Dedicated for the Refuah Shelemah of Moshe ben Rachel, Yehudah ben Rachel, Miriam bat Rachel, Leah bat Rachel, Daniel ben Rachel, and Rav Eliyah Dov Ben Chavah Esther
The Red Heifer
This week’s parasha, Chukat, opens with the laws of para adumah—the red heifer. The para adumah is a decree from Hashem that’s well beyond human comprehension. This law is a chok, a law whose reason Hashem has not revealed to us.
More than that, it’s a paradox because the ashes of the red heifer will purify anyone contaminated from contact with a dead body. Yet, those who engage in its preparation themselves become contaminated. It was regarding this that King Solomon exclaimed in Mishlei, “I said I would be wise, but it’s far from me.” In other words, an essential component of wisdom is the knowledge that man’s failure to understand the truth does not make it untrue!
Rabbi Yohanan told his students, “It’s not the corpse that causes contamination or the ashes of the cow that cause purity. These laws are decrees from Hashem, and man has no right to question them.”
There’s a story in Masechet Kiddushin (31a) where the Rabbis wanted to buy a stone for the efod for the kohen gadol from a non-Jew. But the key to the gentile’s safe was lying under the pillow his father was sleeping on. He refused to disturb his father’s sleep to get the key, thereby passing up on a tremendous profit.
The following year, Hashem blessed this non-Jew with a para adumah in his herd. The Rabbis went to him to purchase the red heifer. He said to the rabbis, “I know that if I asked you for all the money in the world, you would give it to me. But I will only ask for the amount I lost due to honoring my father last year.” If a red heifer was the reward a non-Jew received for respecting his father, how much more will we Jews receive because we are commanded from the Torah to respect our parents!
The mitzvah of the para adumah shows the greatness of the Jewish people. They are willing to spend large sums of money on a mitzvah like para adumah, which has no known logical reason. We still spend exorbitant amounts of cash on mitzvot today, like etrogs for Sukkot, shemura matzah for Pesach, and tefillin.
There’s a famous story that Rabbi Diamond told us about when General Eisenhower visited the displacement camps after the United States liberated the Jews from the concentration camps. He saw the Jewish people suffering from disease and malnutrition and asked, “Pease tell me, what can the U.S. government get for you? Please tell me what you need!” The Klausenburger Rebbe acted as the liaison for the people, and said, “It’s getting close to the time of our holiday of Sukkot. Can you please get us lulavim and etrogim so we can do our mitzvah?” The general was shocked at this request. He thought they would ask for food, clothing, or things to make them more comfortable. But a Jew needs his mitzvot to survive in this world! That’s what connects us to Hashem, Who is the true life source.
We also learn in this week’s parasha about the reasons that Hashem didn’t allow Moshe and Aharon to enter the land of Israel. We always learned that Moshe couldn’t enter Israel because he hit the rock rather than speak to it as Hashem commanded, but there’s much more to it.
Miriam had just passed away, and B’nei Yisrael didn’t mourn her properly. The water that flowed for B’nei Yisrael through their journeys in the desert was a zechut for Miriam. Miriam had this zechut as a middah k’neged middah from when she was a young girl. Miriam watched Moshe as a baby when she and her mother put him in a basket and placed it in the Nile, and she followed it to ensure he ended up in good hands. So too, the water followed her and watched over her when B’nei Yisrael sojourned in the desert for forty years. But now that Miriam passed away and no tears were shed for her — as they would be for Moshe later — Hashem held back their drinking water.
Hitting the Rock
B’nei Yisrael complained of having no water to drink. Hashem instructed Moshe to bring the people water by speaking to the rock. At first, Moshe tried to talk to the rock, but it didn’t work, so he hit it. The passuk says, “Kach et hamatteh… — Take the staff and gather together the assembly, you and Aharon your brother, speak to the rock before their eyes that it shall give its waters (20:8).”
As commanded, Moshe took the staff and went with Aharon to summon the entire assembly and give them water so that Hashem’s name would be sanctified. Moshe succeeded in drawing forth water from a stone but did not sanctify Hashem’s name, at least not to the degree to which he had been directed.
Water would have eventually come if they continued to try and speak to the rock. Hashem’s name would have been sanctified. B’nei Yisrael would have drawn the intended lesson. “If a rock, which does not speak, hear, or need sustenance, listens to the word of Hashem, then, of course, we must listen and follow the words of Hashem!”
The nature of this sin has puzzled the rabbis and has been interpreted repeatedly by the commentators. Even Rambam comments that this is really beyond the scope of our comprehension and is one of the great secrets of the Torah. Rabbenu Hananel and Rambam say that the words when Moshe asked, “Shall we bring forth water?” implied that Moshe and Aharon had the power to bring water on their own. Instead, Moshe should have said, “Shall Hashem bring you water?”
Rashi believes Moshe sinned because he struck the rock rather than speaking to it as Hashem had commanded him to. He also states that Moshe sinned because he became angry at the people for demanding water. Abarbanel agrees with Rashi that the immediate cause for the sin was hitting the rock, but he says there were other sins before this, like Aharon having a hand in the sin of the golden calf, which caused national suffering to this day. Another possible idea is that Moshe sent the spies to check out the land. Their false report led to the punishment of wandering through the desert for the next forty years and the death of an entire generation. Hashem chose to keep Moshe and Aharon from entering the land — like the rest of the generation — since they were their leaders and held responsible for their actions.
Learn from the Snake
The Torah says, “The people spoke against G-d and Moshe, ‘Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this wilderness? For there is no food, there is no water, and our soul is at its limit with the insubstantial food (21:5).’” In this parasha, B’nei Yisrael are on the border of Eretz Yisrael, complaining again. They grumbled at the beginning of the 40 years; they protested at the end of the 40 years. What was their complaint this time? “We don’t like the mann.”
The passuk continues, “Hashem sent the snakes, the burning ones, against the people, and they bit the people, and a large multitude of Israel died (21:6).” When the people cried to Moshe and asked for a remedy for the snakes, he answered to put a snake on a flagpole and “Anyone who has been bitten will look at it and live (21:8).”
Rabbi Frand asks a fascinating question. Throughout Sefer Bamidbar, the Almighty punished the people in different ways. Here, Hashem used a new method: they were attacked by snakes. Why snakes? Why could they not just drop dead? Why did the earth not swallow them up like in Korach? Why did fire not come down from heaven and consume them like in Shemini? Why snakes? What is the message here? The plague is strange and the cure—looking at the snakes—is even more bizarre.
To interpret this, we must first understand why the mann fell so often. Hashem could have easily let the mann descend annually, and it could’ve lasted the nation a whole year until it fell again. There is a famous parable told in the Gemara by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. He told his students about a king with an only son, whom he provided with sustenance once per year. The son only visited the king once every year when he needed money. The king consequently changed his method of financing his son. He provided for his daily needs, one day at a time. This way, he heard from his son every day.
So too it was with B’nei Yisrael. Every day they worried about how they would be able to feed their families. Every day they were afraid the mann would not fall the next day, and so everyone had their hearts focused on Hashem, praying for Him to send them food.
Rabbi Frand goes on, bringing a point from the Sefat Emet. Hashem cursed the snake, saying, “Dirt shall you eat all the days of your life (Bereshit 3:14).” The obvious question is, what kind of curse is that? Dirt is available ubiquitously. The snake never had to worry about his next meal. The Sefat Emet explains that this was the curse. The Almighty is, in effect, saying to the snake, “Here is your sustenance. Do not bother me. I don’t want to ever see or hear from you again.”
Hashem gave mann daily to remind the nation that they depend on Him. But that is precisely why they kept complaining about the mann. The people resented that. Human beings like to delude themselves into thinking they are independent.
Now the punishment they received makes sense. The penalty came from snakes because the people acted like snakes; they did not want to depend on Divine handouts. And the cure wasn’t just to look at the snakes. The Talmud clarifies the answer lies in the part of the passuk about putting the snake high on a flagpole (Rosh Hashanah 29a). When they lifted their eyes towards their Father in Heaven, figuring out where their Help came from and upon Whom they depended, they were cured.
In His Hands
There is a story in Living Emunah 3 about a businessman on a flight, seated next to an unaccompanied little girl. After the plane took off, she took out her crayons and coloring book and happily kept herself occupied.
About an hour into the flight, the aircraft suddenly experienced extreme turbulence. The pilot’s voice came over the PA system, asking everyone to fasten their seatbelts and remain calm as they encountered rough weather. The plane made drastic dips and turns and shook for the next half hour.
People were crying and praying; the businessman was sweating and holding on to his seat as tightly as he could. Meanwhile, the little girl, about eight years old, sat quietly. Her crayons and coloring book were put away neatly in the seat pocket in front of her, and her hands rested folded in her lap. She was the picture of calm.
When the turbulence ended and the plane finally began its descent to land, the man asked the little girl, “How did you manage to remain calm the entire flight, especially since you are here all alone?” She looked at the man and said, “My father is flying the plane. He is the best pilot, and he’s taking me home.”
The little girl felt secure because she was in her father’s hands. When a Jew knows he’s in Hashem’s hands, he has peace of mind. Look up towards the Heavens like B’nei Yisrael were told to. Remember that we depend on Hashem, and He will always care for us, whether it’s health, financial success, a shidduch, or anything else!
May we realize how important it is to follow and trust Hashem, even for a mitzvah that we may not understand. May we always know, like with the rock and the mann, that Hashem is the source of our sustenance. May we continually pray to Him to give everyone in the community happiness, health, and success!! Amen!
Rabbi Amram Sananes as written by Jack Rahmey
How far are we willing to go for mitzvot and halachot that “may not make sense to us?”
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