27, 2015 – 10 Tammuz 5775
(Numbers 19:1 – 22:1): Etz Hayim p. 880; Hertz p. 652
(Numbers 20:1 – 21:8): Etz Hayim p. 883; Hertz p. 655
(Judges 11:1-33): Etz Hayim p. 910; Hertz p. 664
Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
introduces the ritual law of the red heifer, whose ashes are used to purify
those who are impure after being contaminated by a corpse.
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
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
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)
Miriam appears in only a handful of episodes in Israelite history, her death
leaves a glaring absence in the people’s lives.
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
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
Questions for Discussion:
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
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
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.
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?