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Torah Sparks

June 19, 2010 - 7 Tammuz 5770

Annual (Num. 19:1-22:1): Etz Hayim p. 880; Hertz p. 652
Triennial (Num. 20:22-22:1): Etz Hayim p. 890; Hertz p. 660
Haftarah (Judges 11:1-33): Etz Hayim p. 910; Hertz p. 664

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, to 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 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 asking 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, the king of the Amorite,s 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.

1. Mr. Congeniality

Moses did as the Lord had commanded. They ascended Mount Hor in the sight of the whole community. Moses stripped Aaron of his vestments and put them on his son Eleazar, and Aaron died there on the summit of the mountain. When Moses and Eleazar came down from the mountain, the whole community knew that Aaron had breathed his last. All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron thirty days. (Numbers 20:27-29)

  1. “All the house of Israel” The men and the women, for Aaron used to pursue peace and bring love among men of strife and between a husband and his wife. (Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki), 1040-1105, France)
  2. “All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron” - whereas for Moses only men wept, because he rendered judgment strictly according to the truth and used to rebuke people besides. But Aaron never said to a man or to a woman, “You have acted offensively.” More! He sought peace, as is said, “He walked with Me in peace and uprightness” (Malachi 2:6). What is meant by the words that follow in the verse: “And did turn many away from iniquity”? These words teach that when Aaron would walk along the road and meet a wicked man, he would greet him warmly. The next day, when that man was about to go and commit a transgression, he would say to himself: Woe is me, how could I ever raise my eyes and face Aaron? I would be too embarrassed by the man who greeted me so warmly. The result: That wicked man would refrain from further transgression. Likewise, when two men quarreled, Aaron would go, sit with one of them, and say, “My son, look how your friend beats his breast and tears his hair out as he says, ‘Woe is me, how can I raise my eyes and face my friend? I would be too embarrassed, for it is I who acted offensively toward him.'” Aaron would sit with him until he removed all rancor from his heart. Then Aaron would go and say the same thing to the other man. Later, when one met the other, they would hug and kiss each other. Hence, it is said, “All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron.” (Avot D'Rabbi Natan 12; Yalkut Shimoni, Hukkat, #764)
  3. [T]he people deeply loved Aaron and deeply felt his death. They mourned for him even more than they did later for Moses; for the latter only a part of the people shed tears, but for Aaron, everyone. Moses, as a judge, was obliged to mete out justice to the guilty, so that he had enemies among the people, men who could not forget that he had pronounced them guilty in court. Moses, furthermore, was sometimes severe with Israel when he held up to them their sins, but never Aaron. (Rabbi Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, Volume III, p. 328)
  4. A king had cups made of delicate glass. The king said: If I pour hot water into them, they will [expand and] burst; if cold water, they will contract [and break]. What did he do? He mixed hot and cold water and poured it into them, and so they remained unbroken. Likewise, the Holy One said: If I create the world with the attribute of mercy alone, its sins will be too many; if with justice alone, how could the world be expected to endure? So I will create it with both justice and mercy, and may it endure! (B'reishit Rabbah 12:15)

Sparks for Discussion

Following the death of Moses, the Torah says, “The Israelites bewailed Moses,” but concerning Aaron it says, “All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron.” Therefore, the rabbis understand that Aaron was more beloved and the people mourned him more deeply. Why? Do you think that Aaron's efforts to make peace and avoid conflict are the best approach? What are its drawbacks? According to the midrash, at least some of the people resented Moses because he called people to account for their sins and their crimes. Do you think that Moses' efforts to execute justice are the best approach? What are its drawbacks? To what extent should a leader worry about his or her popularity?

2. Snakes on the Plain

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. (Numbers 21:8-9)

  1. But can a serpent kill or can a serpent keep alive? But whenever Israel looked on high and subjected their hearts to their Father in heaven they were healed and if not they perished. (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 3:8)
  2. Clearly, the copper snake was not capable of curing people who merely noticed with their eyes that it sat on a pole; the visibility of this copper snake was meant to trigger emotional and intellectual responses in the viewer that would make him focus on God and do teshuvah so that God would have an excuse to let him live. (Haketav Vehakabbalah (Rabbi Jacob Zvi Mecklenburg), 1785-1865, Germany)
  3. The serpent does not keep alive and it has no healing power, but it was done this way for the sake of the holiness of God, for when they saw that a person who looked at the serpent lived, just as the Holy Blessed One said, and the one who did not died, they would recognize that life came from God. (Bechor Shor (Rabbi Yosef of Orleans), 1140-1190, France) D. The serpents were sent to show the people that danger beset their every step and it was only thanks to the miraculous and perpetual intervention of divine providence that they were able to proceed unharmed. Their path was so smooth that they failed to perceive the constant miracle in their unmolested progress. (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, 1808-1888, Germany)
  4. “The Lord sent (va-yeshalah) seraph serpents against the people” (21:6). It is not stated “The Lord sent (va-yishlah) seraph serpents” but: “The Lord let go (va-yeshalah) seraph serpents.” The reason for the Torah saying: “The Lord set free” or let go the serpents and not merely sent them should become quite clear when we recall that the wilderness they were traveling through was a place of “fiery serpents and scorpions and drought. . .” If the serpents had not bitten them till now, it was only thanks to Divine Providence which had been watching over them, leading them through that great and terrible wilderness and not allowing the serpents to touch them, just as He did not allow the drought to overcome them with thirst, but drew them out water from the rock. The children of Israel, however, had spurned the Almighty's supernatural intervention, not wishing to live on the bread He provided, the manna (“we have come to loathe this miserable food”), but aspiring to lead a more normal “natural” existence. Accordingly, the Lord let things go their ordinary, normal way. He allowed the serpents to behave in their natural manner in the great and terrible wilderness, which was to bite anyone crossing their path. (Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar (Numbers), p. 262)

Sparks for Discussion

This episode is surprising, to say the least. Why do you think God instructed Moses to make an image of a living creature, something that is explicitly forbidden in the Ten Commandments? How might you explain what happened when someone who had been bitten looked at the copper serpent?

Nehama Leibowitz points out that God did not send the serpents, but rather released the ones He had been holding back. How was this an appropriate response to the people's complaints about the manna? Is “natural” always better?

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