drash parashas Chukat 5781

A chukat is a particular type of commandment that defies rational explanation. The parashas refers to the chukat (decree) of the parumah adumah (red heifer). The entire premise of the chukat of the red heifer points towards having emunah (faith) in the effectiveness of this remedy for contamination. In other words, it is only through a chukat that is not objectively clear to the intellect, through which a means of purification occurs. It is as if the goal of the chukat is to inspire our faith in the One who gave the decree.


The parumah adumah (red heifer) offering is slaughtered outside of the camp; it is completely burned in fire. Hyssop, cedar wood, and crimson thread are thrown into the fire with the red heifer. The ashes are used in a specific manner – only sparingly mixed with mayim chayim (living water; i.e. from a water source like a river). The purpose of this water with the mixture of ashes is to purify people who have come into contact with a dead body, and, therefore tamei (unclean). The water is sprinkled upon them on the third and the seventh day of their purification.

Paradoxically, the kohein who is tahor (clean) becomes tamei (unclean) when he performs the offering of the parumah adumah. This is the paradox: the very ashes of the red cow that cause an unclean person to become clean, cause the pure person, who prepares the ashes, to become impure. “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean?” (Job 14:4, JPS 1917 Tanach). Only G-d.


Additionally, the account of the passing of Miriam occurs right after the description of the chukat of the parumah adumah. The Sages infer that this exemplifies, how like an offering brings atonement, so does the death of a tzaddik (righteous person). Moreover, the passing of Aaron occurs in juxtaposition to a description of the garments of the Kohein Gadol. As the garments of the Kohein Gadol atone for sin, so does the death of a righteous person (Moed Katan 29a). The deaths of Aaron and Miriam brought atonement to the generation in the desert.

shiur parashas Chukat 5781

“And the soul of the people became impatient because of the way.”

  • Numbers 21:4, JPS, 1917 Tanach

B’nei Yisrael, as a result of circumstances that seemed beyond their control, grew impatient along the journey. By taking a roundabout way around the country of Edom, they felt they were moving further away from their destination . Their frustration manifested in the form of complaining; yet, the question may be asked, did they really have anything to complain about? What was the nature of their complaint. The Torah records that “the people spoke against G-d, and against Moses: ‘Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, and there is no water; and our soul loatheth this light bread.’” (Numbers 21:5, JPS 1917 Tanach).

Commentary explains that they were dissatisfied with the the mode of their existence. In other words, they were discontent not only with the bread and water that H’Shem provided for them, rather, also with the means that they received this provision. In particular, R. Bachya explains, that their complaint disparaged the manna, and the water from the “well of Miriam” that H’Shem had provided for them on their travels, because they were dependent each and every day on H’Shem to give what was necessary for their daily existence. This is in comparison to other nations, who were able to store up a supply of bread and water that was always available.

It was as if they were really saying that the bread and water they received was not in the manner that they would have preferred. Moreover, the manna did not seem substantial enough for the rigours of the wilderness that they had to endure. Yet, H’Shem provided for them on a daily basis, in order to test their faith in him; for they would have to trust that on the morrow, they would be able to collect the manna in the morning, during the weekdays. Of course, on the sixth day, they received a double portion for that day and Shabbat. They were tired of this type of day to day existence, and seemingly yearned for more security in their material needs.

Because of their complaints against Him, and the heavenly provision of manna, G-d sent fiery serpents that bit the people. Yet, when they acknowledged their wrong perspective, H’Shem told Moshe to make a copper serpent, and place it on a pole. “And it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he seeth it, shall live” (Numbers 21:8). Thus, as Rashi comments, when they looked up towards the serpent, they turned their hearts to their Father in Shomayim (Heaven).

dvar parashas Chukat 5781

“And there was no water for the congregation.” – Numbers 20:2

The well that provided water for the B’nei Yisrael in the desert, and “followed” them throughout their journeys, did so upon the merit of Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron. She was a prophetess, and a coleader with Moses and Aaron. “For I brought you out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam” (Micah 6:4). However, when Miriam passed away, “there was no water for the congregation” (Numbers 20:2). Miriam was a righteous person; so, in her merit the water had been provided to the Children of Israel for thirty-nine years. When she passed away, the well dried up.

The Sages ask why the mentioning of Miriam’s death occurs right after the description of the chukat (decree) of the parumah adumah (red heifer). The answer given is to exemplify that just as an offering brings atonement, so does the death of a righteous person bring atonement for the people (Mo’ed Katan 28a). Additionally, concerning the death of Aaron, who was not permitted to enter the land of Canaan: “Aaron shall be gathered to his people” (Numbers 20:4), his death also brought atonement.

As commentary futher explains, “Wherefore is [the account of] Aaron’s death closely followed by [the account of the disposal of] the priestly garments? [to inform you] that just as the priest’s vestments were [means to effect] atonement, so is the death of the righteous [conducive to procuring] atonement” (Talmud: Moed Katan 28a, Soncino edition, www.halakhah.com). Therefore, both the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, because they were righteous persons, atoned for that generation.

Blessings and Curses

B”H

“And the soul of the people became impatient because of the way.”

– Numbers 21:4, JPS, 1917 Tanach

B’nei Yisrael, as a result of circumstances that seemed beyond their control, grew impatient along the journey. By taking a roundabout way around the country of Edom, they felt they were moving further away from their destination . Their frustration manifested in the form of complaining; yet, the question may be asked, did they really have anything to complain about? What was the nature of their complaint. The Torah records that “the people spoke against G-d, and against Moses: ‘Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, and there is no water; and our soul loatheth this light bread.'” (Numbers 21:5, JPS 1917 Tanach).

Commentary explains that they were dissatisfied with the the mode of their existence. In other words, they were discontent not only with the bread and water that H’Shem provided for them, rather, also with the means that they received this provision. In particular, R. Bachya explains, that their complaint disparaged the manna, and the water from the “well of Miriam” that H’Shem had provided for them on their travels, because they were dependent each and every day on H’Shem to give what was necessary for their daily existence. This is in comparison to other nations, who were able to store up a supply of bread and water that was always available.

It was as if they were really saying that the bread and water they received was not in the manner that they would have preferred. Moreover, the manna did not seem substantial enough for the rigours of the wilderness that they had to endure. Yet, H’Shem provided for them on a daily basis, in order to test their faith in him; for they would have to trust that on the morrow, they would be able to collect the manna in the morning, during the weekdays. Of course, on the sixth day, they received a double portion for that day and Shabbat. They were tired of this type of day to day existence, and seemingly yearned for more security in their material needs.

Because of their complaints against Him, and the heavenly provision of manna, G-d sent fiery serpents that bit the people. When they acknowledged their wrong perspective, H’Shem told Moshe to make a copper serpent, and place it on a pole. “And it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he seeth it, shall live” (Numbers 21:8). Thus, as Rashi comments, when they looked up towards the serpent, they turned their hearts to their Father in Shomayim (Heaven).

In parashas Balak, the “prophet of the nations,” Balaam is hired by Balaak, King of Moab to curse B’nei Yisrael. The concern of the Moabites was that they could potentially be attacked by the Children of Israel. They had heard of how B’nei Yisrael defeated Sichon and Og, two Ammonite kings, and they feared for themselves. Specifically, Torah records that when they saw the multitude of B’nei Yisrael, they were overwhelmed with dread. The Hebrew word translated in this pasuk (verse) is koots. This is the same word used to describe how the Egyptians felt about the Children of Israel, generations ago, when they saw that “the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad” (Exodus 1:12, JPS).

Balaam’s three attempts to curse Israel are thwarted by H’Shem. Each time, he and Balaak bring seven offerings to H’Shem, hoping to appease Him; yet, H’Shem is adamantly opposed to Balaam’s intent to curse Israel. Balaam was told by G-d even before he set out on his journey to Moab, with the princes sent by Balak, “‘Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people; for they are blessed'” (Numbers 22:12, JPS).

Yet, eventually, in response to the persistence of Balak’s emmisaries, G-d said to Balaam, “‘rise up, go with them; but only the word which I speak unto thee, that shalt thou do’” (Numbers 22:20, JPS). Later, on the journey to Moab, Balaam was reminded by the angel of H’Shem, “only speak the word that I shall speak unto thee, that thou shalt speak” (Numbers 22:35, JPS). So, not only did H’Shem prevent Balaam from cursing Israel, He also caused Balaam to bless Israel instead.

Reflecting on the complaints of the Children of Israel, concerning the provision of manna and water that H’Shem provided for them, it is interesting to note that they were not somehow prevented from complaining; rather, they were rebuked after the fact. If there was some way that H’Shem could prevent us from complaining in life, then, perhaps, instead of words of negativity, we would speak positive words each and every time. Our intended curses would be transformed into blessings. “Set a guard, O L-RD, to my mouth; keep watch at the door of my lips” (Psalm 141:3, JPS).