“…דבר אל בני ישראל ויקחו אליך פרה אדומה תמימה אשר אין בה מום אשר לא עלה עליה עול (יט:ב).
“…Command the Jews to take for themselves a Red Heifer that is perfect and unblemished and has never carried a burden upon it” (19:2).
A most amazing and relevant Midrash is quoted by Rabbeinu Bechayeh on this verse. Chazal show how the four expressions of the verse hint to the four Exiles which the Jews were to suffer from until our final redemption. (This Midrash is found in many places and variant texts all fill in details missing from others.) Let us quote it in partiality and then take out an important lesson.
“Parah aduma, a red heifer”, refers to Bavel, as red is similar to gold which they are represented by… (they served idols but because of their respect for Hashem are compared to gold.) “temimah, perfect”, refers to Madai who assisted the Jews in rebuilding the second Bais Hamikdash”. They had an element of deference for that which is sacred. “Asher ain bah mum, unblemished”, refers to the Greeks, who gave respect to Shimon the Righteous. “Lo alah alehah ol, has never carried a burden” refers to Rome, who never accepted responsibility and rulership of Hashem upon themselves! They are carefree!”
The Current Macroculture
Indeed, many lessons can be learned from this, and I would like to focus on the last stanza which is relevant to us being in the final and longest exile of Rome (who destroyed the second Bais HaMikdash). Note how brilliantly Chazal summarized their essence! We see the attitude of society clearly expressed, “I don’t care about anything; I’m not interested in respecting that which is important!” This is the culture that we live in. People are looking to get by without having to extend any effort or taking responsibility for their actions. Our job as Jews is not to allow this lazy and carefree attitude to become our mindset. We strive to maintain our desire and commitment to accept the yoke of true service of Hashem and true dedication to our family, friends and entire nation!
What is left to be explained is why exactly this is expressed in a verse describing the Red Heifer? The Heifer is the antidote which brings purification to one who comes in contact with a dead body, why is it linked to the exiles? One simple thought is that it is teaching us the attitude by which to view our potentially dangerous influencers. We must view them as dead corpses with nothing of value to offer us! This is how we will escape their negative outlooks.
There is something deeper here as well. The Red Heifer is the most perplexing law in all of Torah. Its entire purpose is to purify those in need of cleanliness by having its ashes sprinkled upon then. Yet, paradoxically, everyone involved in its preparation becomes ritually impure?! This is indeed mind-boggling! The very object of purity brings impurity! It is the antithesis of logic, yet this is Hashem’s decree!
The same paradox is found regarding galus, our exiles. Hashem exposes us to terrible subjugation and much pain throughout our bitter exile. Yet at the same time, this tumah, evil, and suffering is for the ultimate purpose of perfecting and cleansing us! The exile causes much tumah, but its purpose is to clean us! Thus, the Red Heifer is directly associated with the four Exiles.
We may not understand how this works, indeed, the ultimate answers will only be fully understood at the time of Mashiach, but nevertheless our job is clear. We strive to maintain our Jewish goals and serve Hashem to the best of our ability. This is the ultimate purification!
Most Noble Goal
“זאת התורה אדם כי ימות באהל…” (יט:יד).
“These are the laws of one that perishes in a tent…” (19:14).
While very famous and well known, the Gemara’s statement on these words is most delicate and needs to be understood properly.
Berachos (63b) states a homiletical interpretation of this verse. “The Torah can only be retained by one who kills himself over it in the study hall.” While sounding very idealistic, it can also sound extremely intimidating to the beginner. “You must break yourself to succeed!” Who would be encouraged to involve himself with something that requires total immersion and commitment in order to achieve success in it? It sounds so intense! On the flip side, there are those who pursue Torah very seriously, and they think that this Chazal is calling for self-infliction, pain and suffering. What is the proper balance and what are Chazal teaching us?
Torah is inspirational and refreshing! Chazal are telling us that Torah helps one fulfill his most vital purpose in life. This is not the purpose of self-torture and the shunning of all physical feelings. On the contrary, Hashem very much wants us to experience emotions. Our feelings are what allow us to thank Hashem and beg Hashem for our needs in a most heartfelt and real way.
The “killing of the self”, refers to the conquering of the ego, the goal of overcoming self-worship and selfishness. The Torah stresses repeatedly the concept of treating Hashem and our fellow people with love and respect. The entire theme of the Torah is one encouraging self-development. Hence, it reads, “Torah can only be retained by one that works to kill his selfish tendencies”. This formula requires hard work, however, it is the most useful and practical goal to accomplish. One who is conscious and caring towards others will be successful in so many areas of life. Self-centered behavior causes so many issues in life. The thoughtful and sincerely giving person finds success in marriage, family-life, business interactions and life in general. Developing one’s Middos binds one to Hashem and to others. One who develops these skills will feel self-fulfilled and happy in a most deep way.
Chazal are sensitizing us to the focus of our Torah study. They are begging us to let the Torah in and let it change who we are and thereby open our hearts to care for the most important things in life. One who pursues this brings true happiness to the world!
The Sin of the Rock
Moshe hit the rock and was punished very harshly. Many commentators discuss what the exact sin was. What is interesting is that earlier in the desert Moshe was commanded to hit that exact rock and water came forth (Shemos 17:6; Yalkut Shmioni states that it was the same rock in both place!). Here he was told to speak to the rock to extract the water. Why then was he allowed to hit it earlier?
The Yalkut Shimoni sheds light upon this in a way that we can learn a most important lesson. When a child is young, at times (and in an appropriate manner) a hit from the parent can correct his behavior, but when he matures, the best way to get him to comply is to talk to him and allow him to understand your words and the behavior expected of him. So too, when the Jews began their journey in the desert, Moshe had to hit the childlike rock. However, after forty years in the desert, Moshe should have only spoken to the rock!
Moshe’s sin was certainly on his high level; nevertheless, we can learn a most relevant lesson from it.
The sin of Moshe hitting the rock is beyond our comprehension, however, the commentators express numerous lessons that can be learned from the event. Interestingly, the hitting of the rock is seen by Chazal to refer to Moshe acting as the teacher and the rock being the student. Once again, it is important not to attribute sins to Moshe, but the commentators shed light on important educational outlooks based on this episode.
The Ohr HaChaim lists off ten opinions as to what Moshe did wrong. Each one is a most relevant lesson to us both in the classroom, at home, and in our personal relationships.
1- Rashi: “Hashem told Moshe to speak to the rock, but he hit it.” We must always bear in mind that properly speaking to someone will accomplish more than physical contact.
2- Ibn Ezra: “Moshe did not have the right concentration when he hit the rock because he was distracted by the nation’s bickering and complaining that they were thirsty.” An educator must always remain calm and focused. No actions should be taken from a place of confusion. If the educator is frazzled, it is better not to act at all and wait until one calms down.
3- Ibn Ezra: “He was only supposed to hit the rock once, because that constituted speaking to it, but he hit it twice.” Sometimes a “potch” may be necessary, but it must be exact. Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe zt”l says from his Rebbe, Rabbi Elya Lopian zt”l, that hitting a child is not a punishment of pain, but rather it is a light tap of love that expresses that the parent expects more from the child and the present behavior is not acceptable.
4- Ibn Ezra: “the Jews should have sung a song of thanks to Hashem.” Our Chinuch revolves around teaching our children to praise Hashem and to recognize His Guiding Hand and Eternal Kindness.
5- Ibn Ezra: “Moshe called the Jews ‘rebels’”. Educators must be so careful not to label children as failures. A child who is called a name by his Rebbe can be scarred for life. I dealt with the sweetest student who once confided in me that he thought of himself as a liar because that was a name that he was once called by a teacher who had falsely accused him of doing something. It took months for me to show him that he was truly a good person with middos, honesty, and so much to offer.
6- Rambam: “Moshe got angry leading the Jews to think that Hashem was angry at them as well, which was not the case.” This is powerful, as educators, we represent the Torah and Hashem and our children associate the feelings that we produce in them to be emanating from Hashem. This is a sobering wakeup call for how we interact and communicate with them.
7- Rabbeinu Chananel: “Moshe made it sound as if he and Aharon were bringing out the water and not Hashem.” We must educate our children to see the Hand of Hashem in everything.
8-R”M Kohen: “Moshe made it sound like it was impossible for Hashem to make water come from the rock.” Hashem is all capable and can do anything.
9- R”Y Albo (Ikrim): “Moshe and Aharon should have brought the Jews water before they even had to complain that they lacked it. And when the Jews did complain this showed their lack of Bitachon in Hashem.” The educator must be in tune with the needs of the students and he must instill in them a deep belief in Hashem.
10- Maaseh Hashem: The Jews and Moshe were arguing and Moshe threw his stick onto the rock in anger.” There is no room for anger in an educational setting, ever. I always tell my students, “you can get angry, or you can solve the problem, but you can’t do both.” If someone feels angry, that is okay, but there is never a time to express anger. It is fire that destroys relationships.
Once again, it must be stressed that Moshe is called by the dear title of ‘Rabbainu, our teacher’, because he was the master pedagogue of the Jews. The commentators are expressing a sin that Moshe did that was the minutest fraction of the above listed transgressions, and Hashem was extra strict on Moshe. May we learn to be effective, thoughtful, and warm educators who instill Ahavas HaTorah and Yiras Shamayim in our students and families.
Three Great Leaders
It has been said that one only appreciates someone or something after it is gone. The Jewish nation experienced much loss in this week’s parsha. The death of Miriam and Aharon took place in Parshas Chukas as well as the loss of the spring of water and protective cloud. Let us explore the lessons expressed here.
Three Great Supporters
Chazal (Taanis 9a) tell us that there were three special features provided by Hashem to the Jews in the desert. These things only came in the merit of their great Jewish leaders, all from one family. The Jews had “three great supporters” who provided them with three great benefits. In the merit of Miriam the Jews had the be’ar, spring of water. In the merit of Aharon, the Jews had the protective cloud. In the merit of Moshe, the Jews were given the manna, bread from heaven. The Gemara (ibid.) continues to state that when Miraim died the spring disappeared. This was very difficult for the Jews and it was returned in the merit of Moshe and Aharon. When Aharon died the cloud of glory disappeared. It then came back in the merit of Moshe. When Moshe died the Jews lost all three, the well, the cloud and the manna.
Many questions remain to be asked on this entire passage. Firstly, why did these three people specifically merit to bring down those three gifts? Secondly, why are they called “three great supporters of the Jews’? Thirdly, if each item came in the merit of one specific personality, how then could the well be returned just in the merit of Moshe and Aharon and the cloud be returned just in the merit of Moshe. Seemingly, Moshe alone merited to have all three of the items come down on his own accord?
The three concepts here can be seen to refer to the three pillars on which the world stands. Avos (1:2) states that the world stands on: Torah, avodah (prayer) and chessed (kindness). Miriam was the epitome of a Jewish woman of faith. She was the one who told over the prophesy that Moshe would be born and she was the one who relied solely on Hashem and knew that He would support and save them (see Sotah 9b). Miriam was the one who encouraged all of the women to bring instruments out with them from Egypt as they knew that Hashem would take care of them. Miriam was the one who led the Jewish women to sing praises to Hashem after the splitting of the Red Sea. Miriam represents avodah, the sincere service of Hashem. This is the idea of the be’ar, spring of water. The water sustained the Jews and spread faith and connection to Hashem throughout the camp.
Aharon was the Kohen Gadol whose trait was that of the pursuit of kindness and peace (see Avos 1:12). Aharon made peace between man and wife and made peace between each and every person. This peace led to unity and the protection of the Jewish people. The only Yahrtziet (death anniversary) mentioned explicitly in the entire Torah is that of Aharon HaKohen who died on the first day of the month of Av (see Bamidbar 33:38). The month of Av is filled with Jewish tragedy and tribulations climaxing with Tisha B’Av, the Fast of the Ninth of Av. Aharon died specifically in this month to signify that when the Jews do not uphold the peace, they are exposed and in danger and no longer have protection. The second Beis Hamikdash was destroyed because of a lack of harmony and unity between the Jews. Their baseless hatred made them vulnerable to enemy attack. Thus, Aharon represents the protective clouds which guarded the Jewish nation in the merit of his peace. Moshe represents the eloquent voice of Torah which was the life-giving food and nourishment of the Jews, just as the manna fed their physical bodies.
It was only in the merit of the great actions of Miriam, Aharon and Moshe that the Jews got the spring, cloud and manna. This is why they are called “The great supporters”. The truth is that each one of them had the merit to bring down all three items because when someone practices any one of the three pillars, they each connect and help one achieve perfection in all aspects of life including all three pillars. Thus, when Miriam and Aharon were alive their merits granted the Jews the item which best represented their strong-points in life. When Miriam died, Aharon and Moshe used their merit of Torah and chessed and were able to master prayer and reliance in Hashem and bring back the spring as well. When Aharon died, Moshe showed his mastery of Torah, prayer and chessed by sustaining all three items. The Jews saw the great personal effort that their leaders invested to develop themselves and to be able to share with the entire nation.
Brush With Death
This week’s parsha lays out the laws of the purification process through the parah adumah, red heifer. On who contracted tumah, ritual impurity, through touching a dead body had to be purified via a specific process of heifer ash water being sprinkled on him. There is an ancient custom regarding washing one’s hands when coming out of a cemetery or when having contact with a Jewish corpse. What is this all about?
Rabbeiunu Bechaya states that there are two justifications for the above-mentioned custom of washing one’s hands after contact with a corpse. One is based on our parsha and hints to the ancient law of being sprinkled with heifer ash water after exposure to death’s ritual impurity. The washing of the hands hints to this ritual process. The other source is based on a verse which describes the coming of the Messiah. “I will purify them with pure waters (Yechezkel 36:5)” which refers to the time of the Resurrection of the Dead. He concludes that this also explains the custom of why people pull out grass before leaving, as it signifies that just as grass may dry out, but it regenerates with watering, so too, each person will return via the Resurrection (see Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 376:4). What does this all mean?
In discussing this topic in Kad HaKemach (Ahava) Rabbeinu Bechaya adds clarification stating that the custom to wash one’s hands stems from an enactment from the Geonic time period. Ramban (Toras Adam, Vol II, p.155) quotes one Geon who wrote, “this is not an obligation, it may be a custom.”
The things that we come into contact with can cause great stress and trauma. One should not erroneously think that after observing something emotionally or physically disturbing that he is not affected. We are all explorers who constantly experience the world and people around us. The Torah recognizes that one who was exposed to a dead body was deeply shaken by the experience. This very well may be the reason why the laws of purity were decreed. Hashem gave the person a few days of introspection and self-reflection to come to grips with the exposure.
This is also the reason that our custom is to evoke hints to the Resurrection to show us the proper perspective on death. The Resurrection puts life in the proper framework. We are here to accomplish an objective and will be rewarded by Hashem for every act. Death is a painful separation, but it is only temporary.
Parshas Parah is read before Pesach time in addition to its regular reading in the parsha order. The lesson then is about purity and the importance of purifying oneself before the holidays. It also stands as a lesson about the importance of life and about our Jewish faith.