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:
Numbers 19 - 21
A lot happens in this week’s parashat. We learn about the “chukat” of the Red Cow, Moses’ sin of striking rather than speaking to the rock; the deaths of Miriam and Aaron; the petitions and immediate rejections to pass through the lands of Edom and Moab; the defeats of Og (king of the Amorites) and Sichon (king of Bashan); and the burning serpents. Undoubtedly, a lot happens in this week’s parashat.
The parashat opens up with HaShem speaking to Moses and Aaron saying:
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 cow, which has no blemish, upon which a yoke has not come.” (Numbers 19:2)
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. As in Leviticus 26:3: “If you walk in my decrees and guard my commandments and do them…”, HaShem intended a distinct purpose for each of them. Within the framework of the Torah, a judgment is a ruling by a legal authority intended to instill order. A commandment is a discernible law from HaShem – either positive or negative – for a discernible purpose, and with a discernible consequence.
A decree, on the other hand, is a class of commandments with no apparent reason, and the decree of the Red Cow is the perfect example that starts out this week’s parashat. HaShem never explained the purpose of the Red Cow, or the purpose of the specific procedures in preparing its ashes that bring about uncleanness to the priest performing the duty – just that its ashes were intended for purification. All we know is that its ashes were mixed with water and used for purification of a person who came in contact with a dead body, or a person with tzara’at (commonly translated as leprosy).
Or HaChaim comments: “A commandment that has no apparent reason conveys a certainty of faith in HaShem and a willingness to observe all the commandments of the Creator, whether or not he understands the reason.”
HaShem never intended for us to understand why He commanded their observance. 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 people to follow HaShem, to showing the willingness to sacrifice his son 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 just like Korach as in last week’s parashat.
Let’s move on. We fast-forward in the parashat to the death of Miriam, and the peoples’ complaints 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. Rather, Moses chastised the people in anger and struck the rock twice. As a result, Hashem punished Moses and Aaron, telling them that they would not enter into the Land.
Why was Hashem’s judgement so harsh? And against both Moses and Aaron even though it was Moses that performed the actions? Much like in the case of the Red Cow, 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. The fact of the matter is that HaShem determined that this decree was sufficient for Moses and Aaron. What 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; in his anger he referred to “we” (him and Aaron) instead of Hashem bringing forth the water; 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 fact of the matter 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 more in-depth. In Numbers 21:5, the people spoke against God and against Moses: “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, “God sent the serpents, the burning ones, against the people and they bit the people; and a large multitude of Israel died.” (Numbers 21:6)
The people confessed their error and asked for Moses to pray to HaShem to remove the serpents. Instead of simply removing the serpents, HaShem said to Moses: “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.” (Numbers 21:8-9)
What a strange solution by HaShem to bring healing to the people who were bitten. Here again, we have a “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 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.” (Midrash Rabbah Bamidbar 19:2) Here the people were clearly speaking slanderous words, as they spoke “against God and against Moses”.
Rashi comments: “Let the serpent, who was stricken over bringing forth malicious talk [in the Garden] come and take his due from those who bring forth slanderous talk.” Or HaChaim writes: “It seems that this punishment was fitting because the Jews spoke against Moses, and they sinned even further by speaking against God. HaShem therefore sent against them that which was created through their sin [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 says: “Why did God see fit to exact retribution from them through serpents? Because the primordial serpent was the first to initiate slanderous speech [against God 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 God. 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, "He who breaches a fence will be bitten by a serpent" (Ecclesiastes 10:8).” (Midrash Rabbah Bamidbar 19:22)
Moreover, Moses prayed for the people. Was his prayer not effective? Perhaps the answer is in the peoples’ confession: “We have sinned, for we have spoken against HaShem and against you! Pray to HaShem that He remove from us the serpents. Moses prayed for the people.” (Numbers 21:7)
Throughout the Wilderness, every time the people 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, yet they were still fully reliant on Moses to advocate on behalf of them. It was time for those that were bitten to take it upon themselves to repent and be healed.
In his commentary, Or HaChaim highlights seven lessons from Hashem commanding Moses to make a “burning serpent” (I only feature three here):  To cause the people to recognize the severity of their sin;  To show them the power of repentance; and  To recognize the miracles of Hashem that He performs on an individual basis.
Ramban comments: “The overall idea, then, is that God 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 God who brings death and gives life.”
Think about it. 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, looked up with their own two eyes upon the stationary copper serpent on the upraised pole, and internalized the very threat that caused them harm. They could reflect on how the first sin in the Garden came about – through slanderous speech as they were now guilty of, and repent.
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 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, 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 God 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 God 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 God.” (John 3:14-21)
Yeshua compared himself to the copper serpent. 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. Nicodemus may not have understood what Yeshua meant at that moment, but several years later, I guarantee you he understood perfectly. All it took was a corrupt and politically motivated Sanhedrin 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, 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 a symbol of scorn to be transformed into that critical point of salvation through his completely selfless act of self-sacrifice.
I want to close with a story about my father. As a young man still living in 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 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, and still sees perfectly to this day. Baruch HaShem!
Reaching out to that point of contact is a critical act of faith on our parts. It is very individual and personal, and it always happens at a point in our lives where we cry out for help. That act of reaching out to the point of contact never logically makes sense. Remember, what is a decree? Remember what Or HaChaim wrote: “It has no apparent reason [and] conveys a certainty of faith in HaShem and a willingness to observe all the commandments of the Creator, whether or not he understands the reason.” That is faith, pure and simple. May we fix our eyes on Yeshua, our point of contact, the head and completer of our faith in Hashem, our perfect advocate, as we strive to draw closer to HaShem each and every day. Amen.