Five Rashis, Chukkat: Moving Forward, Uncertainly, With the Help of Language

The Complications of Rectifying the Past

The parsha opens with the ceremony for preparing and using a parah adumah, the red heifer whose ashes had to be sprinkled upon a person to remove טומאת מת, the impurity that comes from contact with the deceased.  19;3 speaks of giving these rules to Elazar, and Rashi comments that the mitzvah is to have the סגן, the second in command of the priests, be the one to perform this.

After going through the section interpreting it according to the simple sense, Rashi adds, in verse 22, on the words תטמא עד הערב, that he saw a more aggadic approach in the works of R. Moshe haDarshan, which he then records. In this reading, all the acts of the parah adumah were ways to rectify the sin of the Golden Calf. For example, the Jews have to pay for the parah adumah the same way they willingly parted with their jewels for the Calf.

He goes through the whole ceremony, making interesting points. One that jumped out at me was that he explains that it has to be Elazar doing it, since Aharon had been so central to the events of the Calf. Except that we should expect the verse to single out Aharon (and all the High Priests who followed him) to perform this ceremony. Instead, it’s the second in command.

Rashi says that’s because אין קטיגור נעשה סניגור, the prosecutor cannot turn into the defendant’s advocate. This formulation of a known idea seems to me to add an element we might not have noticed—even when Aharon has repented, even when it’s a completely different ceremony, the overtones of the original event mean that the person central to that original failing cannot be the one who acts prominently within the rectifying event.

That’s not because we doubt his sincerity, or his change, (and certainly not that of his descendants who occupy his position). It’s because אין קטיגור נעשה סניגור, sometimes our previous actions stay with us forever, and we can’t change the past completely. Aharon could not be the vehicle of the parah adumah, nor could his successors, because he will always have been the one central to the Golden Calf.

Death by a Kiss

20;1 speaks of the death of Miriam, which Rashi hastens to tell us was also by “a kiss.” It’s a reference to an idea Rashi has later in the chapter, verse 26, where Moshe takes Aharon’s priestly garments and places them on Elazar, with Aharon having the privilege of seeing his son succeeding him. Then Aharon is told to go up to the bed, place his hands in the proper place, close his mouth, close his eyes, and he passes away. That’s a death Moshe found so attractive, he wanted it himself.

Death by a kiss, then, means nothing about any physical contact between Hashem and the person passing away, it’s a characterization of the kind of death. Yet the Torah refrained from saying that when it came to Miriam, because it was indelicate. The interest in refined language, making sure our speech doesn’t lead to inappropriate ideas even when they’re clearly not what’s meant, comes up elsewhere in traditional literature as well. This Rashi is a good example.

The Difficulties of Producing a Miracle

There are indications, in a few places, that being a prophet wasn’t always as defined a role as it might seem.  When it comes to the waters of Merivah, Rashi in verses 10-12 portrays Moshe and Aharon as struggling with the knowledge that they were supposed to perform a miracle, but without all the information they felt they needed.

In verse ten, Rashi sees them as unsure of which rock to address, because the rock that had been the source of the water had gone and nestled among other similar rocks. That assumption is itself worth pondering, that once the rock’s miraculous role was over, or temporarily suspended, Rashi thinks it would basically disappear, hide among other rocks. While some objects of miracle stay around as lasting reminders of the miracle, others fade away, leaving us to believe in the memory even without the physical evidence.

In verse eleven, Rashi wants to explain why Moshe hit the rock twice (פעמים), and suggests that only a few drops came out, because it wasn’t supposed to be hit. Rashi assumes he hit it in the first place because he and Aharon had spoken to a different rock, which of course did not produce any water. Thinking they perhaps misunderstood and were supposed to hit the rock (as in a previous iteration of the Jews’ search for water), they found the right one and then hit it.

Verse twelve makes clear that their confusion did not count as an excuse. Their job was to speak to the rock, produce water, and the awe of Hashem that would ensue. Since we’re not prophets, we don’t know how they became confused nor why, once they became confused, Hashem still held them accountable. But it shows it wasn’t always easy or perfectly clear—it’s always challenging, each at our own level.

The Unfamiliar Must Be Bad

Rashi understands the Jews’ calling the man, לחם הקלוקל, the light bread, 21;5, as a reference to the fact that it fully absorbed into the body, such that they had no need to defecate. From the perspective of thousands of years, we can see that there was a gift in that, in that they had less or no need to involve themselves with that aspect of the human body.

Today, if someone offered people the possibility to avoid having to deal with elimination of waste, or any of the possible complications thereof (diarrhea, dysentery, constipation, and more), I think we’d take it. But Rashi sees the Jews as worrying that all the waste must be backing up in there, ready to explode in our stomachs (or intestines).

It’s a nice example of a human tendency to assume change is bad, that if life does not go as it has in the past, that will necessarily be worse. If it was cold until now, cold must be the right way to be, and vice versa, if it was warm until now, and so on.

Sometimes, change is a blessing we have yet to recognize.

Language and the World

When the people complain at the end of the parsha, they are beset by serpents. Hashem tells Moshe to make a נחש, a serpent, put it on a pole, and whoever would look at it (or, as mRosh HaShanah 3;8 tells us, be reminded to pray to Hashem by looking at the pole) would be healed.

Rashi to 21;9 notes that Moshe made it, a nachash in Hebrew, of nechoshet, copper in Modern Hebrew but which translators of the Torah assume is bronze or, perhaps, brass (different alloys of copper and other metals—I looked it up). Rashi says Moshe did that of his own accord, selecting a metal that would provide a play on words, nechoshet sounding a lot like nachash.

This takes for granted the value of resonant and redolent language, without further explanation. On verse 34, his commentary unintentionally offers a possibility. The verse records Hashem’s reassuring Moshe that there is no need to fear Og, the king of Bashan, spurring us to wonder why Moshe feared him at all— didn’t Moshe know Hashem was on their side?

His answer is that Moshe worried that the merit of Avraham’s blessing to Og would still protect him.  Before we get to how he identified Og as the recipient of Avraham’s blessing, note what Rashi sees Moshe as thinking. For all that Hashem wants the Jews to conquer the Land of Israel (which, without being too political, includes both sides of the Jordan, incorporating Og’s land), Moshe thinks Avraham’s blessing might be a roadblock. The power of a Patriarch.

Back to our point, tradition saw Og as having been the bearer of important tidings in Avraham’s time. When Lot was taken captive by the four kings (Bereshit 14), the verse says that a פליט, a refugee, came to tell Avraham. In context, it means someone who had survived that war, but Devarim 3;11 speaks of Og as being the only one left from the Refaim. In that context, it could have been that the Refaim had died out at some point in history, with only Og left.

Rashi, however, follows the tradition that the two “leftovers” are the same person, because only two people in the Torah are referred to as left over in some way. It’s an example, one of many, of where linguistic or definitional similarities lead to insights we’d never have derived otherwise. It gives language a power that we perhaps also don’t realize. The Torah presents creation as having happened with language, and we create worlds with our language as well (the fundamental act of repentance, with words, wipes away the past; oaths, words, create Torah obligations the equal of the ones Hashem Himself legislated).

Moshe knew that, I am suggesting, and therefore realized there would be value in a linguistically powerful serpent. Hashem told him what was necessary, he added to it productively. A reminder of his right sometimes to enhance, but more so of the power of words, of human language.a

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.