This week’s parashah is taken from Numbers 19:1–22:1. Listen as David digs deeper into understand the importance of Hashem's decrees (or chukot).
Follow along in the AUDIO PODCAST, and click on the play button below, so you can read along with the notes, as you listen to today's Parashat:
A lot happens in this week’s parashah. We learn about the “chukat” or the “decree” of the Red Heifer; we read of Hashem’s penalty for Moses in striking rather than speaking to the rock to bring forth water for the Children of Israel; we read of the deaths of Miriam and Aaron; we read about the petitions by the Children of Israel to pass through the lands of Edom and Moab, followed by the immediate rejections by the rulers of those lands; we read of the defeat of two mighty kings – Og (king of the Amorites) and Sichon (king of Bashan) – at the hands of the Children of Israel; and finally, we read of the plague of the burning serpents. As said earlier, a lot happens in this week’s parashah!
And so we open up this week’s Torah portion with Hashem speaking to Moses and Aaron in Numbers 19:2:
זֹאת חֻקַּ֣ת הַתּוֹרָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה יְהוָ֖ה לֵאמֹ֑ר דַּבֵּ֣ר ׀ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל וְיִקְח֣וּ אֵלֶיךָ֩ פָרָ֨ה אֲדֻמָּ֜ה תְּמִימָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֤ר אֵֽין־בָּהּ֙ מ֔וּם אֲשֶׁ֛ר לֹא־עָלָ֥ה עָלֶ֖יהָ עֹֽל׃
“This is the decree of the Torah, which Hashem has commanded, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel, and they shall take to you a perfectly red heifer, which has no blemish, upon which a yoke has not come.”
What is meant by “chukat haTorah” (חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה), or “decree of the Torah”? Throughout the Torah, we read of judgments (מִשְׁפָּטִם, “mishpatim”), commandments (מִצְוֹת, “mitzvot”) and decrees (חֻקֹּת, “chukot”) provided by Hashem. And no, they are not all one and the same!
Back in Leviticus 26:3, we read:
אִם־בְּחֻקֹּתַ֖י תֵּלֵ֑כוּ וְאֶת־מִצְוֹתַ֣י תִּשְׁמְר֔וּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָֽם׃
“If you walk in my decrees and guard my commandments and do them…”
Or in Exodus 21:1, we read:
וְאֵ֙לֶּה֙ הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר תָּשִׂ֖ים לִפְנֵיהֶֽם׃
“These are the judgments that you shall set before them”
Regarding “chukot” (decrees), “mitzvot” (commandments) and “mishpatim” (judgments), as you can see, Hashem intended a distinct purpose for each of them. Within the framework of the Torah, a “mishpat” (judgment) is a ruling by a legal authority intended to instill order, for instance, how to treat slaves and Jewish bondservants (Exodus 21). A “mitzvah” (commandment) is a discernible law from Hashem, for a discernible purpose, and with a discernible consequence, and can be either positive or negative. For instance, like the Ten Commandments.
But a “chok” (decree), on the other hand, is a class of commandment with no apparent reason, and the decree of the Red Heifer is the perfect example that starts out this week’s parashah. As we read on, we see that Hashem never fully explains the purpose of the Red Heifer, or the purpose of the specific procedures involved. All we are told is that the Red Heifer was slaughtered and completely burnt outside of the Camp, and that its ashes were mixed with water and used to provide purification for a person who became impure through contact with a dead body, or a person with tzara’at (commonly known as leprosy). What is very peculiar about this particular “chok” regarding the Red Heifer is that while the animal’s ashes were used to purify an unclean individual, it also simultaneously brought uncleanness on the Kohen (priest) that was performing the service; and afterward, they had to cleanse themselves and their clothing in water to attain purification. How does a decree that is intended to bring cleanliness to an impure person simultaneously bring impurity on a clean person? We will come back to this later.
The bottom line is this: Hashem never intended for us to understand why He commanded the observance of His chukot (decrees). It is the perfect example of obeying the King’s commands without questioning them. That is faith, pure and simple.
Abraham immediately comes to mind, passing each and every trial sent his way by Hashem – from leaving his land and his father’s house to follow Hashem, to showing the willingness to sacrifice his only son of promise to Hashem. Abraham’s faith was unwavering, especially when you realize that he was following Hashem for a reward that he wouldn’t even experience in his lifetime! In coming into the knowledge of Hashem, we need to recognize that if Hashem commanded something for us to do, there is no room for partial acknowledgement or doing it our own way. We must do it in its entirety and with all of our strength – otherwise, we are acting in rebellions to Hashem, just as we saw in last week’s parashah with Korach and his followers.
Let’s move on. We fast-forward in the parashah to the death of Miriam, and the ensuing events where the Children of Israel complained because they had no water (Numbers 20). Hashem gave Moses and Aaron clear instructions on what to do, telling Moses to “speak” to the rock.
Hashem said to Moses in Numbers 20:8:
“Take the staff and gather together the assembly, you and Aaron your brother, and you shall speak to the rock before their eyes and it shall give its waters. You shall bring forth for them water from the rock and give drink to the assembly and their animals.”
Rather, Moses chastised the people in anger, saying in Numbers 20:10: “Listen now, rebels, shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?” We read on in the next verse (Numbers 20:11): “Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock with his staff twice; abundant water came forth and the assembly and their animals drank.” As a result, Hashem punished Moses and Aaron, telling them that they would not enter into the Land, saying in Numbers 20:12: “Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel, you will not bring this congregation to the Land that I have given them.”
Why was Hashem’s judgment so harsh? Not only that, why was it against both Moses and Aaron even though it was Moses that performed the actions? Much like in the case of the Red Heifer, Hashem’s decree against Moses and Aaron does not entirely make sense. Perhaps we are just not intended to know the details as to why the severe punishment. Yet, the fact of the matter is that Hashem determined that this decree was sufficient for Moses and Aaron. All that we can do is evaluate what happened and take note: Moses allowed anger to overcome him and slandered the very people that he advocated for so many times, calling them “rebels”. Moreover, in Moses’ anger, he referred to “we” (him and Aaron) instead of Hashem bringing forth the water from the rock. Furthermore, Moses hit the rock instead of speaking to it as per Hashem’s instruction to him. And finally, Aaron was guilty by association. We do not know whether it was any one of these reasons, or all of them, or something else entirely that they were punished so severely. The bottom line is that we should just take them all to heart.
Finally, let’s jump to the encounter of the burning serpents – the final example I’d like to study this week.
In Numbers 21:5, the people spoke against Hashem and against Moses, saying: “Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this wilderness? For there is no food and there is no water, and our soul is at its limit with the insubstantial food.”
As a result, we read in Numbers 21:6: “Hashem sent the serpents, the burning ones, against the people and they bit the people; and a large multitude of Israel died.”
The people confessed their error and asked for Moses to pray to Hashem to remove the serpents. Yet, instead of simply removing the serpents, Hashem said to Moses in Numbers 21:8-9: “Make yourself a burning one and place it on a pole, and it will be that anyone who had been bitten will look at it and live. Moses made a serpent of copper and place it on the pole; so it was that if the serpent bit a man, he would stare at the copper serpent and live.”
What a strange solution by Hashem to bring healing to the people who were bitten. Here again, we have a “chok” (“decree”) that doesn’t make any clear sense. However, Hashem instructed the people to look at the “burning serpent” and live. Why a burning serpent? Once again, there is no explanation as to why!
There is a Midrash (Midrash Rabbah Bamidbar 19:2) that says: “Why is slanderous speech called “threefold” speech? Because it can kill three people: the one who says it, the one who accepts it, and the one about whom it is said.”
Here the people were clearly speaking slanderous words, as they spoke “against Hashem and against Moses”.
Rashi (a renowned rabbi from the 11th century) comments: “Let the serpent, who was stricken over bringing forth malicious talk [referring to the serpent in the Garden] come and take his due from those who bring forth slanderous talk.”
And Or HaChaim (a notable rabbi from the 18th century) adds further: “It seems that this punishment was fitting because the Jews spoke against Moses, and they sinned even further by speaking against Hashem. Hashem therefore sent against them that which was created through their sin [i.e. burning serpents], for the sin itself is what produces a destructive force that then punishes the sinner. There is an association between the speaker of slanderous speech and a serpent.”
But wait a minute. This isn’t the first time that the people spoke slanderously in the Wilderness. Why now?
Another Midrash (Midrash Rabbah Bamidbar 19:22) says: “Why did Hashem see fit to exact retribution from them through serpents? Because the primordial serpent was the first to initiate slanderous speech [against Hashem in the Garden] and was cursed because of it, and yet these complainers did not take a lesson from it, for they spoke slanderous talk against Hashem. Therefore, the Holy One Blessed be He said, ‘Let the serpent, who was the first to initiate slanderous talk, come and exact retribution from the speakers of slanderous speech,’ as it is stated (in Ecclesiastes 10:8): ‘He who breaches a fence will be bitten by a serpent.’”
Moreover, Moses prayed for the people. Was his prayer not effective? Perhaps the answer is in the peoples’ confession, as we read in Numbers 21:7:
“We have sinned, for we have spoken against Hashem and against you [Moses]! Pray to Hashem that He remove from us the serpents. Moses prayed for the people.”
Throughout the Wilderness, every time the Children of Israel sinned, they turned to Moses and it was Moses that advocated on their behalf to Hashem. Sure, this wasn’t the first time in the Wilderness that the people spoke slanderous talk, but they were nearing the 40th year of their journeys in the Wilderness and were about to enter into the Land of Promise, yet they were still fully reliant on Moses to advocate on behalf of them. So, the purpose of Hashem’s instruction for Moses to make a “burning serpent” and place it on a pole, was so that those that were bitten would take it upon themselves to repent and be healed. So that the Children of Israel would recognize the gravity of their sin through the attack of the burning serpents and the ensuing affliction; that they would ultimately repent (do “teshuvah”), meaning “turn back to Hashem”; and finally, that they would be healed by fixing their eyes on the symbol of the serpent and receive healing from Hashem. This entire process was a very individual process – it was reliant on each individual rather than on the collective nation as a whole.
One final commentary from Ramban (another renowned rabbi from the 13th century) comments: “The overall idea, then, is that Hashem commanded that they should be cured through the harmful animal itself, which according to the natural order should cause death, so they made its physical likeness in a way reminiscent of its name [the Hebrew word for “copper” (נְחשֶׁת,“nechoshet”) is very similar to the word for “serpent” (נָחָשׁ,“nachash”) ]. And when the afflicted person stared intently at the copper serpent, which was completely like the harmful animal (both in appearance and name), he would live. This was to teach them that it is Hashem who brings death and gives life.”
Earlier on, I asked the question regarding the Red Heifer: How does a decree that is intended to bring cleanliness to an impure person simultaneously bring impurity on a clean person? Here we have the copper serpent – a symbol of death – that brought life instead of death.
Moreover, as I just mentioned, this was not a solution that immediately healed all the people as a collective; rather, it was a very personal experience as each person that was bitten – through their own personal trust and faith in Hashem, each individual person had to look up with their own two eyes upon the stationary copper serpent atop the upraised pole, and they had to internalize the very threat that caused them harm. And this process of deep contemplation could drive them to reflect on how the very first sin in the Garden of Eden came about – through slanderous speech as they were now guilty of. And finally, each person could repent before Hashem for the sin that they committed individually.
It is this process that is so very important in coming into salvation. We cannot be saved unless we first know we need saving. We have to be in the deepest recesses of “the pit” crying out for help… we need to see the danger right in front of us to give rise to the very human instinct of calling out for help.
In John 3:14-21, Yeshua said to Nicodemus: “And just as Moses elevated the serpent in the Wilderness, so must the son of man be lifted up, so that none who believe in him will perish, but rather they will live eternal life. For Hashem loved the world with an abundant love, to the extent that He gave his only [unified] son so that all who believe in him will not perish, but will rather have eternal life. For Hashem did not send His son into the world to sentence the world, but rather so that the world may be saved in him. One who believes in him will not be sentenced, but whoever will not believe in him is already sentenced, for he has not believed in the name of the unified son of God. This is the verdict: that the light came to the world, but the sons of men loved the darkness more than the light because their deeds are evil. For all who do injustice hate the light and will not come to the light, so that they may not be rebuked for their deeds. But one who does the truth comes to the light so that it may be revealed that his deeds are done with Hashem.”
Yeshua compared himself to the copper serpent in the Wilderness. What??? He clearly understood its purpose and he drew an important parallel connected to the gift of salvation. Just as the copper serpent was the point of salvation for the Israelites that were bitten in the Wilderness, so was Yeshua saying to Nicodemus that he was the point of salvation for those in the world who were condemned by their sins. Once again, I bring up the question I asked earlier: How does a decree that is intended to bring cleanliness to an impure person simultaneously bring impurity on a clean person? And here, Yeshua was comparing himself to the copper serpent – the ultimate symbol of death! Nicodemus may not have understood what Yeshua meant at that moment, but several years later, I promise you that he understood perfectly. All it took were corrupt and politically-motivated leaders of the nation to convince the ruling Roman power of the day to put Yeshua to death on false charges. As a result, Yeshua was raised up on a cross (outside of the walls of Jerusalem), and crucified in the most deplorable manner imaginable. He became the scourge of society for scoffers to mock and ridicule, and doubters to shake their heads in disbelief. Yeshua had to become the abject symbol of impurity and scorn before he could be transformed into that critical point of purity – ultimately becoming our point of salvation. It is us who come before the cross in our states of impurity, and are given the opportunity to “look” upon him and to recognize him as the ultimate agent of purification that is necessary for us to become clean, so that we may receive cleansing of all of our impurities and receive the gift of salvation. Just like the Red Heifer. Just like the copper serpent in the Wilderness.
I want to close with a story about my late father, may his memory be a blessing. As a young man still living in British Guyana, my father was working in a lab when an explosion occurred, blinding him in both eyes. Over the span of several months, he visited numerous doctors, each of them telling him that his eyesight would never return. One day he was sitting in his dining room listening to an evangelist speaking on the radio. The man on the radio said: “If you have faith and want to be healed, put your hand as a point of contact on the radio and I will pray for you.” My father recounts that the next day he woke up, he could see halos of light emanating from the window in his bedroom. The following morning, he could see peoples’ silhouettes. And by the third morning, he could see perfectly, up until the day that he passed. Baruch Hashem!
Reaching out to that point of contact is a critical act of faith on our parts – especially when the act does not make any sense at all. It is very individual and personal, and it always happens at such a low point in our lives where all we can do is cry out for help to our Sovereign Creator. That act of reaching out to the point of contact never logically makes sense. Remember, what is a decree? As defined earlier, a decree (chok) is a class of commandment with no apparent reason. Obeying a decree of Hashem requires faith, pure and simple. So may we fix our eyes on Yeshua, our point of contact, the head and completer of our faith in Hashem, and our perfect advocate to our Heavenly Father, as we strive to draw closer to Hashem each and every day.