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Parashat Hukkat
June 27, 2015 – 10 Tammuz 5775 

Annual (Numbers 19:1 – 22:1): Etz Hayim p. 880; Hertz p. 652
Triennial (Numbers 20:1 – 21:8): Etz Hayim p. 883; Hertz p. 655
Haftarah (Judges 11:1-33): Etz Hayim p. 910; Hertz p. 664

 Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC


God introduces the ritual law of the red heifer, whose ashes are used to purify those who are impure after being contaminated by a corpse.

Miriam dies. The Israelites, bereft of water, despair that they are still in the wilderness. Even though God says water will emerge from a rock, Moses strikes the rock twice before water pours forth. Moses and Aaron are punished by not being allowed to enter Canaan. Aaron dies at Mount Hor, and Eleazar succeeds him as High Priest.

The Israelites are challenged by nearby peoples: the Edomites refuse them safe passage; the Canaanites unsuccessfully attack them; and Amorites and Bashan fall to them convincingly. But the Israelites still complain about their hardships, and some are killed by bronze snakes.

Theme #1: Not Well and Good

The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed in Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there. The community was without water, and they joined against Moses and Aaron. ... (Numbers 20:1-2)

Although Miriam appears in only a handful of episodes in Israelite history, her death leaves a glaring absence in the people’s lives.

An ancient folk tradition teaches that Miriam’s well fills all wells at the end of Shabbat and gives such water miraculous curative powers. In our own day, Miriam’s well has become for us a symbol of Jewish women’s creativity, spirituality, collective experience, healing, and wisdom. -- Ellen Frankel, The Five Books of Miriam

The Tzenah Ur’enah makes a passing reference to mourning after Miriam’s death: “As soon as the well ceased flowing, Israel gathered around Moses and Aaron, who were weeping for Miriam. God told them: ‘Because you are mourning, shall all of Israel die of thirst? Stand up, take your staff, and give water to Israel.’” … When Miriam was around and they needed her, [the Israelites] were grateful. But once she was gone, and thus no longer useful, they turned their attention elsewhere. Is this a metaphor of how we treat the women in our lives? -- Rabbi Audrey S. Pollack, “Blood and Water, Death and Life,” from The Women’s Torah Commentary, Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, ed.

While most of our prophets emphasize the power of words and the centrality of rules of conduct, sanctity, and justice, Miriam’s prophecy was one of deed. Rather than offering stirring speeches or administering justice, Miriam taught her people to sing in moments of triumph, and she sustained them during times of exposure and fragility. Miriam’s example is one of action, the performance of deeds of love and support. Without Miriam’s actions, who could have listened to the words of Moses? Who could have studied God’s Torah? -- Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, The Bedside Torah

Questions for Discussion:

Frankel recounts the story of Miriam's well as a symbol for the many capabilities and talents of Jewish women. This idea has been symbolized in our ritual practice in numerous ways, including the tradition during the Passover seder to set aside a goblet of water in Miriam's memory. What are other ways can we utilize the symbol of Miriam's well to empower Jewish women and encourage their leadership?

Rabbi Pollack warns us to not think of women as subservient to the community, known for what they provide but only appreciated once they are gone. What are some of the best ways that our modern Jewish practice recognizes women for who they are and not just for the work they do? Does the Torah text take Miriam for granted, and how can we make sure that we don't?

Rabbi Artson reminds us that Miriam is not a prophet in the most traditional sense of the word, as she is not remembered for stirring speeches, but rather for her work mostly behind the scenes. Why is it so difficult for us to show appreciation for those who work quietly and don't seek attention? What does Miriam teach us about quiet leadership?

Theme #2: Snakes on the Plain

The Lord sent seraph serpents against the people. They bit the people and many of the Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, "We sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you. Intercede with the Lord and take away the serpents from us!" And Moses interceded for the people. 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 21:6-9)

Tired of the Israelites' incessant complaining, God creates a new way to punish the people -- and an even more unique way for them to recover.

“Everyone that is bitten, when he looks upon it, shall live.” Why? As soon as he (the victim) turns his eyes and sees the likeness of the serpent, he forthwith becomes filled with awe and prays to the Lord, knowing that this was the punishment he deserved. As long as the son sees his father’s strap, he is afraid of his father … regarding this it is stated: “When he looks upon it, he shall live.” He saw the strap with which He struck -- and this led to him being redeemed. -- Zohar

The strange events surrounding the “viper of copper” that follow provide a reminder, even amid the progress of the march and military successes, of the Israelites’ usual waywardness. As usual, the problem is food; several things, however, make this brief story unusual amid the rebellion narratives. For one, the punishment is unique; for another, the people call upon Moshe to remove the plague -- in a manner that is more reminiscent of Pharaoh in Egypt, with the Plagues, than of previous Israelite behavior. Finally, there is the Bible’s record of what happened to the copper object: it was preserved in the cult and worshiped by the people, until it was smashed during the large-scale religious reform under King Hezekiah of Judah. One might note that the divine punishment for sin, once accomplished, clears the way for the Israelite victories that follow immediately. -- Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses

This story is the only case of what appears to be sympathetic magic in these books. It is also the only depiction of a sacred object that is not associated with the Tent of Meeting and its contents. Related to this fact, and perhaps more significant, it is the only sacred object that is not connected in any way with Aaron and the priests of his family. Rather, it is personally made and mounted by Moses himself. This fits with the fact that it was Moses’ staff that miraculously became a snake at the burning bush and in Egypt; Aaron’s staff became a different kind of serpent. The text is unclear as to whether the snake is used only on the occasion of this crisis or if it continues to be mounted in some visible location. -- Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah

Questions for Discussion:

The Zohar reflects on our common tendency to regret our mistakes only when we come face-to-face with the negative consequences of our actions. Sometimes, the threat of punishment is more harrowing than the punishment itself. Does this mean that intimidation can sometimes be a good thing? Under what circumstances can a threat become a force for good action?

Fox points out that the Israelites turn to Moses when they are faced with the likelihood of suffering. Does this mean that the Israelites are finally recognizing Moses as a leader they can trust? Do they recognize that he has already interceded on their behalf several times? Or are they only looking to him only out of desperation? Would it not be better for them to reach out to God directly?

Friedman illuminates the fact that Moses is the creator of the serpent, which represents a rare foray into crafting ritual objects. Why does God look to Moses to create the serpent? Why would Aaron not be asked to do this? Does this mean that this passage is, as Fox suggests, an anomaly of sorts, or is God trying to make some sort of point by enabling Moses to take part in matters often reserved for those absorbed in the Temple cult?

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