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.
Ceremony of Para Adumah (red heifer) which eliminates Tumah (ritual impurity) …contact with corpse is main source of Tumah and lasts seven days…Events in the fortieth year of the desert wanderings: Miriam’s death... complaint over lack of water…Moshe is instructed to provide water for the nation by speaking to a rock but he strikes it twice instead… God informs Moshe and Aharon that they will not lead the Jewish people to the Promised Land because of their failure to sanctify Him in the presence of the nation… Edom refuses to allow passage through its land…Aharon dies, is mourned for 30 days and is replaced by his son Elazar…Israel defeats Canaanites…venomous snakes and a copper serpent… conquering Sichon and the Amorites… Victory song… defeat of Og King of Bashan.
This week’s Parsha, which recounts the deaths of both Miriam and Aaron, is preceded by the topic of Para Adumah—which is needed for anyone who comes into contact with death.
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 are beyond our comprehension.
The Para Adumah ceremony
In Sefer Vayikra, the word Torah means “ procedures” .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 borne a yoke) by the priest, outside the camp
• Sprinkling the blood of this heifer seven times towards the 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 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
• 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.
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. R. Joseph Bechor Shor (cited by Nechama Leibowitz) thinks the goal is to discourage association with the dead and prevent 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 behaviors and how these extremities may be associated with death (of spirit, personality). Sforno thinks that by going to the opposite extreme one can regain the middle road. 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 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 -- slaughtering the heifer; burning it ; the sprinkling of water and of blood-- that reverses Tumah. R. Yochanan ben Zakkai explained to a heathen seeking a rational explanation that the sprinkling the Red Heifer’s 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.
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 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 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 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 the paradox of the Parah Aduma that is "m'tahayr temaim" and "m'tamay 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!
A thirsty nation demands water
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 frustration and disgust?).
God tells Moshe to “take THE rod… 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 assembling nation: “listen here you rebels, can 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.”
Nechama Leibowitz surveys commentators’ views on Moshe’s sin that deserved such a harsh punishment.
• 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” as “talk to them (the Jewish people)...near the rock …” about the rock and challenge their beliefs. 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 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 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 announce 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 (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 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. The breakdown in their leadership had started some time earlier. They failed to sanctify God’s name other times during the forty year desert trek; this was the final straw.
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”…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.
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 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 you 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 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 kind of social worker,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.