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Torah Sparks

July 9, 2005 - 2 Tammuz 5765

Annual: Numbers 19:1 - 22:1 (Etz Hayim, p. 880; Hertz p. 652)
Triennial: Numbers 19:1 - 20:21 (Etz Hayim, p. 880; Hertz p. 652)
Haftarah: Judges: 11:1 - 33 (Etz Hayim, p. 910; Hertz p. 664)

Prepared by David M. Eligberg
Congregation B'nai Tikvah, North Brunswick, NJ

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director


The parasha opens with a lengthy description of the ritual of purification.

The Kohanim take an unblemished red cow and burn it along with cedar wood, hyssop and crimson stuff. The ashes are then gathered up and used to create the "water of lustration" which is sprinkled on individuals to ritually cleanse them.

The parasha mentions, in brief, the death of Miriam as the people are encamped at Kadesh. A lack of water causes the Israelites to complain, suggesting they were better off in Egypt. Moshe and Aharon gather the people together as God directed. Moshe strikes the designated rock twice, instead of speaking to it. An abundance of water flows forth. God is displeased with Moshe and Aharon for not sanctifying the Divine Name in the presence of the people. Neither of them will lead the people into the Promised Land.

Moshe sends messengers to the king of Edom requesting safe passage along the King's Highway for the Israelites and offers to pay for any water consumed along the way. Edom refuses to allow the Israelites passage and goes out to the borders heavily armed. The Israelites circumnavigate the land of Edom and arrive at Mount Hor. Moshe, Aharon and Elazar ascend the mountain. The High Priest's vestments are transferred by Aharon to Elazar, following that, Aharon dies.

The Israelites are victorious in a series of battles against the king of Arad, Sihon, the king of Amorites and Og, the king of Basham. The travels of the Israelites through the wilderness continue to be punctuated by episodes of complaint. The affliction of serpents sent to punish the Israelites for their grumbling is stemmed by Aharon's placing a bronze serpent atop a tall staff which draws the people's focus upward. The Israelites now find themselves encamped across the Jordan River from the city of Jericho.

Discussion Topic 1: "Most Illogical." Mr. Spock, First Officer, U.S.S. Enterprise

"This is the ritual law that the Lord has commanded." (Numbers 19:2)

Derash: Study

  • For the honor of Torah it is preferable that a person accept upon themselves all of the Torah as a hok (law) and not investigate the underlying rationale of the mitzvot but accept them as if they were an edict of a king. (Rabbi Ze'ev Mastrikov)
  • It is important to the Divine Presence that the observance of mitzvot be motivated by faith and purity of intent without any exploration [of reasons] and not as a reflection of logical conclusions and insight. (Dvash V'Halav)
  • It is known that the reward for fulfilling non-rational mitzvot is greater than the reward for fulfilling the rational mitzvot, for what a person can apprehend is easy to fulfill but non-rational laws and edicts that are not understood are difficult for a person to observe. Observing the non-rational mitzvot demonstrates that observing the rational mitzvot is also being done as a response to the divine will.
  • When a Jew wishes to perform a mitzvah, the evil inclination tries to dissuade him by asking, "What is this mitzvah? What value and importance does this mitzvah have? Are there not other more important and logical mitzvot?" And when the Jew does not heed the inclination and performs the mitzvah, the inclination returns afterwards and asks: "And what reason is there to this mitzvah? Do you know the nature and meaning of the mitzvah you performed? It is one of the greatest mitzvot that you performed!" (Sha'ar Bat Rabim)

The Basis for Obedience of the Law

"The rabbis rooted themselves in the biblical tradition, restating almost all of its motivations for obedience in one form or another. They also added some considerations of their own:

  1. People become purified by observing the commandments. This is similar to the biblical challenge to become holy like God...
    • Rav said: The commandments were given to Israel only in order that people should be purified through them. For what can it matter to God whether a beast is slain at the throat or at the neck? (Genesis Rabbah, Lekh Lekha 44:1 and Leviticus Rabbah, Shemini, 13:3)
  2. On the other hand, the rabbis asserted the exact opposite claim, too: You should obey the law as a favor to God, for He cares very much that you observe it.
    • God said, "If you read the Law, you do a kindness, for you help to preserve My world, since if it were not for the Law, the world would again become 'without form and void'." (Deuteronomy Rabbah, Nitzavim, 8:5)
  3. Observing the law gives Israel a separate identity. This became an increasingly important function of the law from rabbinic times on, as significant numbers of Jews were scattered all over the globe and thus could not depend on a geographic center to unite them.
    • All the goodly gifts that were given them were taken from them. And if it had not been for the Book of the Law which was left to them, they would not have differed at all from the nations of the world. (Sifra 112c)
  4. The law makes Israel beautiful.
    • "You are beautiful, my love" (Song of Songs 1:15). You are beautiful through the commandments, both positive and negative, beautiful through loving deeds, beautiful in your house with the heave-offerings and the tithes, beautiful in the field by the commands about gleaning, the forgotten sheaf and the second tithe; beautiful in the law about mixed seeds and about fringes, and about first fruits, and the fourth year planting; beautiful in the law of circumcision; beautiful in prayer, in the reading of the shema, in the law of doorposts and the phylacteries, in the !aw of the Lulav and the Etrog; beautiful too, in repentance and in good works; beautiful in this world and beautiful in the world to come. (Songs Rabbah 1, 15 on Song of Songs 1:15)
  5. God's children should see the law as a blessing, as an enrichment of life.
    • R. Jonathan said that the famous words in Joshua 1:8, "You shall meditate therein [the Law] day and night," were not a command or obligation, but a blessing. They meant that because Joshua loved the words of the Law so much, therefore they should never depart out of his mouth. In the school of R. Ishmael it was taught that the words of the law are not to be unto you a burden, but, on the other hand, you are not free to dispense yourself from them. (Menahot 99b)
  6. But, as the last line of the previous excerpt indicates, the Jew is obligated to observe the law whether or not he understands the reasons why.
    • You shall observe my judgments and execute my statutes (Lev. 18:4). The Rabbis teach: "My judgments": these are the things which, if they had not been written, would have had to be written, such as idolatry, unchastity, bloodshed, robbery, blasphemy. "My statutes": these are the things to which Satan and the Gentiles raise objections, such as not eating pig meat, not wearing linen and wool together, the law of halizah (Deut. 25: 5-10), the scapegoat. Should you say, "These are empty things," the Scripture adds, "I am the Lord," i.e., "I have made decrees; you are not at liberty to criticize them. "Yoma 67b; cp. Sifra 86a" (Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff and Arthur Rosett, A Living Tree: The Roots and Growth of Jewish Law)
    • The desire to serve the Holy One is itself already to serve God. (Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav)


  1. Which reason or reasons do you find most compelling as a basis for observance? Why?
  2. Which matters more, action or intent?
  3. Is it easier to observe a commandment that we do not understand or one with which we disagree?
  4. Why is it important that we maintain a separate identity through the performance of mitzvot?
  5. How does the observance of mitzvot beautify and enrich our lives?

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