J.J Gross

Parshat Hukkat: The start of טהור/טמא, and the case against gerontocracy

The purification ritual known as Parah Adumah, using the ashes of a red heifer, is considered the Torah’s greatest mystery. No explanation is given, nor is there any inherent logic to this exotic ceremony. Especially bizarre is the fact that contact with the ashes of the Red Heifer “purifies the defiled, and defiles the pure” (מטהר טמאים ומטמא טהורים), ie. the individual Jew or resident alien (Bamidbar/Numbers 19) who is tam’ei – ritually impure – is purified in this process, while the kohen who administers the ritual becomes thereby tam’ei himself, albeit of a less intense nature

I am as confounded by this mystery as anyone, and have no intention here of offering a key to its understanding. Yet there are some questions – rhetorical perhaps – and textual hints that may offer a better window into the nature of Parah Adumah.

I would like to suggest that prior to the introduction of the Red Heifer, the Israelites were not in a state of tum’ah. They were neither טהור (ritually pure) nor טמא (ritually impure). After all, who among them had not previously had contact or been in the presence of a corpse – kohanim included? And if such contact would have rendered them tam’ei, then who purified the first kohen so that he, in turn, could purify others?

Can it be – and I am suggesting this is the case – that the Israelites first became susceptible to ritual impurity with the introduction of the first Red Heifer? That prior to the Red Heifer the Israelites were in a state of ritual pre-birth – neither tahor nor tam’ei – very much alive yet not yet finished with their spiritual gestation?

זֹ֚את חֻקַּ֣ת הַתּוֹרָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה יְהֹוָ֖ה לֵאמֹ֑ר דַּבֵּ֣ר ׀ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל וְיִקְח֣וּ אֵלֶ֩יךָ֩ פָרָ֨ה אֲדֻמָּ֜ה תְּמִימָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֤ר אֵֽין־בָּהּ֙ מ֔וּם אֲשֶׁ֛ר לֹא־עָלָ֥ה עָלֶ֖יהָ עֹֽל׃

This is the ritual law that יהוה 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. (Bamidbar/Numbers 19:1)

What other creature is red, perfect (as in temimah which also means innocent), and upon which no yoke (indeed no physical, psychological, emotional or spiritual trauma) has been inflicted?

Is this not the perfect description of a newborn child – red, pure/innocent, not yet violated by the mundane?

Would it then not make perfect sense that the red heifer becomes a proxy for the nation of Israel, a nation which is being ritually born at this very moment, and thereby undergoing the transformation from pre-tahor/tam’ei to a state of tahor? That only now do all prior contacts with the ritually impure become irrelevant as the Israelites enter en masse (for at least this brief moment) into a state of tahor, of absolute ritual purity?

Otherwise how else to explain verse 9:

וְאָסַ֣ף ׀ אִ֣ישׁ טָה֗וֹר אֵ֚ת אֵ֣פֶר הַפָּרָ֔ה וְהִנִּ֛יחַ מִח֥וּץ לַֽמַּחֲנֶ֖ה בְּמָק֣וֹם טָה֑וֹר וְ֠הָיְתָ֠ה לַעֲדַ֨ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֧ל לְמִשְׁמֶ֛רֶת לְמֵ֥י נִדָּ֖ה חַטָּ֥את הִֽוא׃

Another party who is pure shall gather up the ashes of the cow and deposit them outside the camp in a pure place, to be kept for water of lustration for the Israelite community. It is for purgation.

Where would such a pure man be found if everyone would have been a priori tam’ei because of prior exposure to the dead?

Hence, what we have here, it seems, is the moment of spiritual birth for the Israelite nation. The physical birth began with the Exodus and continued into Sinai. But the spiritual birth takes place here in Parshat Hukkat with the transference of purity to the entire nation via the proxy of the red heifer. The people find that they are now, for the first time, tahor – pure. After this reality sets in, the remedy for future impurity to come is thereby made available.


The Torah’s Opposition to Gerontocracy

Even Moshe was human. And thank G-d for that. Because we have only one G-d. Heaven forefend that we deify flesh and blood.

What is it that makes us human?  For one thing, we humans all make mistakes.  And the Torah is unsparing when it comes to cataloguing the errors, crimes and misdemeanors of our greatest men and women.  Indeed, it is this that shows how great they were – human beings, capable of peccadillos small and large, yet  transcending their human condition to accomplish nearly superhuman feats.

What else makes us human?  The fact that we age.  And with the onset of old age not only does our energy ebb, but often our patience and our capacity to judge situations clearly.  Indeed, in our advanced years we earn the right to disappear from center stage, and are obligated to pass the baton on to a new generation of leaders who are neither exhausted mentally and physically, nor rigidly rooted in ways and means that are no longer suited to contemporary reality.

In Devarim/Deuteronomy 34:7 we are told:

וּמֹשֶׁ֗ה בֶּן־מֵאָ֧ה וְעֶשְׂרִ֛ים שָׁנָ֖ה בְּמֹת֑וֹ לֹא־כָהֲתָ֥ה עֵינ֖וֹ וְלֹא־נָ֥ס לֵחֹֽה׃

Moshe was a hundred and twenty years old when he died; his eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated.

Yet, while this is declared regarding his physical condition, the Torah paints a somewhat different picture regarding his temperament in old age. And we enter the para-Christian precincts of hagiography at our own peril. Because doing so robs us of realistic role models, and sets benchmarks that are impossible to achieve.

Parshat Hukkat tells the story of Moshe smiting the rock. For this ‘crime’, both he and Aharon are punished by being denied permission to lead the People of Israel into the Land of Israel.

Following the death and burial of Miriam, the Children of Israel once again rise up against their leaders Moshe and Aharon.  (Bamidbar/Numbers 20:2)

וְלֹא־הָ֥יָה מַ֖יִם לָעֵדָ֑ה וַיִּקָּ֣הֲל֔וּ עַל־מֹשֶׁ֖ה וְעַֽל־אַהֲרֹֽן׃

The community was without water, and they joined against Moses and Aaron.

As baseball legend and master of the malapropism Yogi Berra would say: “Déjà vu all over again”.

Only this time the mob expresses itself far more spiritually, as this takes place toward the end of their sojourn in the wilderness, long after the Exodus from Egypt.  Now they refer to themselves as קהל יהו-ה — the congregation of the Lord” (20:4), progress indeed.

G-d instructs Moshe (Bamidbar/Numbers 20:8-9)

קַ֣ח אֶת־הַמַּטֶּ֗ה וְהַקְהֵ֤ל אֶת־הָעֵדָה֙ אַתָּה֙ וְאַהֲרֹ֣ן אָחִ֔יךָ וְדִבַּרְתֶּ֧ם אֶל־הַסֶּ֛לַע לְעֵינֵיהֶ֖ם וְנָתַ֣ן מֵימָ֑יו וְהוֹצֵאתָ֨ לָהֶ֥ם מַ֙יִם֙ מִן־הַסֶּ֔לַע וְהִשְׁקִיתָ֥ אֶת־הָעֵדָ֖ה וְאֶת־בְּעִירָֽם׃

“You and your brother Aharon take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts.”

וַיִּקַּ֥ח מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶת־הַמַּטֶּ֖ה מִלִּפְנֵ֣י יְהֹוָ֑ה כַּאֲשֶׁ֖ר צִוָּֽהוּ׃

Moshe took the rod from before יהוה, as he had been commanded.

But now Moshe cracks and begins to show his true feelings: (20:10)

וַיַּקְהִ֜לוּ מֹשֶׁ֧ה וְאַהֲרֹ֛ן אֶת־הַקָּהָ֖ל אֶל־פְּנֵ֣י הַסָּ֑לַע וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לָהֶ֗ם שִׁמְעוּ־נָא֙ הַמֹּרִ֔ים הֲמִן־הַסֶּ֣לַע הַזֶּ֔ה נוֹצִ֥יא לָכֶ֖ם מָֽיִם׃

Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?

Moshe is going beyond what he was authorized to do.  He resorts to name-calling as he sarcastically vents his rage at the assembled people. (20:11)

וַיָּ֨רֶם מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶת־יָד֗וֹ וַיַּ֧ךְ אֶת־הַסֶּ֛לַע בְּמַטֵּ֖הוּ פַּעֲמָ֑יִם וַיֵּצְאוּ֙ מַ֣יִם רַבִּ֔ים וַתֵּ֥שְׁתְּ הָעֵדָ֖ה וּבְעִירָֽם׃ {ס}

And Moshe raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank.

Interestingly, the text goes into the detail of Moshe “raising his hand” an act that is intended to humiliate even before it causes injury.

And for this seemingly minor violation, both Moshe and Aharon are punished by G-d:  (20:12)

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהֹוָה֮ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֣ה וְאֶֽל־אַהֲרֹן֒ יַ֚עַן לֹא־הֶאֱמַנְתֶּ֣ם בִּ֔י לְהַ֨קְדִּישֵׁ֔נִי לְעֵינֵ֖י בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל לָכֵ֗ן לֹ֤א תָבִ֙יאוּ֙ אֶת־הַקָּהָ֣ל הַזֶּ֔ה אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־נָתַ֥תִּי לָהֶֽם׃

But יהוה said to Moshe and Aharon, “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.”

Such draconian punishment; Depriving Moshe and Aharon of the right to lead a victorious Israel into the Promised Land — for what? For having struck the rock instead of speaking to it.

Conventional wisdom tells us that small infractions are greatly magnified when made by great people.  And this sounds pretty clever, yet it is hardly convincing.  If the Lord exacts such retribution from his most loyal servants, surely we ordinary mortals can only despair.

Clearly the decision to prevent Moshe and Aharon from entering Eretz Israel is not simply a punishment.  It is, if you will, an executive decision based on the fact that these two aged leaders are no longer qualified to lead – especially to lead the conquest and settlement of the Land of Israel.

But what was it they had done to make G-d decide it is time for them to go?

Was it the fact that Moshe struck the rock?


It was the fact that he struck the rock twice – and both times in a manner meant to humiliate rather than injure. Insult is infinitely worse than injury.

After all, who was Moshe hitting?  It wasn’t the rock. It was the Children of Israel.  The rock was merely their proxy. Moshe was slapping the Jewish People in the face. And for this there is no excuse.

It happens that a teacher strikes his pupil in the heat of momentary rage and frustration.  This is inexcusable, but can be rectified with an apology on the teacher’s part. Indeed after a single slap, such an apology proves not only that the teacher is human but that he can correct himself.

But what often happens when a teacher loses his temper and resorts to physical humiliation? The child, rather than give him the satisfaction of breaking down in tears just stands there smarting. Now the teacher really takes offense, and strikes the child yet again.  With this second slap the child is lost forever.  He will never be able to respect, let alone revere, that teacher. Fear? Perhaps. Respect? Never! And it is likely this child has just lost all love and respect for Torah. This child has become a write-off to the Jewish People.

When Moshe slapped the Israelites by way of the rock, he should have stopped and apologized.  And if he didn’t do this of his own accord, his brother Aharon should have stayed his hand and brought him back to his senses. Indeed Aharon, the “lover of peace and the pursuer of peace” (אוהב שלום ורודף שלום) should have calmed Moshe down when he first spoke disparagingly to the Children of Israel.

Yet, neither brother rose to the occasion.  A second strike ensued, and from that moment on the Children of Israel no longer recognized Moshe as their leader.  The damage could not be undone. Hence G-d finds it necessary to conclude the lives of both Moshe and Aharon in the wilderness.

Later on, in Devarim/Deuteronomy, we see ample evidence that Moshe has slipped precipitously into the cantankerousness that often accompanies old age.  He oscillates between singing his People’s praises and blaming them for all his misfortunes.   For example, the original story of the spies (מרגלים) is recorded in a crisp narrative. G-d orders a reconnaissance mission that ultimately turns sour.  In Devarim/Deuteronomy, however, we will see Moshe blaming it all on the Children of Israel. He is incapable of seeing his own faults or recognizing his own role in these events. He is bitter, and he revises history in order to justify his bitterness.

The lesson to us is clear.  Age alone does not qualify one for leadership.  And, indeed, age can often be the best reason to abdicate leadership. Yet we now live in a time when the single overriding criteria for ‘greatness’ in traditional Jewish society is seniority.  If a rabbi reaches the age of 99 or 103 he becomes ipso facto infallible even if he is incoherent, unavailable, detached from reality.  He becomes surrounded by self-serving busybodies who put words into his mouth, and issue proclamations and dicta in his name that are questionable at best, and destructive at worst.

G-d decides to sideline Moshe and Aharon, not as a punishment but primarily because the time had come, and they showed no signs of voluntary retirement.  Were they to enter the Promised Land, the Children of Israel would be effectively leaderless, and predators would attach themselves to these anachronisms and make a huge mess.

We are all human. And there comes a time when we just have to let go.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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