June 26, 2004 - 7 Tammuz 5764
Annual: Numbers 19:1 – 22:1 (Etz Hayim, p. 880; Hertz p. 652)
Triennial Cycle: 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 Howard Buechler
Dix Hills Jewish Center, Dix Hills, NY
Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director
The portion of Hukkat is comprised of 87 verses. It is also the basis of 3 of the 613 mitzvot.
This portion is a watershed narrative with defining moments for our ancestors and for Moses, Miriam and Aaron. As if the events of last Shabbat and the demagoguery of Korah were not baffling enough, the reading commences with the paradox of the red heifer. A mixture that includes ashes of the unblemished and never yoked purely red heifer metaphysically cleanses those in need of ritual purification. It is indeed ironic that those who prepare these ashes of purification, they themselves become impure in this process.
In fact, Midrash Rabbah depicts the wise King Solomon lamenting that he is able to comprehend all of the Torah "except for the ritual of the red heifer". This rite is referred to as a hukkat ha-Torah (and hence the name for this portion). Hukkat is a divinely given statute that defies rational explanation. It is simply a given decree beyond our finite human range of knowledge, though each generation adds wisdom in attempting to elucidate this statute as we plumb the sublime mysteries of God.
Chapter 20 shifts our focus and is considered to be a pivotal shift in time. The narrative leaps ahead thirty-eight years, as the Israelites will soon be poised to enter the Land of Israel. To signify this shift in time and transitional period, Miriam dies in this chapter and along with her physical absence there is also a lack of life sustaining water as well. At Meriva (which literally means strife), the people clamor for water, and Moses and Aaron are instructed by God to produce water from a rock. In the flood of events that transpire, Moses and Aaron release a floodgate of water for the people and receive a torrent of divine criticism. It is precisely at this juncture that God informs Moses and Aaron that they themselves will not merit entering the Promised Land.
The Amorites refuses to grant passage to the Israelites and engage our ancestors in a battle, which they lost. The towns, which the Israelites win in battle, become the first Israelite settlements, east of the Jordan River, in the process of our return to the Promised Land of Israel. A similar scenario is repeated with King Og of Bashan as he too is defeated by the Israelites marching toward the Jordan River near Jericho.
Word of the Week
Miriam, the name of Aaron and Moses' sister literally means "bitter waters". A Midrash ("The Five Books of Miriam" -- written by Ellen Frankel, published by JPS) visions that on account of Miriam's nurturing prophetic presence, the Israelites had a constant supply of fresh water throughout their journeys. In this artful Midrash Miriam extols the deeds she has performed that correlate her name with the presence of water as "my powers of prophecy, my protection of my baby brother Moses (Nile River), my skillful midwifery among the Hebrew slaves (amniotic fluids), and my victory at the Sea of Reeds" -- all linked to water. The name of Miriam and her entire life is well connected to water. Even the first letter of her name, similar to Moses, begins with the letter “mem” that in the most ancient of Hebrew writings is a pictograph of water with waves.
Rashi, the 11th century Torah commentator, notes that as soon as this righteous woman died, the water ceased with disastrous consequences for the People of Israel. The Torah specifically states that when Aaron and Moses die, the people of Israel weep and grieve his passing, but grieving is conspicuously absent when Miriam dies. This leads one commentator to infer that because the people did not shed tears at the passing of Miriam, the source of water (Miriam's miraculous wellsprings of water) dry up. In the verse following her death, the Torah notes that there is no water for the community. Miriam, the source of sweet, fresh water dies and the irony of her name is that in her passing, the waters are now absent and bitter.
What values did Miriam exemplify in her life? How is she a paradigm of leadership and moral virtue?
Sedra Spark #1 - Hard Rock Café
Where do Moses and Aaron go astray? The Torah juxtaposes the death of their sister Miriam, with the lack of water that leads to this turbulent scene. One can imagine the emotional trauma of loss that impacts upon Mose and Aaron as the text swiftly transports them from loss to communal anguish over the lack of water.
Re-examine the verses in chapter 20 and note the bitterness of the people as they clamor against Moses and romanticize their memories of being in Egypt. God specifically instructs Moses to take his staff and along with Aaron, “Speak to the rock before their eyes that it shall give waters.” Moses, in front of the people, strikes the rock twice with this staff. God states (20:12), “Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you will not bring this congregation to the Land of Israel!"
How did Moses and Aaron sin?
- Rashi states. “They sinned in striking the rock rather than speaking as they had been commanded.
- Rambam, Moses ben Maimon, in the 12th century, “His 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 (Moses) of his stature should give vent to anger where anger was not called for."
- Nahmanides, 13th century, interprets the transgression "Moses made the fatal mistake of saying, "shall we bring forth water" instead of saying "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".
Torah Table Talk
- Can and how may a leader express anger or frustration with those whom he/she leads?
- Is it reasonable to expect that leaders have a higher level of self-control than the rest of society?
- Should leaders be on a higher moral plane than others?
- Does the punishment of Moses and Aaron fit the "crime"?
- What does it mean to sanctify God? How do we, by our deeds and observances, elevate the presence of God in the public domain?
Sedra Spark #2 - Spy Kids II
Spying has led to monumental failure in the Torah reading of Shelakh, as the people believe the inaccurate assessment of the majority report of ten spies. In a verse often skimmed over, yet replete with meaning (21:32), “Then Moses sent out to spy Yazer and they captured its dependencies and dispossessed the Amorites who were there” Moses again sends out a group of spies.
Rashi immediately connects this episode with the past spy scenario and notes "that the spies captured it -- they said we are NOT like the former spies, we are confident!”
On one level, the Midrash indicates that Moses sent Joshua and Caleb to spy out this city. Moses, having seen earlier in the Torah the perils of spying expeditions, is successful in this endeavor. How do leaders learn from failure? What is the growth curve of Moses here?
Apparently these spies were armed with the courage of their conviction. Not only were they exploring this city of Yazer, but also if needed, had the courage and faith to proceed and capture the city. Their mission and leadership, it can be inferred, were flexible so that a scouting mission, when presented with opportunity, transformed itself into a military operation that succeeded.
Torah Table Talk
- How do we learn from our mistakes?
- Even though Moses knows that he will no longer enter the Land of Israel, he is not paralyzed by this reality. He presses ahead with his vision and continues the journey, not as a lame duck leader, but as a visionary. What leadership values does Moses demonstrate here? Pirkay Avot, the Ethics of the Sages states, “One is not obligated to finish the work, yet neither can one desist from the task.” How does this teaching capture the spirit and synergy of Moses?
- What degree of self-confidence is exhibited by Joshua and Caleb as they marshal their resources and with agility transform an espionage mission into one of victory? What lessons, political, military and psychological are embedded in this one verse of Torah as embellished by the Midrash?
Torah Q & A
- What transpired shortly before the death of Aaron that helped ease the transition of Priestly leadership?
- Which ancient path were the Israelites following as they tried to traverse the Amorite territory?
(1. Elazar has the Priestly vestments placed upon him (20:26) prior to Aaron's death to signify that the traditions will continue uninterrupted and to assure his father that Aaron's legacy will be maintained in his son(s). 2. The road is referred to as the Kings Highway ( 21:22) -- major thoroughfare in each ancient Near Eastern land.