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Parshat Chukat 2018
Water is scarce, the people are grumbling and asking why they were brought to the desert. Moshe hits a rock and out comes water. Sound familiar? It should. Been there, done that. Déjà vu. This is one of the first complaints by the people after they cross the Reed Sea. Except that here, we are 39 1/2 years later, all those who experienced the first thirst have met their maker and the complainers have never ever set foot in Egypt!
But the story is much more complicated. Moshe wasn’t supposed to hit the rock but rather talk to it. As a result of this misunderstanding or disobedience, he is informed that he and Aharon will not enter the Promised Land, to which we say, “What’s the big deal here? After all his work he’s not going in because he hit a rock instead of talking to it? What – the rock’s feelings were hurt?”
Let’s take one more step back and see what preceded this event. What happened was that Miriam, Moshe and Aharon’s older sister, had just died and was buried. That’s the description we get, she died and was buried. No mourning by the siblings or the people, no shiva, no shloshim, no eulogies. Dead and buried.
Is it possible, as Rabbi Lisa Grushcow of Montreal suggests, that this lack of proper ceremony surrounding the death of a sibling upset Moshe and Aharon so badly that they couldn’t deal properly with this throwback to earlier times? They were totally nonplussed, unable to respond to the demand for water. It is also possible that they were simply tired after 40 years of wandering about, leading a cranky mob through the desert.
At the end of the same chapter, Moshe is informed that the time has come for Aharon to die and here the ceremony is much more formal. Moshe, Aharon and Aharon’s son Elazar ascend the mountain, Aharon’s ceremonial garb is placed on Elazar, Aharon dies, Moshe and Elazar descend, and the people mourn him for thirty days.
Now, that’s proper ceremony. Did the people love Aharon more? He was the peacemaker and the person who tried to save them. But Miriam was also important. Because of the juxtaposition of her death and the complaint about water, the midrash says that as long as she lived there was a well available for water at all times. Shouldn’t she have been given the same honorable sendoff?
In general, this parsha is the most death-oriented parsha in the Torah. In addition to the deaths of Miriam and Aharon, the edict that Moshe too will die without entering the land, and an outbreak of venomous serpents sent to punish the recalcitrant people, we have a long introductory chapter about the red heifer ceremony.
The red heifer ceremony is so obscure in meaning that the Rambam said he has no idea about its deeper meaning. One of the few times he says that. In short, a young totally red heifer that has never been yoked is taken, slaughtered and burned. Its ashes are then stored. They are mixed with water and used by the priests to ritually purify people who have become impure by coming in contact with a dead body. Just one more detail: those who sprinkle the water-ashes mixture on others become impure themselves for the day.
Incidentally, the ashes of one red heifer could last for many years, so that this ceremony was performed very infrequently.
Why is this chapter here, in the middle of Bamidbar? It should be in Vayikra, with the laws of purity. We don’t really know the answer, of course. But here’s a stab in the dark.
During the 38 years in the desert, from Korach to now, all the people in the nation (except for five) died. Death was around them with its sadness and finality. A way of separating the living from death was necessary, and to this day, we wash our hands after attending a funeral or visiting the cemetery. In addition, the people were preparing for entry into the land. There would be wars and deaths; the people would be scattered. An official system of purification had to be offered – and here it was.
In other words, the red heifer is a precursor to the deaths of Miriam and Aharon (and Moshe in the near future) and to the deaths the people are facing and will have to deal with when they enter Canaan. Not a great answer, but as good as any other.
As we’re talking about the deaths of Moshe and Aharon, let’s examine the immediate cause for their death warrant. They did not obey God. They hit the rock instead of talking to it.
Rabbi David Stav emphasizes the symbolism of the act. There are times when force is necessary. Taking the Israelites out of a recalcitrant Egypt required plagues and strength. Building up the fortitude of the people in the desert required strength. But Moshe also had to use words – to talk to the people, to talk to God. Perhaps, 40 years later, after his words seemed to evoke the same complaints as 40 years earlier, Moshe simply gave up on words and used force – whether because he was distracted by Miriam’s death, was reliving the previous time he had a similar situation or was simply angry at the people for their behavior (or for their lack of respect for Miriam’s death).
Whether to use the force of arms or the force of words has been a question for leaders for millennia. In our parsha, Moshe, the great leader, was not careful and suffered the consequences of making the wrong decision. Leaders today, around the world, would do well to take heed.