Friday, June 22, 2007

Parshas Chukas

זאת חקת התורה (19:2)

דא גזרת אוריתא (תרגום אונקלוס)

The Magen Avrohom writes (Orach Chaim 580:9) in the name of the Shibbolei HaLeket (263) that it is the custom of pious individuals to fast the Erev Shabbos preceding Parshas Chukas in observance of a tragic event which occurred on that day. On this day in the year 5004, 24 cartloads of the Talmud and other holy books were publicly burned in France by non-Jews due to allegations of heretical and rebellious teaching contained therein.

Rav Hillel of Verona, a student of the great Rabbeinu Yonah – who was living at the time – writes that his illustrious teacher noted that just 40 days prior to this episode, the Jews had publicly burned in that very spot a number of copies of the controversial philosophical writings of the Rambam, such as Moreh Nevuchim. He saw in this tragedy a Divine punishment being meted out for their actions, and viewed it as a Heavenly message supporting the legitimacy of the teachings of the Rambam. The Jews of the time repented their actions and prayed for Divine forgiveness, thus ending the bitter controversy over the philosophical views of Maimonides.

Although fasts commemorating historical events are normally established on the calendar date on which they occurred – in this case 9 Tammuz – the Rabbis of the time mystically inquired regarding the nature of the decree, and received the cryptic reply דא גזירת אורייתא – this is the decree of the Torah. This is taken from Onkelos’ Aramaic translation of the second verse in Parshas Chukas, a message they interpreted as alluding to the fact that the decree was connected to the day’s proximity to the reading of Parshas Chukas, and they therefore established the fast specifically on the Erev Shabbos preceding the reading of Parshas Chukas. The Magen Avrohom concludes by noting that in the terrible pogroms which occurred in the years Tach V’Tat (1648-9), two entire Jewish communities were brutally destroyed on the Erev Shabbos preceding Parshas Chukas.


דבר אל בני ישראל ויקחו אליך פרה אדמה תמימה (19:2)

פרה אדמה - משל לבן שפחה שטינף פלטין של מלך אמרו תבא אמו ותקנח הצואה כך תבא פרה ותכפר על העגל (רש"י)

Rashi writes (19:2) that Hashem declared the mitzvah of parah adumah to be a “chok” – a Divine decree with no readily apparent rationale – regarding which we are not permitted to inquire or attempt to understand. Shlomo Hamelech declared (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:3) that after using all of his intellectual capabilities to attempt to understand the mitzvah of parah adumah, he was still unable to do so.

Yet Rashi also writes in the name of Rav Moshe HaDarshan that the parah adumah served as an atonement for the sin of the golden calf, and he proceeds to explain how each detail of the laws of the red heifer specifically atoned for a corresponding aspect of the golden calf. After explaining that the parah adumah is the quintessential chok, the purpose of which even the wise Shlomo couldn’t grasp, how can Rashi proceed to explain the rationale behind the mitzvah in great detail? Additionally, in what way did this specific mitzvah effect atonement for the sin of the golden calf?

The Beis HaLevi explains that when the Jewish people incorrectly concluded that Moshe had died, they were distraught by the lack of an intermediary to lead them and teach them Hashem’s will. They yearned to build a place for the Divine presence to rest among them to fill the void left by Moshe’s perceived death. Because their intentions in were for the sake of Heaven, they selected Aharon to lead the project so that it would succeed. If so, what was their mistake, and why did their plans go so awry?

The Beis HaLevi explains that each mitzvah contains within it deep, mystical secrets which have tremendous effects in the upper worlds when performed properly. At Mount Sinai, the Jewish people erred in thinking that if they discovered the kabbalistic concepts behind a mitzvah, they could perform it based on their understanding even without being commanded. As a result, although their intentions were good, they lacked the Divine assistance which comes only from performing His will, and they ended up sinning with the golden calf.

The Medrash (Shemos Rabbah 51:8) teaches that the Mishkan also served as atonement for the sin of the golden calf. The Beis HaLevi explains that because the sin of the golden calf was caused by doing something without a command from Hashem to do so, the Torah therefore repeatedly emphasizes in Parshas Pekudei (see e.g. Shemos 39:5) that every single aspect of the Mishkan was made exactly as Hashem had commanded Moshe.

With this introduction, we can now answer our original questions. The mitzvah of parah adumah is indeed a chok, the logic of which escaped Shlomo and certainly Rav Moshe HaDarshan. If so, what does he mean when he says that the red heifer comes to atone for the golden calf? As we now understand that the root of the sin of the golden calf was the Jews’ attempt to be too smart and to do something which Hashem didn’t command them to, the ultimate rectification of this sin is to completely subordinate one’s intellect to Hashem’s dictates – as manifested by the willingness to perform a chok, a mitzvah which appears to make no sense but which one does solely because Hashem commanded it!


ותמת שם מרים ותקבר שם ולא היה מים לעדה ויקהלו על משה ועל אהרן (20:1-2)

ולא היה מים לעדה - מכאן שכל מ' שנה היה להם הבאר בזכות מרים (רש"י)

Rashi explains that upon the death of Miriam, there was no longer any water for the people to drink as the well which had sustained them with water had only existed in the merit of Miriam. How can this be reconciled with the Gemora in Bava Metzia (86b) which states that the well was provided in the merit of Abraham’s kindness in welcoming guests and providing them with water to drink?

The Maharsha (Taanis 9a) answers that the well initially appeared in the merit of Abraham’s actions. However, if only for Abraham’s kind deeds, the well would have remained for a short period of time and then departed. In the merit of Miriam, the well which had come due to Abraham remained with the Jews throughout their journeys in the wilderness until her death. The Torah Temimah challenges this explanation, questioning how the merit of Miriam, who sustained the well for 40 years, could be greater than that of Abraham, who was only able to make it last a short while. Some suggest that the first opinion maintains that initially bringing about a miracle takes infinitely more merits than sustaining it once it has already begun, and in this sense Abraham’s merits were indeed greater than those of Miriam’s.


על כן יאמרו המשלים באו חשבון תבנה ותכונן עיר סיחון (21:27)

On a literal level, our cumbersome verse discusses the battles between two of the non-Jewish peoples who lived at this time and commemorates the victory of one over the other. However, the Gemora (Bava Basra 78b) homiletically reinterprets our verse as coming to teach a lesson in values and priorities.

The Gemora explains that the verse can be read as quoting not rulers over kingdoms, but rather rulers over their own base instincts and evil inclinations. And what is the message of these masters of self-control? They advise that a person make a reckoning of the reward for performing a mitzvah versus the loss incurred by doing so, and the potential gain from sinning relative to its downside.

The Gemora concludes that these individuals promise that somebody who makes the appropriate calculation will be built in this world and well-established in the World to Come. While it is certainly understandable that a person who righteously makes such a reckoning will be well-compensated in the next world, in what way does a person tangibly benefit from doing so in this world?

Rav Shalom Schwadron was once giving a speech on this very topic when a man approached him at the end of the lecture and related a story which answers our question. The man was an old Russian Jew, and his story took place just before the rise to power of the Communists. At that time, the Jews in Russia felt secure, and the man had a lucrative job in the jewelry business.

One day he was going to work a bit early when he heard somebody calling for a 10th man to complete a minyan so that somebody with yahrtzeit could say the Mourner’s Kaddish. Because he had a few minutes to spare, he agreed to be the 10th man. Much to his chagrin, when he entered the room, he saw only five other men. When he turned to leave, the man with yahrtzeit begged him to stay a few more minutes until the minyan could be completed.

After much time, the real 10th man was found, but this man was fuming at the thought of all of the money he was losing in missed business deals. Still, he assumed that there would be one quick Kaddish and then it would be all over. He was left speechless when the man with yahrtzeit proceeded to start from the very beginning of the morning prayer service. As they had only an exact minyan, he had no choice but to remain hostage, growing more livid by the moment.

When the service was finally over, he ran toward his office. When he got there, he was informed that that very morning the Bolsheviks had ransacked the offices, killing most of the Jews in the process. If he hadn’t stayed to allow another Jew to say Kaddish, his kids would be saying Kaddish for him!

Many times in life we are confronted with dilemmas between what we known deep down is the “right” thing to do and what we want to do to get ahead and have what appears to be more fun. The next time we are faced with such a choice, we should follow the advice of the rulers to make a calculation and to realize that by doing the right thing, we stand to gain not only in the next world but also in this one.


Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):

1) The Medrash Pliah explains that Korach was motivated to rebel against Moshe when he learned about the mitzvah of parah adumah (the red heifer). How is this to be understood, and in what way did the parah adumah inspire Korach to challenge the authority and leadership of Moshe? (Yalkut HaGershuni, Roshei Besamim, Chemdas Tzvi, Mas’as HaMelech, K’Motzei Shalal Rav)

2) The Torah uses the phrase “this is the chok (decree) of the Torah” in conjunction with two mitzvos: the purification of the red heifer, and the laws of koshering utensils (31:21-24). What do they have in common, and why is this phrase used in connection with them? (Darash Moshe)

3) Rashi writes (19:2) that Hashem declared the mitzvah of parah adumah to be a “chok” – a Divine decree with no readily apparent rationale – regarding which we are not permitted to inquire or attempt to understand. Shlomo Hamelech declared (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:3) that after using all of his intellectual capabilities to attempt to understand the mitzvah of parah adumah, he was unable to do so. How was he permitted to attempt to do so, and why did he try? (Mas’as HaMelech)

4) Rashi writes (20:1) that this chapter describes a new era in the national history, as 38 years had passed since the events described up until now and all of those who were to die in the wilderness had already passed away, leaving an entire nation of righteous Jews who were to merit entering the land of Israel. If those remaining alive were the righteous ones, why do we find that almost immediately (20:2-5) they began protesting over the lack of water in a manner reminiscent of that used by the wicked who had already perished? (Keser Shlomo, Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh)

5) Rashi writes (20:1) that the death of Miriam is juxtaposed to the parah adumah to teach that the death of the righteous atones like the bringing of sacrifices. Why is this lesson taught specifically through the death of Miriam? (Peninim MiShulchan Gevoha, Bod Kodesh, Meged Yosef)

6) Rashi writes (20:11-12) that after Hashem commanded Moshe and Aharon to speak to the rock and cause it to bring forth water, Moshe sinned by hitting the rock to make it give water. According to this explanation, why was Aharon punished for Moshe’s actions? (Zayis Re’anan)

7) The Baal HaTurim writes (20:12) that לכן – therefore – has the same numerical value as מדה במדה – measure-for-measure. In what way was Hashem’s decree that Moshe and Aharon wouldn’t be allowed to enter the land of Israel considered a measure-for-measure punishment for their sin at Mei Merivah? (Arizal quoted in Tal Oros, Mishmeres Ariel)

8) Rashi writes (27:13) that Hashem told Moshe that he would be able to die in the manner in which Aharon had died and which Moshe had coveted for himself. What was unique about Aharon’s death (20:22-29) which caused Moshe to desire it? (K’sav Sofer, Taima D’Kra)


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