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Torah Commentary
Chukat (June 27, 2015)

Jennifer Knobe,
Operations Manager,
Temple Emanu-El Skirball Center

IN THIS TORAH PORTION, 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 it 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 red heifer is the ritual law that the Lord has commanded:
Instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid. You shall give it to Eleazar the priest. It shall be taken outside the camp and slaughtered in its presence. (Numbers 19:2-3)

The instructions regarding the red heifer are arguably the most mysterious in the entire Torah. The red heifer presents a great paradox: The priest who is involved in the preparation of the heifer himself becomes impure through the process. Strange indeed. But that leads us to a greater puzzle. Why would God give us a law that no one can understand?

Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank. But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” (Numbers 20:11-12) With two swipes of his staff, Moses is barred from the one destination he tried to reach for 40 years. There are two views concerning the character of the sin that Moses committed at the waters of Meribah. Maimonides holds that Moses sinned in that he became angry and insulted the Children of Israel, saying to them: “Hear now, you rebels …” (Verse 10). Nachmanides, on the other hand, claims that Moses’ sin lay in the fact that he struck the rock instead of speaking to it as he had been commanded to do.

According to Moses Maimonides, the main sin of Moses and Aaron was in the language with which they spoke to Israel: “Hear now, you rebels.” To be sure, many of the prophets of Israel spoke with sharpness in similar language. But here it was inappropriate because the children of Israel sought water, incontestably an urgent matter of life and death for a person. There was no reason to speak to them harshly.

While Moses’ frustration is understandable, even justifiable, he chooses the wrong moment to lose his cool — a time when the peoples’ desire is sensible and important. When we are at our angriest, is it common to express our exasperation at any given moment, or is it possible to keep enough perspective to lash out at a time when others truly are being unreasonable? By the time we’ve reached the “last straw,” is it conceivable to have some aspect of patience left?

Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg comments that Moses’s inability to stay patient at the waters of Meriva is a result of a lack of faith in God’s ability to redeem — which is strange, given that Moses is enraged at the Israelites for the very same reason. Sometimes, when we are frustrated with others, we feel that way because they are displaying the same kind of behavior that we show…or we fear that we might show.

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