I. Read 19: 1-3, 5-6, 9, 11-12, 14-17.
A. You might wonder why we’ve read these verses. Let’s start with the fact that most commentators admit they can’t explain them. The ones who try run the gamut of possible meaning. There were ancient purification rites to be sure, and heifers appear in many such stories of purification. But the place, and indeed the general availability, of red heifers in purification from touching death is mysterious - to say the least. The principal explanation is that it’s God’s words, and we study them, though our understanding of them is extremely limited.
Yet, the language is there. And I want just to see if the sages here in our class want to try to imagine and discuss meaning. Anyone want to try?
(Let’s start with what we know. It’s about touching, or being near, death. There’s clearly, too, the idea that we must go through a transition after touching death, and before returning to ordinary life and especially the vitality of sacred space, however that may be defined.
The ritual involves the destruction of an animal, and the purification, if one can use that word, involves touching the ashes of the remains of the dead animal. Since this particular animal did not likely exist in the needed quantity to give this ritual practical and general applicability, there must have largely been a deeper or spiritual meaning associated with the text.
The idea I come away with - with the greatest satisfaction - is that the ritual pushes us to recognize that the body of the dead is gone from us here. We are not to be caught up in thinking that the body lives on in this world in any respect. The reenactment spiritually of death and the touch of the ashes of it reinforces the lesson to the grieving person who has actually touched death. Being sprinkled with the ashes of that reality - that the physical body in this world is gone forever - is necessary to transition back to life with an understanding that, for us here, the spirit lives on, of course, with the memory and blessing and good that came into the world in the life of the one whose death is grieved.
One other solid traditional understanding, and it’s related, is the fundamental opposition within Judaism to the ancient practice of cult of the dead. We do not preserve nor worship in any way the dead body; rather we respect it, understand its death, and invest our hope in the soul, and the spirit of life.
What lives on for the mourner is the memory, the love, the connection with God, and life with God both for us and the one who has departed.)
B. For those of you who have read the entire portion, why do you believe this ritual is discussed here in the text? There are several views among the sages about this, but, given the flow of the narrative for the rest of this portion, there’s one view I find especially meaningful. Thoughts?
(This is the portion where the people, and we, experience the death of Miriam and the death of Aaron, and the awareness that Moses will die. So, in a way, God’s teaching about how to handle death is guidance that we will need over time, but especially so in the loss of its most significant pioneers. Note that the instruction is as to how Elezar will handle the ritual, as if to say that it will be he who will administer it after Aaron’s death, it is instruction for the next generation and the future.
Let’s do recognize that 38 years pass between Chapters 19 and 20. We do go quickly to Miriam’s death and Aaron’s, which the Editor makes seem imminent upon the giving of the mitzvoth of the red heifer, but this tremendous amount of time has passed. What does the editor achieve by connecting these strands of the story?
(God loves. God gives. God supports. And, in all this, one, though understanding there is pain and loss, also learns that life, with death, also has birth and awakening and reawakening.)
C. Why does the story go dark for 38 1/2 years?
II. Miriam dies. And the community finds it’s without water. As we discussed a couple of weeks ago, there is a tradition of thought that Miriam was associated with the lifting of water, and that her death was associated with the lack of water that the people confront here. We won’t dwell on that, but I wanted you to be aware of these ideas.
A. Read 20: 7-13. This is obviously one of the most significant moments in Torah. Let’s try to break it down.
1. What does God tell Moses to do? What does Moses do differently?
(God: Take the rod, assemble the people, order the rock to yield its water before their very eyes, and it will flow.
Moses: “listen, you rebels, shall WE get water for you out of this rock?” He raised his hand and struck the rock twice, and out came water.)
2. Before we get to the surface matters in detail, the clothes themselves, let’s consider: what’s under the clothes? Beyond the physical matter of the people being physically thirsty and the material reality of water flowing from a rock, what meaning might exist here at a deeper level?
(Water has always represented spiritual nourishment, as we have studied. If so, is it possible that Moses is no longer capable of drawing spiritual sustenance for the people, drawing the spiritual from the material, in the required ways? God gives us spiritual sustenance, and through designated leaders. Moses could simply be showing his exhaustion or inability to be the spiritual leader, the leader who sustains the people spiritually in the way needed when they enter the land.)
3. Now, whether we look at this spiritually or physically, or both, let’s look at the words on the surface. What’s God’s response? And what do we make of it? Understandable? Harsh? What did Moses do wrong, and why this consequence?
(There are many explanations from the sages. Here are some of the most telling:
a) Because Moses didn’t trust God enough to affirm God’s sanctity in front of the people, he would not lead them into the land of promise.
b) One little mistake? Or more? One could certainly argue the point. But isn’t the essence that Moses always had served as a model for the community and us, that we could see the leader acting in faith to God and in a way that God would approve? Although there is a more innocent explanation of what’s going on (see Ramban), Moses appears to talk as if salvation comes from him, not God. He speaks angry words to the people outside of the mission God has given him; and he violates the command in front of the people, striking, rather than speaking to, the rock.
c) Some say the striking suggests an acting out of habit, rather than alignment with God in the moment, since he had struck the rock the last time.
d) Others say that God intended something different here, perhaps a softer approach.
e) Or, for whatever reason - anger or anxiety or impatience - Moses was harsh in his actions and with the people, when such harshness was not appropriate in God’s eyes.
f) Was Moses simply broken down after all the years and the struggles and the burdens of leadership, compounded perhaps by sadness at Miriam’s death?
Is this a punishment, or more precisely an indication that Moses had run out of energy and spirit to lead the people forward into the land? He simply couldn’t lead with the force and effect and mercy he had shown in the past, Other thoughts?
4. Why did Moses, whose behavior had been so exemplary for so long, do this? What do you think was going through his mind? Let’s create midrash, our own story of what must or might have happened.
5. Read line 13. What does this add to our understanding?
(I believe that it was that God had through the Divine self to sanctify the Divine name, though the most desirable end would have been that we do so. This is what was fundamentally missing in the way Moses acted.
Though the text invites us to be critical of Moses here, albeit with empathy, let’s pay close attention to all that he does for the rest of Torah. My case will be, in the end, that he merits the highest sort of appreciation for the teaching and leading he is yet to do, especially in the face of this error and the consequence he suffered for it.)
And this case begins with the very next verses:
Read 14-17. Other than the tactical details, what strikes you about this text?
(Moses, even though just learning the painful news of his fate, gets right back to the duty he owes God and the people - to make their way to the promised land. And what lesson do we in our own time draw from that?
(We owe our best to God at all times, even those of pain and disappointment, even when we fall. This is modeling of a very fine sort, and it will continue for the remainder of the books. We’ll look at it closely throughout - you can be sure.)
B. Yet, something begins to change a little after Aaron’s death. We’re going to sample different verses through chapter 21, so we can look for an interesting pattern. Read 21:1-3; 16-18; 21-25.
1. What do you see generally?
(Israel is beginning to speak! Israel is beginning to take on a role that had been almost exclusively played by Moses, not entirely, to be sure, but to a large degree. What does this mean?
The transition is beginning to take place. Moses’ role is changing, perhaps diminishing a bit, as the people’s readiness grows.
2. Focus on the people’s singing the song to draw the water. We’ve talked a lot about water, including at the beginning of this portion. First, what in our study comes to mind from this song? Second, what’s the lesson here?
(This recalls the past. It’s as if the people remember and honor Isaac, even Miriam. They are sanctifying God by speaking, indeed even singing, not of Egypt, not of their own weakness or anxiety, but rather of true memory, that of the people, that grounded in God-given blessings. This is a huge advance for Israel.)
(Water is symbolic of spiritual nourishment as well as physical. The people are, as a group, singing for it. And God delivers. Also, recall it was “unmet thirst” that caused problems in the past, and indeed it was Moses’ not handling the last problem in accord with God’s instruction that led to this transition, in part. The people can and now do, in a very lovely way, sing for water. This is a clear beginning demarcation from wilderness to readiness to enter the land.)
3. This is also true as the people pass through the Amorite lands. Israel takes the lead; Israel wins the day. Moses is still leading (21:34), but the people are stronger, more in control of achieving God’s destiny and theirs.
Do you see this? Thoughts as we are now beginning to wrap up our wilderness journey, “across the Jordan from Jericho.” (22:1)