‘On Heifers and Leaders’ Parashat Chukat / Korach 5779

Parashat Chukat ends 38 years after it begins. About a third of the way through the parasha, the Torah tells us [Bemidbar 20:1] “The entire congregation of the children of Israel arrived at the desert of Zin in the first month and the people settled in Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there.” Rashi, quoting from the Midrash Tanhuma, comments on the use of the term “the entire congregation”, explaining “The complete congregation, for those destined to die in the desert [because of the sin of the spies] had already died and these were assigned for life”. After thirty-eight years of wandering in the Sinai Desert, the Jewish People stood at the doorstep of their destiny – the Land of Israel[1].

Suddenly, Miriam dies. Miriam, the beloved sister of Moses and Aharon. Miriam, the person who had urged the Jewish women to take their musical instruments along with them when they left Egypt because she was certain that G-d would save them from the Egyptians. Miriam, the woman in whose merit the Jewish People drank fresh water from a boulder that rolled around with them in the desert. And now she was dead.

Not only does the second half of Parashat Chukat begin with death, the first half of the parasha, albeit written thirty-eight years earlier, concludes with death. The topic at hand is the impurity caused by a human corpse and the purification of this impurity via the ashes of the Red Heifer. The Talmud in Tractate Moed Katan [28a] connects these two discussions of death: “Why was the Torah portion that describes the death of Miriam juxtaposed to the portion dealing with the Red Heifer? To tell you: Just as the Red Heifer atones for sin, so too, the death of the righteous atones for sin.” Rashi, in his commentary on the Torah, quotes this section of Talmud nearly verbatim[2].

How are we supposed to understand this concept? It seems clear that the laws of the Red Heifer should have been discussed in the Book of Vayikra along with the rest of laws of spiritual purity. The fact that they were “pushed off” to the Book of Bemidbar is puzzling and must be addressed. Nevertheless, the waters here are muddy. First, how does the Red Heifer “atone for sin”[3]? Perhaps we should understand that the Red Heifer spiritually cleanses a person so that he can even enter the Beit HaMikdash in order to offer a sacrifice that atones for sin. Rabbi Enoch Zundel ben Joseph[4], writing in the “Anaf Yossef”, a commentary on the Aggadic sections of the Talmud, takes a different direction, pointing us at a Midrash that compares the Red Heifer to the mother cow that cleans up the mess of her daughter – the Golden Calf. That is to say, the Red Heifer is atoning for the sin of the Golden Calf. On the other side of the equation, how does the death of a righteous person grant atonement? Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein[5], writing in the “Torah Temima”, suggests that it is the honour that we bestow upon the deceased that grants atonement and not the actual death of the person. Be that as it may, it seems clear that the lesson of the juxtaposition of the Red Heifer with the death of Miriam is anything but clear.

Let us, for the moment, put “atonement” aside and address a more basic question: What is the connection, if any, between Miriam’s death and the Red Heifer? If we can answer this question, then afterwards we can try to shoehorn in the concept of atonement. We can shine some light on this question if we turn back the calendar by one week to Parashat Korach. Rabbi Chaim Sabato, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Birkat Moshe in Maaleh Adumim and the winner of the Sapir Prize for Hebrew literature, notices a seminal difference between Moses’ response to Korach’s rebellion and his response to the other crises that occurred in the Sinai Desert, specifically, the infamous “Golden Calf Affair” and the “The Spies Who Did Not Love Me”. In both of these episodes, G-d admits to Moses that He has made a mistake by entrusting the future of the civilized world to the Jewish People. In both of these episodes, G-d tells Moses, the responsible adult in the room, that He will destroy the entire Jewish People. In both of these episodes, Moses assumes the role of the Guardian and Spokesman of the Jewish People. He fearlessly stands between his people and their demise. He begs, he pleads, he argues, and eventually he is successful and the Jewish People live another day. With Korach and his co-conspirators, however, things are completely different. Not only does Moses not rush to their defense, he is the one who chooses the instruments of their death. He tells them to offer incense even though he is fully aware that the offering of incense by anyone other than Aharon will likely be fatal. He suggests to G-d that He create a terrestrial mouth to swallow up Korach and bury him in the bowels of the earth. The Jewish People seem to be well within their rights to accuse Moses and Aharon [Bemidbar 17:6] “You have killed the Nation of G-d!”

Rabbi Sabato explains that Moses understood that Korach was doing more than simply rebelling against Moses’ leadership. One of Korach’s accusations was that Moses appointed his brother, Aharon, as the High Priest of his own volition and not because he was commanded to do so by G-d. By suggesting that Moses was “making things up”, Korach was essentially casting aspersions on the validity and the veracity of Moses’s prophecy. Who knows – perhaps Moses had made up the entire Torah? After all, the Jewish People had heard only the first two commandments at Sinai directly from G-d. Everything else had gone through Moses. If what Korach was saying was true, everything would fall like a house of cards. Moses could not allow this to happen. The entire Torah would be rendered meaningless. And so Moshe, as the leader of the Jewish People, needed Korach and his followers to die an unequivocally miraculous death, a death that would be remembered by all [Bemidbar 17:5] “so that no one ever again suffer the fate of Korach and his band”.

The Red Heifer is a classic example – it is an archetype – of a “chok” – a “suprarational” law – a law that defies human reason. The Red Heifer purifies the impure while rendering the pure[6] impure. It is a thorn in the side of those who profess that the Torah is a rational book of law. The Red Heifer, along with other suprarational laws like kashrut and waving the lulav, are lessons in humility, evidence that human logos will never fully comprehend the Divine. In Rashi’s words, these are “things which the evil inclination and the nations of the world argue against because they have no reason. Rather, they are decrees of the King, His statutes to His servants”. Suprarational laws are the basis of the Torah. This is problematic for many people. How do we, as rational human beings, synthesize irrationality into our most basic rational beliefs? How can we infuse our all-too-often dry and withered spirit with religious emotion? It seems counterintuitive at best and impossible at worst. The answer lies with our leaders, with our Moses’s, our Aharon’s, and our Miriam’s. Without their guidance, without their leadership, we run the risk of spiritual atrophy. But without their guidance, we also run the risk substituting suprarationality with irrationality and by doing so, rendering the entire Torah meaningless. Without their direction, we run the risk of confusing pagan superstition with the worship of G-d A-lmighty. Without Miriam, without Moshe, without Aharon, there can be no Red Heifer[7].

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5779

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and Moshe David ben Gisha.

[1] In twenty-first century jargon, we could say that the pilot had announced that “We have begun our descent into Ben Gurion Airport”. This usually happens when the aircraft is parallel to Paphos, Cyprus.

[2] There are two versions of Rashi’s commentary on this verse. One reads “just as sacrifices atones for sin, so the death of the righteous atones for sin”. We will stick with the version brought above.

[3] According to the alternate version in Rashi, this is not a problem: Sacrifices indeed atone for sin.

[4] Lived in the 19th century in Bialystok, Poland

[5] Lived in the early twentieth century in Pinsk.

[6] The person who prepares the ashes of the Red Heifer becomes spiritually impure.

[7] Now that we’ve forged a connection between the Red Heifer and the death of Miriam, our next step is to figure out how “atonement” fits into the equation, but that, my friends, is a topic for another day…

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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