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
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)
“’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
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
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)
“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
“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
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?
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.
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.)