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Torah Sparks

June 30, 2012 – 10 Tammuz 5772

Annual: Numbers 19:1 – 22:1 (Etz Hayim p. 880; Hertz p. 652)
Triennial: Numbers 20:1 – 21:10 (Etz Hayim p. 883; Hertz p. 655)
Haftarah: Judges 11:1-33 (Etz Hayim p. 910; Hertz p. 664)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser

Parashat Chukkat opens with one of the most inscrutable passages in the Torah, about the parah adumah – the red heifer. The ashes of an entirely red cow are mixed with the other significantly red ingredients with which it is to be burned, for use in a ritual that purifies someone who has been in contact with a corpse. The ashes, which render the affected Israelite pure, render the officiating priest impure.

When the Israelites arrive at Kadesh, a series of significant events take place. Miriam dies and is buried. Immediately after her death, we learn that Israel is without water – the juxtaposition providing the impetus for the midrashic link between Miriam and the Israelites’ miraculous access to water in the wilderness. The Israelites quarrel with Moses about their potentially lethal lack of water. God tells Moses and Aaron to equip themselves with Moses’ staff, and then to order a rock to produce water for the Israelites. Moses departed from these precise instructions, instead striking the rock twice. God responds to the prophetic breach of discipline harshly: Because they “did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelites,” Moses and Aaron are told they will not be permitted to accompany the people into the Promised Land.

Also at Kadesh, Moses appeals to the King of Edom to allow the Israelites to pass through his territory, invoking Israel’s history of suffering and promising not to use any of Edom’s natural resources. Edom responds tersely, saying “You shall not pass” adding a threat of military enforcement to his refusal. Moses, no doubt disappointed by Edom and grieving for Miriam, is further bereaved: Aaron dies on Mount Hor. Moses transfers priestly leadership to his brother’s son Eleazar, along with Aaron’s vestments. The nation mourns its founding priest for 30 days.

Following a battle in which Israel defeats the Canaanite king of Arad, God punishes a typically disgruntled Israelite community with lethally poisonous snakes. Moses is instructed to construct a copper serpent, which will be displayed on a pike. Afflicted Israelites are cured by looking at the metal snake.

Citing a lost “Book of the Wars of the Lord,” the route through Transjordan is detailed, culminating in a battle against the Amorite King Sichon, whose land the victorious Israelites conquer. A similar victory and conquest follow the Israelites’ battle with Og, king of Bashan.

The parashah concludes with the wandering Israelites “encamped in the steppes of Moab, across the Jordan from Jericho.”

Theme #1: “Aaron’s Boy, Divestment, Divine Sanction”

“Let Aaron be gathered to his kin… 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 30 days.” (Numbers 20:24, 27-29)

Study: Derash

“’Let Aaron be gathered to his kin.’ Literally,‘gathered to his people.’ Let his good qualities now enter into the souls of those living Israelites who knew him, that those qualities not be lost even after his death.” (Etz Hayim)

“The death of Aaron was as painful to God as the smashing of the tablets of the Ten Commandments.” (Midrash Vayikra Rabbah)

“The righteous are informed of the day of their death so that they may hand the crown to their children.” (Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah)

“To meet death as Aaron met it, at the end of a good life, is to die on top of the mountain, in sight of the Promised Land.” (Interpreters Bible)

“‘Let Aaron be gathered to his kin.’ This phrase is found in the Torah only in connection with the deaths of six characters, all of whom are male leaders: Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and Aaron. This verb, however, is also used in 12:14-15 when Miriam is ‘readmitted’ to the camp: she is ‘gathered in’ by the people before they continue their march.” (Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, Andrea L. Weiss, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary)

Questions for Discussion

Was Aaron’s end a “good death” or a tragic one? Was his being stripped of his priestly vestments in favor of his son a proud transition or an unbecoming conclusion to a career that was flawed and very human? Does the Torah’s record of Aaron’s life support the positive estimation of Bamidbar Rabbah and the Interpreters Bible?

Why do you think that Aaron’s death was so painful to God? In what ways might this represent an indictment of Israel’s founding high priest?

Would you want to be informed of the day of your death, so that you can prepare, say goodbye, contemplate your mortality, and review the life you have lived? Or is it a greater blessing and comfort to remain ignorant of the details of your own personal destiny?

Consider the observation offered by “A Women’s Commentary.” Why is Ishmael included in such rarefied and elevated company? How might the language used in reference to Miriam’s restoration to the Israelite community serve as a metaphor for the biblical view of death and mortality?

In the spirit of Etz Hayim’s commentary, what personal qualities do you want remembered, entered into the souls of those who knew you?

Theme #2: “Of Kedushah and Caduceus”

“The people grew restive on the journey, and the people spoke against God and against Moses… The Lord sent seraph serpents against the people. They bit the people and many of the Israelites died… 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 21:4-6, 9)

Study: Derash

“Does this copper snake kill, or does the snake bring life? Rather, when Israel would look upward and subjugate their hearts to their Father in heaven, they would be cured; otherwise, they would wither.” (Mishnah Rosh Ha-Shanah 3:8) “One who was bitten had only to fix the image of a serpent firmly in his mind so that even when God's gracious power will again keep the serpents at a distance he will remember that the danger is still in existence, dangers that daily and hourly the special care of God lets us escape quite unawares." (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch)

“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… The children of Israel, however, had spurned the Almighty’s supernatural intervention, not wishing to live on the bread He provided, the manna… 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… which was to bite anyone crossing their path… It was not therefore the attack of the serpents, but rather their absence during the whole of their wanderings till then, that constituted the miracle.” (Nehama Leibowitz)

“The divine voice came forth from the earth and its voice was heard on high. ‘The serpent was cursed from the beginning and I said to it: Dust shall be your food (Gen. 3:14). Let the serpent that does not murmur concerning its food come and rule over the people which has murmured concerning their food.’” (Targum Neophiti)

Questions for Discussion

Both Rabbi Hirsch and Professor Leibowitz acknowledge the unseen miracles that keep us from danger each and every day. How can we cultivate sensitivity to the unseen dangers and pitfalls from which we are safeguarded, and thus hone our sense of the miraculous in daily life? That is, what in our religious lives functions in a manner similar to the copper serpent?!

Was the copper serpent a mechanism to turn hearts and spirits toward God or a reminder of the accursed snake of Genesis – a symbol of failure, temptation, and sin? How does your answer affect your reading of this parashah?

What role should prayer and religious faith play in the treatment of the ill? How can congregational communities effectively incorporate such prayer into the support they offer each other and those who are enduring medical difficulties? What should be the nature of prayers offered on behalf of the terminally ill, patients for whom recovery is not a realistic possibility?

Targum Neophiti seems to say that the biting serpents were a particularly fitting punishment for the Israelites who complained about their food. Why else might this specific form of divine punishment have been selected?

Historic Note:

In Parashat Chukkat, read on June 30, 2012, we read of the deaths of both Aaron, the founding high priest of Israel, and of Miriam, the sister of Aaron and Moses, who was described by the Torah as a prophetess in her own right. On June 30, 1520, Montezuma II, the last Aztec emperor, was killed. On June 30, 1974, Alberta King, mother of the martyred Rev Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated while attending church.

Halachah L’Maaseh

There is considerable irony in the fact that Aaron was stripped of his priestly vestments just before his death. Traditionally all Jews are buried in tachrichin – burial shrouds based on the vestments worn by the high priest when he officiated in the Temple (See Rabbi Abraham Chill, “The Minhagim,” p. 323; Sefer Ha-Mat’amim 2:9). That is, as members of “a nation of priests and a holy people,” we are all buried “in uniform.” Our priestly burial vestments include a mitznefet (head covering), ketonet (shirt or tunic), michnesayim (pants or breeches), and me’il (jacket), avnet (belt); and we are wrapped in a sovev (a wrapping sheet). It also is customary to be buried wearing your tallit. The vestments are made from simple white material, such as linen, cotton, or muslin (see Talmud Moed Katan 27b, Ketubbot 8b). (In a remarkable act of personal piety, and in order to acknowledge her own mortality, my great-grandmother sewed her own tachrichin when she was 60 years old. She aired them out the next spring, and every spring for 35 years! – JHP. On the origin of this custom, see Otzar Yisrael 10:259; Talmud Menachot 41, Rashi ad loc.)

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