for God to provide a solution.
• Others, finding no serious wrongdoing in this incident, conclude that the punishment was for earlier sins, possibly of the Golden Calf (Aharon) and the Spies (Moshe) which the Torah chose to keep hidden (perhaps to avoid publicly embarrassing them).
• Daas Mikrah maintains that the main takeaway from this incident is that even the giant figures of any generation who sin are punished accordingly. The particulars are secondary.
Rabbi Menachem Leibtag, noting that the stated punishment is “… you shall NOT LEAD this nation into the land…” concludes that they were punished for their failure as leaders (not as individuals)—and, therefore, could not LEAD the people there. “Lo he-eman-ted be” can mean “you did not believe in me” but here is to be understood as meaning that they failed to support God (i.e., failed to defend God and to assure and encourage the nation). As a leader Moshe should have been empathic to their needs, and not get angry at them. This breakdown in leadership had started some time earlier. They failed to sanctify God’s name a number of times during the forty year desert trek but this was the last straw.
Rabbi Marc Angel focuses on the immediately preceding verses “…and Miriam died there and was buried there. And there was no water for the congregation and they assembled themselves together against Moshe and against Miriam”. Surprisingly, despite her being a prophetess and a key leader, when she died there is no mention of the Israelites mourning her death! The text merely states that “Miriam died there [in the city of Kadaish] and was buried there.” [This is in sharp contrast to the thirty day mourning periods that were observed upon the deaths of both Moshe and Aharon.]
The people were so concerned with their own needs that they didn’t seem to care much about Miriam’s death and her brothers’ mourning. When the Israelites complained, Moshe and Aharon were disappointed, bitter and angry at both the people’s lack of faith in God as well as their lack of appreciation for their sister and all she had done for them [i.e., in her merit there was the source of water during the forty year desert trek.] When God instructed Moshe to speak to the rock he acknowledged Moshe’s rage but encouraged him to not let his own personal feelings interfere with his leadership responsibilities. He urged Moshe to speak to the people; to explain his disappointment; and to teach them to respect Miriam’s memory .But Moshe let his anger get the better of him and in a rage struck the rock twice. The so-called “sin”, concludes Rabbi Angel, was “in letting their personal grief and frustration overtake their reason and sense of responsibility to the people” .Their anger prevailed and they missed the opportunity to teach and demonstrate to the Israelites the power of God.
Similarly, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks connects the death of Miriam not so much with the lack of water but with Moshe’s loss of emotional equilibrium. After all, Miriam was his “big sister” who watched over him as a babe when he was placed in a basket in the Nile River. He owed his existence to her. Without her he lost “the human foundation of his life.” He, the greatest of the prophets was also human and when he lost his sister he was inconsolable. He lost his emotional control and reacted with rage instead of with caring. The beginning of the parsha focuses on the defiling nature of death and the need for the ceremony of the red heifer to physically cleanse the individual who came into contact with it. Now Miriam’s death defiled Moshe psychologically, causing him to act badly.
God never promised Moshe and Aharon that they would be the ones to lead the nation to the Land of Canaan. Quite the contrary, in Perkei Avos it states that Moshe’s burial site [which was in the desert and not in the Land of Israel] was one of the ten things God created on the eve of the first Sabbath.
After their behavior at the rock when they allowed their personal feelings to take control, it was clear that they could no longer be effective teachers and leaders. They apparently realized the wisdom of-- and need for-- a new generation of leaders. When informed by God that they would not lead the nation to the Promised Land they neither protested nor apologized. Rabbi Angel concludes that “They fully understood that [this was not a punishment but that] their terms of office were drawing to a close and they were ready to pass on the mantle of leadership to others.”
Rabbi Sacks perceives the key lesson in this incident to be the danger of anger.
Rambam explains that healthy emotions are essential for a good and happy life. Even though we have no choice in our emotional makeup, we do have the ability to overcome destructive feelings. One should strive for a middle of the road approach in life and not go to extremes. That is, except for pride and anger when even a little is too much.
Moshe’s anger at a legitimately thirsty nation was inappropriate for a leader, who must be a role model because of his position. By losing his temper, explains Rambam, Moshe may have led the people to think that they had sinned and that God was angry with them.
The Rabbis of the Talmud went to great lengths to show the harmful effects of anger:
o “There are three people the Holy One loves: one who does not get angry…”
o “The life of those who cannot control their anger is not a life”
o “When a person becomes angry, if he is a sage his wisdom departs from him; if he is a prophet his prophecy departs from him”
o “Anyone who becomes angry is like one who practices idolatry”
o “Be slow to anger and easy to pacify."
Rabbi Sacks explains that the danger of being angry is that it causes us to lose control and causes us “to bypass the neural circuitry we use when we reflect and choose on rational grounds…to lose the ability to step back and judge the possible consequences of our actions.” We sometimes say or do things we regret.
Rabbi Sacks concludes that “The best way of defeating anger is to pause, stop, reflect, refrain, count to ten, and breathe deeply. If necessary, leave the room, go for a walk, meditate, or vent your toxic feelings alone. It is said about one of the Rebbes of Lubavitch that whenever he felt angry, he would take down the Shulchan Arukh to see whether anger was permitted under the circumstances. By the time he had finished studying, his anger had dissipated.
The verdict of Judaism is simple: Either we defeat anger or anger will defeat us.”
Miriam and Water
Miriam’s name contains the Hebrew letters that form the word mayim, water.
Rabbi David Fohrman notes that the desert travels of the Israelites included three water crises:
At Mara, three days after the Exodus, when Moshe threw a piece of wood into a bitter oasis that made the water drinkable.
Some three days later when the water supplies ran out, the people complained to Moshe who in turn protested to God that they are so angry that they may stone him. God instructed Moshe to hit a rock with his staff and water will flow out of it.
The incident in this week’s parsha, some forty years later, when that same rock that had travelled with the Israelites ceased to give water once Miriam died. God tells Moshe to speak to the rock. Instead he hits it twice.
Miriam’s connection to water began many years earlier when she stood by the Nile watching over her baby brother Moshe who was hidden in a small ark placed in the reeds near the shore. She saves him by intervening with Pharaoh’s daughter. This was the Nile river, with its relatively few reeds and one Egyptian (Pharaoh) threatening the Israelites. Later, at the splitting of the Sea of Reeds incident which involved many Egyptians threating the entire Israelite nation in a sea filled with many, many reeds she again stands by her brother. At the Nile she stood and watched (tisyatzev) without knowing what would happen but having complete faith that there would be a positive outcome. At the Sea of Reeds the nation stood watch (hisyatzvu) again without knowing what would happen but having complete faith in God. After the sea splitting she leads the people in music, dancing and praise of God for saving His nation.
Miriam’s death precipitated a water crisis. When Moshe says “shimu na hamorim” it is as if he is talking to his sister, asking for her help [since the word morim has the same letters as her name and sounds like Miriam].Even though God instructed him to talk to the rock, Moshe reasons that, just as forty years earlier when Miriam was with him, only hitting the rock will bring the water. Moshe tried to artificially relive that situation (acting as if Miriam were alive) instead of learning the lesson of Miriam that one needs to keep the faith in God even in situations that appear to have no realistic options available. God told Moshe to talk to the rock even if it makes no sense to him. Have faith. Just speak to the rock. But Moshe didn’t.
Mourning the loss of a loved one brings with it denial and anger. We sometimes try to recreate the time when the loved one was alive. But we cannot. What we can do and should do, concludes Rabbi Fohrman, is to remember and to learn from the deceased’s behavior and beliefs. Moshe should have felt the faith Miriam had in God .He did not. The result was tragic for him.
• Richard Snitkoff notes that the Hebrew for “… to the rock”, El haselah, can also be pronounced Ayl haselah and would then mean “God of the rock” or “God is the rock”. God was instructing Moshe to teach the people that He was in the rock/He is the rock—God’s power permeates all of Nature.
• Marty Langert wonders if part of Moshe’s failure was his not training the people how to pray and interact directly with God.
• Jack Sherman sees the irony in Moshe taking Aharon’s rod that was meant to be a symbol of peace and calm and instead uses it to violently hit the rock.
• Perhaps it was Aharon, not Moshe, who said “listen here you rebels”.
• Aharon is not mentioned during the encounter with the Israelites possibly because he did not want to embarrass his brother Moshe, or because he was unable to stop him
• Rabbi S.R. Hirsch notes that the greater the person, the stricter the standard used in judging him.
• According to a Midrash, blood flowed out of the rock when Moshe struck it. In response to the rock’s complaint to Him, God reminded Moshe that even a rock needs to be treated justly.
Moshe is referred to and remembered as Rabbanu, our teacher. Perhaps one who “has his head in the clouds” i.e., is in a constant state of involvement with God, is not qualified to lead since he is unable to relate to the mundane day-to-day caring for a nation. By the end of the year the “old guard” (Miriam, Aharon and Moshe) will have passed on, paving the way for a new, younger leadership.
“Take THE Rod…”
…and not just any rod. Some think that the rod in question was the one left in the Ohel Moed that was to be taken out any time the nation complains or rebels. Viewing this rod would remind the nation of the punishment that awaits such behavior. And with this, according to Rabbi Leibtag, we understand why Moshe prefaced his comments to the nation with “Listen here you rebels”. Namely, you are acting in exactly the way this special rod was meant to remind you how not to behave (“to be a token against the rebellious children”)…lest there be serious consequences.
His was a secondary role. He did not disobey God. He did not strike the rock. He did not angrily call the people rebels. Perhaps the reason for his being punished was his failure to intercede when it became clear that Moshe was having difficulty in dealing with the people. Aharon was a kind of social worker/psychologist, Ohev Shalom V'rodayf Shalom, always attempting to get quarreling parties to resolve their differences and become friends again.
God instructed Moshe to assemble the Jewish people with his brother Aharon. This seemingly superfluous identification of Aharon as Moshe’s brother may suggest that it was precisely because they were brothers that God wanted Aharon along as advisor and confidant. Aharon appears to have failed in this task. Often a competent professional is able to deal with conflicts and problems of strangers but is paralyzed and ineffective when family matters are involved.
“And when the congregation saw that Aharon was dead, they wept for Aharon for thirty days, all the house of Israel.” Aharon was a unique individual, points out Rabbi Angel, who was able to maintain the dignity of the office of the High Priest with all its ceremonial responsibilities yet remain connected to the people, sensitive to their needs, “loving peace and pursuing peace, he loved people and brought them closer to Torah”. He believed that Judaism should reflect love, compassion and inclusiveness—and not the negativity portrayed by the Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik who, as he looked around at the deterioration in religious life in his day in Eastern Europe, observed that “Halakha has an angry face…strict, severe, hard as steel—strict justice… [it] sets forth its ruling and leaves no room for differentiation. Its yes is Yes; its no is No…fossilized piety obligation, enslavement”. Aharon’s goals were to make sure that the religion did not have an angry face; that the Torah would liberate us, not enslave us; and to demonstrate, by his behavior, that the goal of the Torah was to bring out the best in us.
The nation felt his caring and mourned his death. Rabbi Angel concludes that we each have the opportunity to follow the religious model of Aharon of loving and pursuing peace. By not hating and not being in conflict with our fellow human beings during the course of our daily life, we can bring the world closer to realizing the ideals of the Torah.
Understanding the Copper Serpent
The Israelites once again resume their complaints about why they had to be redeemed from Egypt; the absence of food and water; and their loathing of what they considered the miserable Manna. God responds by releasing the fiery serpents. The result of the snakes’ poisonous biting is that a large number of people die. The Israelites, recognizing that they have sinned, approach Moshe to pray to God to remove the serpents.
(Despite his anger at them) Moshe agrees and is instructed by God to heal the people in what can only be described as a bizarre way, which also appears to be a violation of the Second Commandment forbidding the making of images! Moshe is commanded to fashion “nechash necoshes”, a copper image of a fiery serpent and to place it on a pole so that every person who is bitten can look up at it and live. [The root “nchash” has multiple meanings: to whisper; copper; superstition; serpent; poisonous fluid; evil omen; and to augur. As a noun, the word augur refers to a drilling tool or a plumber’s snake.]
How are we to understand this “therapeutic” approach?
The Mishnah concludes that it is not the copper image that cures but it is when the Israelites look upward and subject themselves to God that they can be healed. Should they refuse, they will be destroyed.
Jack Sherman sees the contrast between the snake, signifying illness and death, and the heavens above and beyond it, signifying God’s ability and willingness to heal.
The Zohar reasons that by viewing the likeness of a serpent, the viewer would be reminded that his was a well-deserved punishment. This fills him with fear and awe, prompting him to pray to God. It is this prayer that is the healing agent.
Rav S.R. Hirsch thinks that the imagery was designed to help the people realize that their relatively smooth travels (e.g., not being bitten by these dangerous serpents along the way) occurred only because of Divine intervention and that He would protect them from the dangers that lay ahead. It was this realization that was the healing power.
Rabbi Gunter Plaut notes the healing influence of serpents found in ancient civilization. Even today, the caduceus with its two serpents is an important medical symbol. The ancients thought snakes had demonic power. The serpents aroused such anxieties and fear that Moshe felt compelled to provide some device or object to the still-superstitious nation that was believed to counter the evil.
The snake is a symbol of the evil, aggressive desires in all of us (Yaytzer Harah). The people were “bitten” (bidden) by their own inner drives to unjustly complain, a behavior that “killed” their good character.
Perhaps we are being taught the life lesson that to deal with one’s aggressive inner drives one needs to RAISE the issues; acknowledge their existence; and examine them closely to see them for what they are and the damage they can cause. Only then can one confront and deal with them. Only then can the integrity of one’s persona be re-established and only then can one live without internal conflict.
The copper serpent was idolized for many years until it was destroyed finally by King Hezekiah in the eighth century B.C.E.