Our sedra starts with the mitzva to bring a red heifer. Chazal tell us that the Bnei Yisrael had already been given this mitzva at Marah, before the giving of the Torah. It is mentioned here as Hashem is now giving us the requirements for the mitzva.
Chazal saw in the red heifer an allusion to Israel’s servitude in exile. Just as the commandment to sprinkle the red heifer’s blood must be performed outside the Mishkan (Tabernacle), so it hints at the period when the Holy Temple would be destroyed.
This offering is unique as we are required to burn the blood. The word “adom” (red) comes from the word “dam” (blood). We are told that red symbolises sin, therefore Hashem commanded us to burn the red heifer, symbol of sin, and use the ashes to purify us from contamination of death. It follows that the blood, which is completely red, should also be burnt.
Why does the verse say “afar” (dust) instead of “efer” (ashes)? It is a reference to Avraham, who said “I am but dust and ashes”. To this, Hashem said “By your life, I shall give your children atonement through dust and ashes”.
Our sedra continues with the Bnei Yisrael arriving in the Wilderness of Zin and settling in Kadesh, after which “Miriam died there, and was buried there”. Chazal teach us that if one brother dies, the others should worry. So it is with siblings; because Miriam died, “the assembly …gathered against Moshe and Aaron”. Why does it say the word “there” twice? Surely we can assume that she was buried where she died? The Torah says “Miriam died there” meaning among her people, and “she was buried there” meaning in a place known to all.
Why does the section dealing with Miriam’s death follow immediately after the laws of the red heifer? To teach us that just as offerings atone, so does the death of the righteous (Moed Katan 28). Why then, does the Bnei Yisrael not weep over her death (as they do with Moshe and Aaron)? We are told that both Moshe and Aaron died unusual deaths, and people were unable to do chesed (kindness) to them before their passing, whereas Miriam (who lived to a ripe old age) died “normally” and was given a “normal” burial. For this reason, the people were not so emotionally stirred. This is hinted in the pasuk “there was no water for the assembly” i.e. they did not cry.
When Miriam died, the “Well of Miriam” ceased, and the people complained about a lack of water. Moshe is told to take his staff and talk to the rock, in the presence of the entire assembly. Why the entire assembly? To answer this, we must understand that “speak to the rock” means “while standing by [the rock], teach one law, or one chapter of Mishna” (Midrash Yelamdeinu) i.e. Moses had to teach the people Torah in the presence of the rock. Throughout the merit of this learning, the rock (which had given water for forty years in Miriam’s merit) would renew itself. The words of Torah were also necessary to inspire the people to pray fervently for water.
Moses was commanded to gather the “Eyda” (assembly), but we find in a later pasuk that when they gathered by the rock, they are referred to as “Kehal” (congregation). Why the change of term? “Kehal” refers to a disorganised crowd. The Midrash tells us that there were cynics among the people who claimed that because Moses was an experienced shepherd, and shepherds are experts at recognising potential water sources in the desert, what he was doing was no miracle.
When Moses had despaired of inspiring the people through a spiritual revelation, he resorted to striking the rock twice. Hashem considered this a lack of faith, because although it seemed unlikely that the people would respond, Moshe’s faith should have driven him beyond logic. Moshe is told that he would not take the people into Israel.
Moshe then prepared to advance by planning to cross through through the land of Edom. Before doing this, he “sent emissaries from Kadesh”. What difference did it make where they were sent from? Kadesh was the place where Moshe was told that he wouldn’t enter Israel. Despite this, he still maintained his involvement as the nation’s leader, ultimately concerning himself with their welfare, and not brooding over his own sadness that was decreed against him in Kadesh. Now that’s what I call a leader!
The message to Edom started with “So said your brother Israel”. Why not Jacob? Because when speaking to Edom (Esav), the name Jacob might remind the Edomites about the loss of the birthright. However, the name Israel was given to Jacob after defeating the angel of Esav. This name would be more likely in giving the Israelites right of passage!
Moses continues by telling Edom “We cried out to Hashem and He heard our voice”. The “voice” is prayer and Torah study (“The voice is the voice of Jacob”), and as long as this was in effect, then the swords of Edom (“the hands of Esau”) will have no effect.
Hashem then tells Aaron that he is going to die that day because of the sin of striking the rock. Why is he to die first? Surely Moses was more to blame, considering it was he that struck the rock. Our Midrashim tell us that Moshe prayed 515 times and was thus merited to live longer, and even view Israel from Mount Nebo. Also, if Hashem had taken the lives of both Aaron and Moses at the same time, the manna would have stopped (as it had fallen only in the merit of Moshe Rabbenu), as well as the Clouds of Glory, which Moses had restored. A twofold loss would have been too much for the Bnei Yisrael to take in one go.
The pasuk then continues with Moshe, Aaron and Elazar ascending Mount Hor, where Elazar is crowned High Priest. We are told that “Moses did as Hashem commanded”. Rashi explains that this statement is necessary to show us the greatness of Moshe, who did as he was instructed, despite intense emotional difficulty. But surely it was more difficult for Aaron? He fulfilled the will of Hashem in spite of his own impending death.
Moshe, however, knew that after Aaron’s death, the Clouds of Glory would depart, leaving the Israelites vulnerable to attack from the Canaanites, and possibly another rebellion by the Israelites themselves. Thus the hardship that Moshe Rabbenu experienced including its implications, was more of a burden than Aaron had to bear.
“When the entire assembly saw that Aaron had perished” – when Moshe and Elazar came down the mountain, the people asked “Where is Aaron?” When they replied “He is dead”, the people said that if they didn’t bring him back they would stone them. Because of this, Hashem opened up the cave where Aaron’s body was interred, and “…the entire assembly saw that Aaron had perished”.
We are told that they all mourned for Aaron at this point. Unlike the case of Moshe’s death, the word “entire” is used. Why did all the people mourn for Aaron?
(1) Aaron was a peacemaker, while Moshe Rabbenu frequently rebuked the people. Therefore Aaron’s loss was felt on a wider scale.
(2) By the time Moses had died, the people were already at the border of Israel, having beaten both Sichon and Og. Therefore, their spirits were lifted.
The Canaanites then waged war on Israel and were defeated. Rashi tells us that these people were really Amalekites. Why are they referred to as Canaanites? Because they were aware of the power of the Jews, and were trying to avoid their potent prayers.
The Bnei Yisrael complain to Hashem about the manna, which we are told was completely digested and didn’t produce any waste. They longed for food that had texture and substance. Subsequently, a plague of snakes was sent by Hashem as a punishment. Why the snakes? This corresponded to the Nachash Hakadmoni (the Serpent from the Garden of Eden), who was the first being who dared to speak against Hashem.
The cure that Hashem prescribed for this was for Moshe to make a copper serpent on a pole, so that the people would look at it and live. How is this possible? This can be explained with a parable. A father hits his child with a stick, and then leaves the stick to one side in order that the child would be reminded of what was in store for him if he continues to misbehave. Thus when the people saw the copper serpent, it increased their awareness of the gravity of their sin, and they subjugated themselves to Hashem. This also goes to show us that if we suffer, it is not enough for us to go to a tzaddik to pray for us – we must experience our own suffering as a means of praying to Hashem for forgiveness.
The Israelites, encamped on the border of Eretz Yisrael, sing a song of praise to Hashem for the water that they had received. Why did they not sing this song when they first obtained water from Miriam’s well at the start of their sojourn forty years earlier? We see the answer hinted at in the Gomel prayer, recited after recovery from danger. This prayer is only recited when the person is completely safe from danger. When the people were nearing Israel, where lack of water was not a problem, they felt it appropriate to express their gratitude to Hashem.
“Insights into the Torah” – Rav Zalman Soratzkin
“The Midrash Says” – Rav Moshe Weissman
“The Call of the Torah” – Rav Elie Munk
“Love your neighbour” – Rav Zelig Pliskin
“Encyclopedia of Biblical Personalities” – Yishai Charidah