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Torah Sparks

July 5, 2008 – 2 Tammuz 5768

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 Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

God instructs Moses and Aaron about the ritual of the red cow, whose ashes were to be used to purify people who had become ritually impure through contact with a corpse.

Miriam dies and is buried at Kadesh. Once again, the Israelites lack water and turn to Moses and Aaron with complaints and recriminations. God tells Moses to take his rod, and then, with Aaron, assemble the community and order a rock to produce water. Moses strikes the rock with his staff and the rock produces enough water for the Israelites and their animals. But God is displeased and tells Moses and Aaron that they will not enter the land He is giving to the Israelites.

Moses sends messengers to the king of Edom, asking for permission to cross his territory. The king refuses and sends an armed force to prevent the Israelites from entering his land. The people take a different path and come to Mount Hor; Aaron dies there, on Mount Hor, and Moses invests Aaron’s son Eleazar as the new high priest. The people mourn for Aaron for 30 days. The Canaanite king of Arad attacks the Israelites and is defeated at Hormah.

The people begin complaining yet again and God sends poisonous snakes to punish them. The Israelites approach Moses saying they realize they have sinned and they ask him to intercede with God for them. God tells Moses to make a copper serpent and place it on a pole so that anyone bitten by a snake could look at it and be cured.

The Israelites continue their journey through the territory east of the Jordan. They ask Sihon king of the Amorites for permission to cross his land, but he refuses and attacks. The Israelites defeat the Amorites and take possession of their land. The Israelites also defeat King Og of Bashan and his people, taking their land as well. The Israelites camp in Moab, across the Jordan from Jericho.

Why? Because I Said So!

This is the ritual law [hukkat ha-Torah] that the Lord has commanded: Instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid. (Bamidbar 19:2)

  1. Because Satan and the nations of the world taunt Israel, saying, “What is this commandment and what reason is there in it?” Therefore [Scripture] terms it a “statute” (hukkah) – it is a decree from before Me; you do not have permission to criticize it. (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France])
  2. Inasmuch as Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge: My commandments [mitzvotai], My laws [hukkotai], and My teachings [torotai] (Bereisheit 26:5) Mitzvotai – Those matters which even if they were not written are worthy of (being regarded as) commandments, such as robbery and bloodshed. Hukkotai – matters which the evil inclination and the gentiles of the world criticize, such as eating swine’s flesh and the wearing of a material of mixed wool and linen, for which there is no explanation (given), but the decree of the king and his statutes for his servants. Torotai – This includes the Oral Torah, the laws (revealed) to Moses on Sinai. (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France] on Bereisheit 26:5)
  3. An idolater asked Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai: “These rites that you perform look like a kind of witchcraft. You bring a heifer, burn it, pound it, and take its ashes. If one of you is defiled by a dead body you sprinkle upon him two or three drops and you say to him, ‘you are clean!’” Rabbi Yohanan asked him: “Has the demon of madness ever possessed you?” “No,” he replied. “Have you ever seen a man possessed by the demon of madness?” “Yes,” he said. “And what do you do in such a case?” “We bring roots,” he replied, “and make them smoke under him, then we sprinkle water upon the demon and it flees.” Rabbi Yohanan said to him, “Let your ears hear what you mouth utters! Precisely so is this spirit a spirit of uncleanness. . . . Water of purification is sprinkled upon the unclean and the spirit flees.” When the idolater had gone Rabbi Yohanan’s disciples said, “Master! You have put off this man with a mere makeshift but what explanation will you give to us?” He said to them, “By your life! It is not the dead that defiles or the water that purifies! The Holy One merely says ‘I have laid down a statute, I have issued a decree. You are not allowed to transgress My decree.’” (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:7)
  4. Deviance from Torah observance is often the result of the attempt to apply human reasoning to the mitzvot This is fraught with great hazard. One may make assumptions which are plausible, but may not be true. For example, one might think the reason we are forbidden to eat pork is to prevent trichinosis. On this assumption, one might argue that if pork can be treated to eliminate the trichina parasite, the prohibition is removed. This is, of course, not the case. Pork is absolutely forbidden, independent of the hygienic factor.

    The mitzvot of Torah are to be observed as Divine decrees. Although we can easily understand the prohibition of theft and other social ordinances, we must observe them because they are the will of God, rather than because we understand their practicality. (Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, Twerski on Chumash, p. 323)

Sparks for Discussion

The rabbis understand the word hukkah to mean a law that has no logical explanation, neither a reason that can be deduced by reason (e.g., do not steal) nor one that is given in the Torah (e.g., eating matzah on Pesach). Do you think that all Torah laws (or at least the ones we obey) should be logical? What do you think of Rabbi Twerski’s concern that this would undermine the entire halakhic legal system? Should we be free to ignore the laws we do not consider reasonable? If religion is completely logical and rational, why do we need religion?

Been There, Done That

But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” (Bamidbar 20:12)

  1. A table, meat, and a knife before us but no mouth to eat with – the commandment of God is clearly outlined, the deed that was performed is not concealed from us, and the subsequent wrath of God astonishes us, but no satisfactory explanation emerges. (Akedat Yitzhak [Rabbi Isaac Arama, 1420-1494, Spain])
  2. For if you had spoken to the rock and I had brought forth (water), I would have been sanctified in the eyes of the congregation, and they would have said: If this rock which does not speak and does not hear and does not require sustenance fulfills the word of the Omnipresent, then how much more so (should we). (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France])
  3. His whole sin lay in erring on the side of anger and deviating from the mean of patience when he used the expression, “listen, you rebels.” The Holy One censured him for this, that a man of his stature should give vent to anger in front of the whole community of Israel, when anger was not called for. .. . When they [the Israelites] saw him thus in anger, they must certainly have concluded that he was not displaying personal animus or pique but, on the contrary, had not God been angry with them at their demand for water, Moses would not have been provoked. (Shemonah Perakim, [Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, 1135-1209, Spain and Egypt])
  4. Moses made the fatal mistake of saying “shall we get water for you,” instead of saying, “shall God get water for you,” as in all the other miracles where the authority of God is always explicitly stressed. The people might have been misled into thinking that Moses and Aaron had extracted the water for them by their own skill. Therefore they failed to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people. (Ramban [Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spain])
  5. And others say it was because they did not sing a song like “Spring up, O well, sing to it” [which they sang at the well of Be’er in verse 21:17]. (Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, 1092-1167, Spain)

Sparks for Discussion

As Akedat Yitzhak says, “the subsequent wrath of God astonishes us!” Rashi, Rambam, and Ramban provide the three most common explanations for God’s decree – Moses struck the rock rather than speak to it; Moses spoke angrily to the people, who were simply asking for the water they needed to sustain themselves and their animals; Moses spoke as if he and not God were the one performing the miracle. If you had to choose, which of these do you think is the best explanation for God’s anger? Does the punishment fit the crime?

Ibn Ezra brings a different explanation – it was not what Moses and Aaron did but what they did not do – they didn’t celebrate the miracle that provided water for some two million human beings and tens of thousands of animals in the manner in which they had once celebrated the crossing of the sea. Apparently, they had begun to take God’s miracles for granted. Do you think this is a better reason for God’s anger? Is there a lesson for us in this?

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