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What will make a ritually impure person pure, and at the same time make a ritually pure person impure? The red heifer, parah adumah, that totally arcane subject of the first part of our parsha today. The rite is so obscure that even the most incisive of commentators, the Rambam, said he couldn’t figure it out.
Just as a reminder, a 100 percent red heifer that had never borne a yoke was to be slaughtered and burned down to ashes. These ashes were kept in the Tabernacle and a small amount of them was mixed with water which was then sprinkled on people who had become ritually impure (by coming in contact with a dead person or animal). The person who sprinkled the water on them – then became impure until the evening.
Arcane, yes. So let’s just accept it as a given. In the centuries that the Temples stood, a total of nine such cows were burned, according to tradition. Ashes went a long way then.
The red heifer deals with two elements that appear abundantly in our parsha: water and death. And they are connected. We read that Miriam, Moshe’s sister, died and immediately afterwards, the people had no water to drink. This led the rabbis to posit that as long as Miriam lived, a special well accompanied the Israelites in the desert, providing them with water. When she died the well went with her.
Miriam’s connection to water goes back to Egypt, where she followed her baby brother Moshe as he floated down the Nile in a basket, and later she led the women in song after the Israelites crossed the Reed Sea.
With no water, we encounter a déjà vu event: the people complain about not having water. When Moshe and Aharon are commanded to talk to a rock so that it will release water, Moshe instead strikes the rock with his staff. The water flows, to be sure, but the two are accused by God of not sanctifying His name, and their punishment is that they will not enter Canaan. They will die in the desert. And in fact, Aharon dies and is buried on a mountain at the end of the same chapter.
This means that within the space of one chapter, Moshe loses his sister, his brother and his free pass to enter Canaan. Yet as is the case in most of the Torah, we have no conspicuous emotional reaction from Moshe, not to the deaths of his siblings nor to his exclusion from the promised land. He goes about his business with nary a whimper.
Two commentaries see this issue differently. Rabbi Jonathan Sachs points out that Moshe’s uncharacteristic outburst at the rock – calling the people rebels and beating the rock with his staff – may be his venting of emotions, a reflection of his distraught frame of mind because his sister has just died.
He knows that without Miriam there would have been no Moshe as we know him. Had she not brazenly gone up to Pharaoh’s daughter and offered to bring a Hebrew woman to nurse the river floater, Moshe would never have known his true heritage or internalized his affiliation to the Hebrew people.
Therefore, Rabbi Sachs says, Moshe’s emotional state overcame his usual meticulous adherence to God’s commands, so that his behavior was not truly against the people or God but rather the anguished reaction of a bereaved brother.
As for Aharon, as I have noted before, this is the first story in the Torah where brothers do not fight. In fact, they work in superb harmony together. Where is Moshe’s reaction to this loss?
Educator Yair Bernstein offers an interesting insight. As opposed to the usual conciseness of language in the Torah, the description of Aharon’s demise is long and detailed. First Moshe is told that Aharon will die. Take him, Moshe is told, with Elazar his son up to Hor Hahar. Strip off Aharon’s clothes, dress Elazar his son in them and Aharon will die and join his ancestors there.
The next verses repeat this list of actions: And they went up the mountain and Moshe stripped Aharon of his clothing and he dressed Elazar in them and Aharon died there. There was no need to describe each of the actions that Moshe performed because it says that Moshe did as God had commanded him. So what is the purpose of this repetition?
Bernstein says that if we pay close attention, we can feel how the narrative drags, reflecting how hard it was for Moshe to perform these actions. He did not run to complete the action. Rather each step was taken slowly, with grief and sadness.
Thus the parsha is filled with death and also with water. The water in the case of Moshe does not erase his sins but rather IS the cause of his sins. No expiation is possible for him, not even with the parah adumah.
But again, this may simply be an excuse. We are now in the final year of the Israelites’ wanderings in the desert, there’s a new generation who are not pining for Egypt. No, their complaints are more future-oriented, like: why aren’t we getting to our land already.
Moshe and Aharon were perfect leaders for the desert. They were God’s conduit to the people, they obeyed and conveyed the messages that had to get through. Canaan, with fighting, with dispersion of the people, with daily life to contend with – without miraculous manna and without water from rocks – required a different type of leader.
It’s not fair, you say? That’s the way the cookie crumbles. Each leader has an expiry date, and no matter how good he is, someone will replace him eventually, and history will – usually – continue to roll on without a second thought.