By Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant

In an almost imperceptible yet seismic shift, this week’s Torah Parsha (CHUKAT) jumps several decades ahead in the wilderness journey of the Israelites; and its narrative reads like a riddle inside a riddle.

The Torah Parsha begins: “This is the statute of the Torah which the Lord commanded…(1), and proceeds to discuss the purification laws of the ‘red heifer’, which is almost impossible to understand or interpret. Many of the greatest known Torah scholars struggled with the rationale or symbolism behind this mitzvah. Ultimately, they seemed to agree that the mitzvah of the ‘red heifer’ belongs in the category of ‘CHUKIM’, supra-rational laws that defy logic, and must be accepted and observed as God’s will (2).

However, in context of the entire Parsha (CHUKAT), the purification ritual of the ‘red heifer’ seems to foreshadow the death of those, who had played a major role, both while the Israelites were slaves in Egypt; as well as when the Israelites gained their freedom. Subsequent to the lengthy details related to this commandment, is one sentence in the Parsha: “The entire congregation of the Children of Israel arrived at the desert of Zin and settled in Kadesh, where Miriam died and was buried” (3). No details are provided as to the cause of her death, or the reaction of her brothers Moses and Aaron, or of any grieving by the Israelites.

A famous Talmudic passage explains that it was in Miriam’s ‘merit’ that the Israelites had a well of water, which miraculously accompanied them through the desert. When Miriam died, the water ceased to flow (4).

Almost forty years have passed since the Exodus. Most of the people who had lived in Egypt had already died. Their descendants are journeying close to their destination. In their new encampment, the Israelites find themselves without water. The people quarreled with Moses, and said: “Why have you brought the congregation of the Lord to this desert, so that we and our livestock should die here” (5).

Moses and Aaron went to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and fell on their faces. The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Take the staff and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and ‘speak’ to the rock in their presence, so that it will give forth water” (6). Moses took the staff, as commanded. Then he and Aaron gathered the assembly in front of the rock, and said to them: “Now listen, you rebels, can we draw water for you from this rock?” (7).

Moses raised his hand and ‘struck’ the rock twice, disobeying God’s orders to ‘talk’ to the rock. Water gushed forth in abundance; and, they all drank, men and beasts. But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron: “Because you did not believe in Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel, therefore, neither of you shall enter the Promised Land” (8).

Few passages in the Torah have generated as much controversy among our sages as this singular event. Dozens of rationales for this severe punishment of Moses and Aaron have emerged. Each of the most renowned rabbinical scholars offers an interpretation, only to be challenged by the others. There are theories of past sins committed by Moses and Aaron, for which they are now being punished; interpretations that the brothers were emotionally unstable, due to the recent death of their sister, Miriam; or, that both Moses and Aaron were both too old to continue as leaders of the Israelites.

One of the most striking features of Judaism is that it is not centered on a single figure, who dominates its entire history. Moses was speaking to a new generation, who grew up in freedom. They responded to ‘WORDS’. Slaves, on the other hand respond to being beaten with ‘STICKS’. It is logical to believe that the underlying reason for God’s reaction was the knowledge that leadership is a function of time and change. Each age produces its leaders, and each leader is a function of age.

At the end of this perplexing Parsha, Aaron dies, and is mourned by the congregation for thirty days. He is succeeded by his son, Elazer. Venomous snakes attack the Israelite camp, after yet another eruption of discontent. The people repent and ask for forgiveness. God hears their sincerity, and provides them with a miraculous well, to follow them into the land of Canaan.


(1) NUMBERS (19:1-2)

(2) Rashi

(3) NUMBERS (20:1)

(4) TANNIT (9a)

(5) NUMBERS (20:3-4)

(6 ) NUMBERS (20:8)

(7) NUMBERS (20:10)

(8) NUMBERS (20:12)