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.
Red heifer ceremony; people’s complaint about lack of water; sin of Moshe and Aaron when hitting the rock; Edom refuses passage through its land; death of Aaron; battle with Canaanites; fiery serpents; encampment places; the water poem; conquering Amorites; Song of Victory; defeat of Og King of Bashan.
We are taught that Hashem sends the cure before He imposes the illness. This week’s Parsha, which describes the deaths of both Miriam and Aaron, is preceded by the Para Adumah ceremony—which is needed for anyone who comes into contact with death.
What is a Chok?
The traditional definition is that is a Chok is a law that has no rational basis; a law that does not make sense. Rabbi Menachem Leibtag offers alternative definitions: a fixed law or statute (Korban Pesach); something constant that does not change (laws of astronomy); a procedure; a recipe; something that occurs on a regular basis (Jewish Holidays). Some Chukem may be beyond our understanding while others are logical and make sense.
The opening verse of “zos chukkas hatorah” is then translatable as “these are the immutable, unchangeable procedures that need to be followed” in the Parah Aduma (red heifer) ritual:
· Slaughter of unblemished red heifer (that had never been broken to the yoke) by the priest outside the camp
· Sprinkling the blood of this heifer seven times opposite Ohel Moed entrance
· Burning the carcass together with hyssop, cedar wood branches and scarlet until it turns to ashes
· Mixing ashes with fresh water then…
· Sprinkling the person who came into contact with a corpse (and now in a state of Tumah ,ritual impurity) on day 3 and day 7
· 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 (who were Tahor) now become Tameh. The understanding of this ritual and its meaning remains a mystery.Perhaps it is the symbolism relating to slaughtering the heifer, burning it and the sprinkling of water and of blood that facilitates the seven day rehabilitation process.
Some suggest that this ceremony provided an opportunity to make the point that the priests, though considered elevated in their dedication to the Temple service, are no different than us and become Tameh like the rest of us when coming into contact with death. Some focus on the combination of the majestic cedar wood with the lowly hyssop as representing opposite human behaviors and how these extremities may be associated with death (of spirit, personality). Some concentrate on the red color representing either life or death or forgiveness.
According to the Mishna, the ceremony of the Parah Aduma was performed once by Moshe, once by Ezra and five 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 Hashem and not with other human beings.
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 contagion?) and negativism that can absorb all of the person's emotional energy. (Even medical students report a sense of uneasiness after the first encounter with a cadaver.) Death of a family member can evoke negative emotions including sadness, resentment, anger, feelings of unfairness, and guilt. The person who encounters death is self-absorbed, sad, and depressed. These feelings interfere with one's ability to connect with others.
The Torah's insight into the profound (oft-times unconscious) forces that dominate a human being's emotions and behavior is further evident in the reality that the negativity associated with death becomes diluted the further one is removed from the source. Thus, a person who touches a corpse (called a "Rishon L'tumah") experiences the most intense emotional negativity (i.e.,Tumah). As that person comes into contact (e.g., shakes hands) with others, the emotion of the "death association" by the latter is a step removed and diluted. And so on down the line as each Tameh person comes into contact with another person or object, the transmission (emotional response to the original source of Tumah) weakens. (The laws of Tumah are lengthy, complicated and well beyond the scope of this article. It would be interesting at some point to study the details of Tumah and see if they fit the hypothesis we are proposing. For the moment, however, our interest here is in providing a conceptual framework for understanding the psychological meaning and emotional dynamics of the thing that is Tumah.)
By understanding the psychological underpinnings of Tumah, perhaps we can get some measure of insight into the paradox of the Parah Aduma that is "mtahar temaim" and "mtamay tehorim" (changes one who is Tameh into a state of Tahor and can change one who is Tahor to become Tameh).
A person who heretofore has been in a state of Tumah (as a result of contact with a corpse) undergoes the ceremony and returns to his non-Tumah state.
But the priests who perform the rituals who started off being Tahor, now come into contact with death (of the heifer) and experience the aforementioned galaxy of negative feelings i.e., Tumah!
Moshe strikes the Rock…and is denied leading the Jewish nation to the Promised Land.
During Miriam’s lifetime a well accompanied the Jewish people supplying them with critical water supply during the desert wanderings. Miriam dies. The water supply dries up.
The people complain. Moshe and Aaron flee to the Ohel Moed and “fall on their faces” (to pray? to appease the demonstrators? In disgust?).
Hashem tells Moshe to “take THE rod”(Moshe’s ?Aaron’s? the rod from last week’s Parsha that put forth buds, bloomed and bore ripe almonds that was left near the Holy Ark “to be a token against the rebellious children”? ) and…
“Speak to the rock before their eyes”…”and you shall bring out water from the rock”. Moshe takes a rod (the same? another one?) and speaks harshly to the assembling nation: ”listen here you rebels, can we bring out water from the rock?” Moshe, carried away by anger, 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.
Hashem’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.”
Commentators differ on what Moshe did to deserve such a harsh punishment.
· Rashi, later followed by Shadal, says Moshe hit the rock instead of talking to it. Had he spoken to thee rock as instructed the people would have reasoned that if the inanimate rock performs the will of Hashem, how much more they are bound to do it!
· Ramban focuses on the “shall we…?” in which Moshe seems to give part of the credit to himself and to Aaron instead of attributing the water-extraction to Hashem 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.
· Haketav V’HaKaballah focuses on Hashem’s command to speak to the rock L’EYNEHEM,”before their eyes”. Since sounds and speeches are absorbed by ears, not eyes it must mean that Hashem was not referring to the physical eye but 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 Hashem.
Rambam draws our attention to 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 exasperated. For a man in his position this public behavior amounted to a desecration of Hashem’s name.
· Joseph Albo notes that Hashem 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 Hashem complied. In response to the demand for water, Moshe and Aaron should have taken the initiative to announce that a rock would split and water would flow. Instead they became panic- stricken, fled from the people, fell on their faces and prayed to Hashem for a solution.
· Others, finding no serious wrongdoing in this incident, conclude that the punishment was for earlier sins, possibly of the Golden Calf (Aaron) and The Spies (Moshe) which the Torah for some chose to keep hidden. (Perhaps to avoid publicly embarrassing them.)
Rabbi Leibtag, noting that the punishment is ”you shall NOT LEAD THIS NATION into the land…” concludes that they were punished for their failure as leaders and will not LEAD the people there. They failed to sanctify Hashem’s name many times during the crises and rebellions that characterized the desert trek ; this was the final straw that broke the camel’s back. They should have used moments of crisis to teach and show the Jewish people Hashem’s unlimited powers to help. Perhaps one who “has his head in the clouds” i.e. is in a constant state of involvement with Hashem, is not qualified to lead since he is unable to relate to the mundane day- to- day caring for a nation.
“Take THE rod…” and just any rod leads some to conclude 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 the necessity for Moshe to preface his comments to the nation with “Listen here you rebels”. Namely, you are acting in exactly the way this special rod was to remind us not to behave (“to be a token against the rebellious children”)…and there will be serious consequences.
His was a secondary role. He did not disobey Hashem.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. Aaron was Ohev Shalom V”rodeef Shalom, a kind of social worker/peacemaker, always attempting to get quarreling parties to resolve their differences and become friends again.
Hashem instructed Moshe to assemble the Jewish people with his brother Aaron. This seemingly superfluous identification of Aaron as Moshe’s brother may suggest that it was because of their sibling relationship that Hashem wanted Aaron along as advisor and confidant. Aaron appears to have failed in this task and thereby suffered. How often a competent professional is able to deal with conflicts and problems between clients who are strangers but is paralyzed and ineffective when family matters are involved.