M'oray Ha'Aish Parshat Chukat: Death
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Chukat(Numbers 19:1-22:1)

Death

This week's Torah portion begins by teaching about the rite of the Red Heifer that purifies those who come in contact with the dead.

The rite of the Red Heifer is one of the most obscure commandments, and serves as the prototypical example of chok -- the type of commandment that transcends human understanding. Not only is the response - the rite of the Red Heifer -- difficult for man to comprehend, but the cause -- death -- is also ultimately beyond human understanding.

In this week's Torah portion, death is introduced not in the context of ritual, but as the major theme.

In this week's Torah portion, death is introduced not in the context of ritual, but as the major theme. Miriam and Aaron perish and Moses himself receives a death sentence.

Reading between the lines of the text, the deaths of many more people can be inferred, but before we explore what is between the lines let us consult the text itself:

The children of Israel, the entire community, arrived in the Tzin desert in the first month. The nation stayed in Kadesh. There Miriam died, and there she was buried. There was no water for the community, and they gathered around Moses and Aaron." (Numbers 20:1-2)

The Talmud infers from this passage that the water the Children of Israel drank in the desert was in the merit of Miriam, and with her demise, the merit for water dissipated as well.

Rabbi Yosi the son of Rabbi Judah says: "Three good leaders had arisen for Israel, namely Moses, Aaron and Miriam, and for their sake three good things were conferred [upon Israel], namely, the Well, the Pillar of Cloud and the Manna. The Well, for the merit of Miriam; the Pillar of Cloud for the merit of Aaron; the Manna for the merit of Moses. When Miriam died the well disappeared, as it is said, And Miriam died there, and immediately follows [the verse], And there was no water for the congregation; and it returned for the merit of the [latter] two. [Talmud Ta'anith 9a]

The people were clearly concerned. This is not the first time that the nation approaches Moses with a complaint about a shortage of supplies. It is not even the first time that a complaint was registered about a shortage of water. Here, however, there is a subtle difference. Let us return to the text:

And the people quarreled with Moses, and spoke, saying, 'Would God that we had died when our brothers died before the Lord! And why have you brought up the congregation of the Lord into this wilderness, that we and our cattle should die there? And why have you made us come out of Egypt, to bring us in to this evil place? This is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates; nor is there any water to drink.' (Numbers 20:3-5)

This litany of complaints has been heard before; different words or images were employed but the same message was conveyed -- i.e. Egypt was superior to this. The people longed for their place of birth. The hardships were forgotten, and only nostalgia for the home of their youth remained.

 

* * *

 

A NEW GENERATION

Yet this description is somewhat imprecise, for this is a new generation. Most of these people never saw Egypt! Very quietly, with no fanfare, the 40 years of wandering in the desert -- decreed in Parshat Shlach -- have elapsed. This new generation, born in the desert, should have had nothing to be nostalgic about. These people should not be suffering from a "slave mentality" for they were born free. Miriam's death transpires as the 40-year decree expires. Rashi alludes to this in his commentary:

The entire community [means] the whole intact community, for those who were to die in the desert had perished, and these (the remainder) were separated for life. (Rashi 20:1)

Miriam has died; Aaron and Moses will soon follow. Moreover, the entire generation of Egyptian-born former slaves, anyone over the age of twenty, had died. The Torah did not mention the years that have elapsed, but the last date mentioned in the text was almost 40 years prior to the events described in this passage. Perhaps this is why the Torah portion begins with the antidote to death -- this is not a theoretical discussion, or a law that is occasionally applied. This is a situation that has arisen in virtually every home. An entire generation is now missing -- dead.

The children speak just as their parents did, repeating the old grievances.

And nonetheless, the children speak just as their parents did. Perhaps this should not surprise us; children often mimic their parents, even if their personal context has been altered. They question Moses regarding the wisdom of the exodus. While they never saw Egypt, nor were they taken out, they had internalized their families' grievances.

The observation that a new generation had emerged will help us understand the central episode related here: The indiscretion of Moses with the rock, the act that led to the death sentence of Moses and Aaron.

Moses and Aaron turn to God for guidance; God responds with the following instruction:

And God spoke to Moses saying; 'Take the staff, and gather the congregation, you, and Aaron your brother, and speak to the stone in the sight of the people, and it will give of its waters. Take from the stone's water, and give the congregation and their cattle to drink.' Moses took the staff from before God, as commanded. Moses and Aaron gathered the people in front of the stone. He said to them: 'Hear now you rebels, shall we extract water for you from this stone?' Moses lifted his hand and struck the stone with his staff twice; an abundance of water came out and they gave the people and cattle to drink. (Numbers 20:6-11)

A cursory reading does not produce anything exceptional; this is the type of event which had become commonplace in the desert. The people complain, Moses turns to God, who in turn solves the problem but points out the peoples' shortcomings. Here, however the conclusion contains a twist; instead of pointing out the failure of the community, God responds:

God said to Moses and Aaron, 'Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel, therefore you will not lead this people to the land which I have given them. These are the waters of contention -- Mei Meriva -- for which the Children of Israel quarreled with God...' (Numbers:12-13)

The response is stunning. Moses and Aharon have failed their mission; consequently entering, conquering, and most importantly settling the land will take place without them. They will not cross the Jordan; Israel will remain a goal beyond their reach.

 

* * *

 

THE SIN

But what was the sin? The Torah does not clearly state what they did; rather, the Torah seems to address the cause:

'Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel.'

Similarly, the commentaries are not unified in their understanding of the actual offense committed by Moses and Aaron. According to Rashi, the problem was striking the stone instead of speaking to it, but this “answer" raises a number of questions.

First, if the problem was striking the stone with the staff, why was this procedure acceptable in a previous episode?

Therefore the people complained to Moses and said, 'Give us water that we may drink.' And Moses said to them, 'Why do you strive with me? Why do you tempt God?' And the people thirsted there for water; and the people murmured against Moses, and said, 'Why have you brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?' And Moses cried to God, saying, 'What shall I do to this people? They are almost ready to stone me.' And the God said to Moses, 'Go before the people, and take with you of the Elders of Israel; and your rod, with which you struck the river, take in your hand, and go. Behold, I will stand before you there upon the rock in Horev; and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, that the people may drink. And Moses did so in the sight of the Elders of Israel. (Exodus 17:2-6)

Immediately following the Exodus, the people demanded water; there, God called upon Moses to bring his staff and strike the rock. But in our present episode, God only told Moses to bring the staff, but God did not say to strike the stone.

One could attempt to defend Moses by saying that God's instructions were somewhat confusing, commanding Moses to bring the staff if it is not to be used, especially if the staff was, in fact, used on another, similar occasion. Yet this defense cannot stand in the face of God's instructions, which must be carried out exactly, with no deviation. Nonetheless, the resulting punishment seems excessive.

 

* * *

 

THE PUNISHMENT OF AARON

There is a second problem with this approach: Why was Aaron punished? He did not strike the stone; only Moses did so. Aaron ostensibly had no part in the actual sin; why should he share equally in the punishment? Perhaps Moses and Aaron discussed the issue and jointly concluded to strike the stone twice.

A great man should not allow his anger to get the best of him in any circumstance.

Maimonides opines that the sin was Moses's anger in his response to the people. A great man should not allow his anger to get the best of him in any circumstance. Again, Aaron's role seems questionable. According to Maimonides, the phrase "Hear now you rebels, shall we extract water for you from this stone?" was a display of anger. From the text itself, it is unclear whether Moses or Aaron uttered these words. Perhaps here Moses acts, and Aaron speaks, as they did before the Pharaoh. The only problem with this resolution, is that Maimonides explicitly states that it was Moses who spoke. So, again, Aaron's role, and thus his responsibility, comes into question.

Likewise Rashi in his commentary to the Talmud states:

For the sin of saying "Hear now you rebels" he (Moses) was punished and not permitted to enter the Land of Israel (Rashi Sanhedrin 101b, see Rashi Bamidbar 31:21,)

According to this approach Aaron's role in the sin, and therefore his punishment, seem elusive.

The more mystical commentaries, from the Nachmanides and on, point at striking the stone twice as the sin -- the stone should only have been struck once. The rationale was that the rock needed to be struck one time to bring water. The second time was to guarantee that the flow of water continued, an issue that arose only with the demise of Miriam. Moses and Aaron were concerned that the water would run out; the second strike would assure that the water would be sustained.

 

* * *

 

A DIFFERENT RESOLUTION

I would like to suggest a different resolution, based on several teachings of Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk in his commentary, "Meshech Chochma."

The Meshech Chochma notes an apparent non sequitur in Deuteronomy. Moses delivers a soliloquy warning of the perils of idolatry, and he adds:

'... And God was angry with me for your sakes and swore that I will not be allowed to cross the Jordan [River] and not be allowed to enter the land...' (Deut. 4:21)

After this Moses returns to the topic at hand and continues to speak about idolatry.

'But I must die in this land, I must not go over the Jordan; but you shall go over, and possess that good land. Take heed to yourselves, lest you forget the covenant of the Lord your God, which he made with you, and make you an engraved image, or the likeness of any thing, which the Lord your God has forbidden you...' (Deut. 4:22-25)

The Meshech Chochma suggests that Moses's reference to the incident at Mei Meriva, and the resultant punishment, are in fact germane to the topic of idolatry.

The higher wisdom was concerned lest when the people enter the land they would treat him (Moses) as a deity. (Meshech Chochma D'varim 4:15)

The reason that Moses was not permitted to enter the land was that this generation, raised in the desert and witness to miracles galore, ran the risk of seeing Moses as something more than human. Perhaps they would think that miracles came from Moses and not God. If we apply this approach to our passage, we find that after Moses hits the rock, God pronounces:

"... Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel, therefore you will not lead this people to the land which I have given them."

The problem, as stated, is that Moses and Aaron did not sanctify God sufficiently; rather, Moses and Aaron gave the impression that the miracle came from them. Surely this was not their intention, but it was the result of their actions. The purpose of Moses bringing water from the rock was to show one and all that God is the source of all miracles. The damage was done; now, they would be unable to lead "this people" -- this particular generation -- into the Promised Land.

As a result of this display, neither Aaron nor Moses could enter the land.

If this is the case, Aaron was no different from Moses. Their status in the eyes of the nation was similar. As a result of this display, neither Aaron nor Moses could enter the land.

Moses, for his part, should have understood the inherent problem of perceived holiness in something other than God. We recall that when Moses came down from the mountain with the tablets of stone, and with the word of God etched on stone by the "hand" of God, upon seeing the celebration around the Golden Calf, Moses destroyed the tablets, and according to the Talmud, God approved:

And how do we know that the Holy One, blessed be He, gave His approval? Because it is said, 'Which you have broken' (asher shibarta).' Resh Lakish said, (Yasher kochecha sheshibarta) 'All strength to you [i.e., congratulations] for breaking them.' (Talmud Shabbat 87a)

The Meshech Chochma explains that just as the people had erred, thinking that through the Golden Calf they could forge a relationship with God, Moses feared that they would transform the tablets into something that contains divinity in and of itself, independent of God. In other words, if they had already worshipped a calf made of gold they would certainly end up worshipping the tablets which were made by God himself. This observation explains why Moses is instructed to make the second set of tablets himself, with his own hands, and not by the hand of God, because God agreed with his analysis. (See Meshech Chochma Sh'mot 32:19.)

And the Lord said to Moses, 'Cut for you two tablets of stone like the first; and write upon these tablets the words that were in the first tablets, which you broke.' (Exodus 34:1)

 

* * *

 

SPEAKING TO THE STONE

This explanation is buttressed by a separate comment of the Meshech Chochma, in our passage in Numbers. The Meshech Chochma notes the interesting turn of phrase:

And God spoke to Moses saying; 'Take the staff, and gather the congregation, you, and Aaron your brother, and speak to the stone in the sight of the people.'

What does it mean to "speak to the stone in the sight of the people"? The implication is to speak so that the people can see, and not, as would be expected, in order for the people to "hear." There was, of course, another instance when God spoke in order for the people to "see" the revelation at Sinai.

And all the people saw the sounds and the lightning, and the sound of the shofar, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they were shaken, and stood far away. And they said to Moses, 'Speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die.' (Exodus 20:15-16)

This was a new generation, who had either not been present, or had been too young to appreciate the great revelation at Mount Sinai. This new generation would soon enter the land. God wanted to provide them with a new revelation, but instead of a clear, visible revelation of God, Moses and Aaron caused the people to simply see one more miracle.

Moses and Aaron thus made themselves look more impressive, as we explained above, but deprived the generation that would enter the Land of Israel of their own revelation. In so doing, Moses and Aharon had created a situation whereby they themselves could not enter the land; their "punishment" was not excessive, it was merely the result of their own actions.

What was Moses's motivation in choosing this course of action? Rashi and Maimonides pointed at anger as the cause. On the other hand, we may posit that when Moses heard this generation complaining in much the same way as the previous generation, he began to consider the education these children received from their parents. If they had inherited the cynicism, the complaints and the rebellious attitude, then they must have inherited some positive traits as well. Perhaps Moses felt that the collective experience of Sinai had also been effectively communicated, and this generation did not need a new collective experience.

Moses is barred from the Land of Israel, because he was too great for this new generation.

According to the Meshech Chochma, Moses is barred from the Land of Israel, but not because his sin has made him unworthy; quite the opposite. Moses was too great for this new generation. They were incapable of understanding the purity of spirit, the modesty, the greatness of Moses. They were unaware that man could reach such a level.

God desired that this generation be uplifted, in order to merit leaders like Moses and Aaron. Unfortunately, unwittingly, Moses and Aaron thwarted that plan. They, too, would die in the desert, and this new generation would have to enter Israel without them.

Indeed, Moses and Aharon never do enter the Land. The nation enters alone, under Joshua instead of Moses. Yes, Joshua is a great man, but he is not Moses, and we are left with a haunting question: What would have been accomplished had Moses joined them, had Moses led them?

While such hypothetical questions may be tantalizing, we can say one thing with certainty: The theme of death, which permeates this Torah portion, would have been considerably limited had Moses and Aaron acted differently, and had the people been worthy of them as leaders.

Published: May 24, 2000

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Visitor Comments: 2

(2) Avi Ashman, June 29, 2012 6:20 PM

I loved your (and the Meshech Chochma's) resolution, but doesn't the action of putting the brass snake on a pole create the very difficulty you're saying Moshe needed to avoid?

(1) Yisroel Pensack, July 7, 2005 12:00 AM

Timely and Highly Relevant Commentary

The following excerpt from this article is very timely and highly relevant as regards a significant portion of contemporary Jewry.

"The Meshech Chochma suggests that Moses's reference to the incident at Mei Meriva, and the resultant punishment, are in fact germane to the topic of idolatry.

"The higher wisdom was concerned lest when the people enter the land they would treat him (Moses) as a deity. (Meshech Chochma D'varim 4:15)

"The reason that Moses was not permitted to enter the land was that this generation, raised in the desert and witness to miracles galore, ran the risk of seeing Moses as something more than human."

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