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Torah Sparks

June 23, 2007 – 7 Tammuz 5767

Annual: Numbers: 19:1 – 22:1 (Etz Hayim, p. 880; Hertz p. 652)
Triennial: Numbers: 20:22 – 22:1 (Etz Hayim, p. 887; Hertz p. 658)
Haftarah: Judges: 11:1 – 33 (Etz Hayim, p. 910; Hertz p. 664)

Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen

Summary of the Parashah

Chapter 19 is devoted to the ritual of the red heifer, a purification rite for people who have come into contact with a corpse. It should be noted that a preoccupation with the dead was an ever-present part not only of ancient Egyptian theology but also of daily life in ancient Egypt. The ritual presented in this parashah appears to be designed to distance people from excessive involvement with the dead.

The first half of Chapter 20 deals with the incident of Moses striking the rock, and the consequences of this action. (The nature of Moses’ and Aaron’s infraction is explored below.) In the second half of the chapter, the Israelites seek permission to pass peacefully through the territory of Edom on their way to the Promised Land. When Edom denies them that permission the Israelites are constrained to lengthen their journey, because the Edomites were descendants of Jacob’s brother Esau and they are reluctant to become embroiled in a dispute with a relative.

Chapter 20 concludes with the death of Aaron.

Chapter 21 opens with a brief skirmish with the Canaanites, and then tells us of a plague of poisonous snakes (see below). Next come encounters with the peoples on the eastern side of the Jordan, including a successful military conquest and some ancient poetic passages.

The parashah concludes with the Israelites encamped on the plains of Moab, across the Jordan from Jericho.

Topic #1: Moses and Aaron Were Mere Human Beings

The source for the well-known story of Moses and Aaron striking the rock lies within our parashah (20:1-13). As a result of their behavior in this crisis, God denies these two leaders the opportunity to enter the Promised Land.

There are several theories seeking to explain why Moses’ and Aaron’s behavior in this matter was judged so harshly. Three leading theories, in a nutshell, are as follows:

  1. Rashi (1040-1105) - They sinned in striking the rock, rather than speaking to it as they had been commanded.
  2. Maimonides (RaMBaM, 1135-1204) - Moses’ whole sin lay in erring on the side of anger and deviating from the mean of patience when he used the expression, “Hear now, you rebels.” God then censured him for this, that a man of his stature should give vent to anger when anger was not called for.
  3. Nachmanides (RaMBaN, 1194-1270) - Cites Rabbeinu Hanan’el, who suggested that Moses made the critical mistake of saying “Shall we bring forth water?” instead of “Shall God bring forth water?” The people might have been misled into thinking that Moses and Aaron had extracted water for them by their own skills. Thus they failed “to sanctify Me in the midst of the people.”

Each of these theories takes Moses’ and Aaron’s actions, as narrated in Chapter 20, into account, along with the divine rebuke in the same chapter that alludes to the reasoning for denying them admission to the Promised Land. What was the most critical part of their mission, shepherding the people in safety or promoting belief in God? Was their responsibility to fulfill the goal or to follow each detail fully?

Regardless of your own assessment of the harshness of the decree, which of these theories do you think best accounts for the divine disapproval of Moses’ and Aaron’s actions? Do you prefer another theory altogether?

Topic #2: The Copper Serpent

  1. Following a round of grumbling by the Israelites, an infestation of seraphim (poisonous snakes) afflicted the people. In the words of our parashah (21:6-9):
    They bit the people and many of the Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you.

    Intercede with the Lord to take away the serpents from us!” And Moses interceded for the people.

    Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a seraph figure and mount it on a standard. And if anyone who is bitten looks at it, he shall recover.” Moses made a copper serpent and mounted it on a standard; and when anyone was bitten by a serpent, he would look at the copper serpent and recover.
    What is troubling about this solution to the snake problem?

  2. The copper snake mentioned above evidently was preserved, so that later generations could learn of the miraculous cure effected in the desert. Centuries later, King Hezekiah had to deal with a different problem relating to that very same copper snake.

    He also broke into pieces the bronze serpent which Moses had made, for until that time the Israelites had been offering sacrifices to it; it was called Nehushtan. (II Kings 18:4)
    How had Moses’ original purpose in fashioning the serpent been perverted?

  3. The potential for a symbol to be misused is a hazard of religious life. Can you think of any religious symbols that are misused today? Are there any ways that we can safeguard symbols so that they will be less likely to be misused?

  4. The rabbis of the Mishnaic period were concerned about the apparent voodoo surrounding Moses’ copper serpent, as narrated in our parashah. They voiced their concern in a straightforward question, for which they proposed a novel answer:

    Can a [copper] snake cause someone to die or to live?

    Rather [we can learn from this incident that] whenever the Israelites look upwards and subjugate their hearts to their heavenly Father, they are healed; otherwise, they pine away. (Mishnah, Rosh HaShanah 3:8)
    How did the rabbis of the Mishnah understand the purpose of the copper snake?

    Are there times now when people confuse a symbol with what the symbol represents?

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