This action-packed portion begins with the laws of the red heifer, an unusual ritual which causes the participant to become pure, but those involved in the preparation to become impure. From there, the narrative picks up again with the death of Moses’s sister, Miriam, and a lack of water for the people. Moses and Aaron are told by God that they have failed to sanctify His name before the people, and as a result are destined to die in the desert. In fact, Aaron’s death is also recorded in this portion.
Other escapades include encounters with Canaanites, with Edom, with Amorites and with fiery serpents.
The Red Heifer
The Torah describes the mysterious laws of the Red Heifer, a rite which purifies those who have come in contact, directly or indirectly, with the dead. A completely red calf which has never been used for work must be taken outside the camp, slaughtered and burned. A sprig of hyssop, cedar wood, and a strand of scarlet are added to the fire. The ashes are gathered by a pure individual and kept for the purpose of purification. The priests involved in the preparation and collection of the ashes become contaminated until the evening, and must immerse themselves in water to be purified.
Those who come in contact with the dead must undergo a sprinkling of water mixed with ashes from the red heifer on the third and seventh days of their impurity. If they do not, they will be cut off from the nation. The priest who does the sprinkling becomes temporarily contaminated as above.
The Israel Bible discusses one of the many unusual details about the red heifer — the fact that the ritual takes place outside the camp, as far from the Tabernacle as possible. At the time of death, the soul, which is a spark of Godliness, departs the body, leaving it Godless. One who comes in contact with the absence of God cannot bring that into the Tabernacle, the place where God’s presence on Earth is concentrated. Only once he is purified can he again encounter God’s presence.
Points to Ponder
What do you think we can learn from the fact that the priests who prepare the red heifer, a rite of purification, become impure themselves in the process?
Moses and the Rock
Miriam dies, and is buried in the Wilderness of Zin. There, the people run out of water and begin to complain. Not only have Moses and Aaron not led them to a fertile land as promised, but there isn’t even any water to drink! They bemoan the fact that they did not die in Korach’s rebellion, because at least that way they would not be suffering now.
Moses and Aaron fall on their faces, and God tells them to take the staff and gather the people of Israel and speak to a certain rock which He will show them. Water will come from the rock, and Moses and Aaron are to give that water to the people to drink, along with their animals.
As commanded, Moses and Aaron take the staff and gather the people, as instructed. Moses scolds the people, asking, “Shall we bring forth water from this rock?” He strikes the rock twice, and water flows forth. The people are pleased, and slake their thirst, but God condemns Moses and Aaron for neglecting to sanctify His name in the eyes of the nation. He tells them they will not enter the Promised Land as a result of their actions.
The passage is a troubling one, and Jewish thinkers have struggled with it for centuries. What did Moses and Aaron do wrong to warrant such a punishment? The Israel Bible brings down one opinion, stating that by hitting the rock, Moses gave the people the misimpression that he, not God, was causing the water to flow. Thus, Moses missed an opportunity to glorify God in the eyes of the nation. From this we can learn that it is not enough to recognize the hand of God in our own lives, we must also make sure others recognize His presence.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think God chose to punish Moses and Aaron by barring them from the Holy Land? Does the punishment suit the “crime”?
Journeys Through the Desert
What follows is a series of incidents that occur as the Israelites travel through the desert. First, Moses requests permission from the king of Edom to pass through his land, but is refused, and the people are forced to go the long way around.
Aaron’s death approaches, and God instructs Moses to take his brother and Eleazar his nephew to the top of Mount Hor. There Moses strips Aaron of his priestly garments, passing them to Eleazar, and God gathers Aaron’s soul. The people mourn the passing of the beloved leader. The Israel Bible points out that at a time when the heightened spiritual existence of the desert, where food fell from heaven and water was provided by God, is drawing to a close, God ensures that no vacuum is left in their spiritual leadership, as the mantle passes from father to son, from Aaron to Eleazar.
The Canaanite king of the southern city of Arad sets out to fight against Israel, and the people make a deal with God: if He grants them victory, they will utterly destroy the cities of the enemy. The Children of Israel are victorious, and fulfill their promise.
The people begin to get impatient on their journey, and complain again about the lack of water and ordinary food. They say they are tired of the strange rations which fall from heaven. God sends fiery serpents to punish the people, who quickly realize the error of their ways and beg Moses to intercede with God. God tells Moses to build a brass serpent and place it on a pole, saying all those who look up to the brass serpent will be saved.
Moses sends messengers to Sihon, king of the Amorites, also asking for the right of passage. Instead he brings his army against the people. The Israelites smite the enemy forces, only to similarly confront the forces of Og, king of Bashan. God reassures Moses of Israelite victory, and the nation takes the cities of both kings. This, the Israel Bible points out, marks the beginning of the conquest of the Promised Land. Although outside the original borders promised by God, these territories become an important part of the Jewish kingdom.
In addition, the Torah relates a number of destinations along the way, and songs of praise that the people sing in thanks to God for His wonders.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think God uses a bronze serpent as the tool to save the stricken Israelites? Keep in mind that in 2 Kings 18, Hezekiah destroys that serpent in the context of eradicating idolatry from the land…