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 journey of the Israelites and its narrative reads like a riddle inside of a riddle.
The 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’: a symbol which has yet to be definitively interpreted. Ultimately, there appeared to be consensus amongst the sages that “the mitzvah of the purification of the ‘red heifer’ belongs in the category of ‘Chukim,’ supernatural laws that defy logic, and must be accepted and observed as God’s will”(2).
However, in the context of the entire parsha, the purification of the ‘red heifer’ seems to foreshadow the death or profound disappointment of the individuals who had played a major role in the lives of the Israelites during the decades of wandering in the desert. The lengthy details related to this curious commandment are immediately followed by a singular statement: “The entire congregation arrived at the desert of Zin and settled in Kadesh, where Miriam died and was buried”(3). There is no narrative in the parsha pertaining to the cause of Miriam’s death, the reaction of her brothers Moses and Aaron or the traditional grieving time and process by the Israelites. Perhaps it was not known that a Talmudic passage would claim that “it was in Miriam’s merit that the Israelites had a well of water which miraculously accompanied the Israelites through the desert; when Miriam died, the water ceased to flow”(4).
Almost forty years have passed from the time of the Exodus. Most of the people who had lived as slaves in Egypt had already died. Their descendants were journeying close to their destination. As they paused for another encampment, the Israelites discovered that there was no fresh water available to them. This primarily ‘new’ generation of the ‘Children of Israel’ quarreled with Moses.
Moses and Aaron went to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and fell on their faces in despair. The Lord spoke to Moses: “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”(5).
Moses took the staff, raised his hand, and ‘STRUCK’ the rock twice, disobeying God’s orders to ‘SPEAK’ 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 live to enter the Promised Land”(6). Dozens of rationales for this severe punishment of Moses and Aaron have emerged. Each of the suggested interpretations and theories have been challenged and negated by others. It has been presumed that this dire punishment is for past sins committed by Moses and Aaron; that the brothers were emotionally unstable due to the sudden death of their sister, Miriam, and the most logical explanation…. that Moses and Aaron did not actually commit any transgression. Rather, there was a generational divide between these great leaders and the descendants of the slaves brought out of Egypt.
Moses was speaking to a new generation who grew up in freedom. They would be more likely to respond to persuasion, debate and ‘words.’ Slaves tend to respond to being beaten and could relate to the miracle of water flowing from a rock after it has been ‘struck.’ Although seemingly tragic, it is the nature of life. What we begin, others will be destined to complete.
(1) NUMBERS (19:1-2)
(2) Rashi (‘On Chukat’)
(3) NUMBERS (20:1)
(4) TANNIT (9a)
(5) NUMBERS (20:8)
(6) NUMBERS (20:12)