This week, however, the parsha makes relative haste through multiple subjects and pieces of narrative over the course of 87 verses. Our learned sages (Chazal) almost universally agree that the episodes listed in Chukat are not in chronological order, but rather, as the Torah is apt to do, are arranged for thematic, educational, or inspirational reasons. Let’s look at a few of them to try and pull out some of the editorial backstory. Four episodes in particular: the red cow (parah aduma), the death of Miriam, Moshe striking the rock, and the miracle at Arnon.
The red cow (heifer, if you will) is one of the mysteries of the Mitzvot. A pure red cow is sacrificed, its blood spread toward the Mishkan, and then it’s burned with cedar wood, hyssop, and a crimson thread. Its ashes are mixed with pure water, and are used as a sprinkling solution to purify anyone who has been in contact with a corpse. The conundrum, however, is that the act of preparing the purifying water renders the practitioner impure. We’ll talk about that on Shabbos…join us in person or online!
Shortly thereafter, we learn of the death of Moshe’s sister Miriam. Immediately, the source of water which has been quenching the thirst of the nation disappears. This is what leads Chazal to conclude that it was because of Miriam’s merit that a miraculous well followed us through the desert. Connecting this episode to the next, Midrash suggests that the rock which Moshe struck back in Sh’mot (Exodus) was the same one which he struck this time instead of speaking to it as he had been instructed. Some of the sages conclude that the rock followed Israel through the wilderness, as the locus of the well, which disappeared following her death. Yet, despite Moshe’s previous relationship with this holy milestone (sorry for that), he doesn’t follow the instructions, and strikes the stone instead of speaking to it, ostensibly condemning himself to a denial of the right to accompany the nation to the promised land.
The account of Arnon is referred to obliquely in the text, mostly from the cryptic references attributed to the now lost “Book of the Wars of Hashem.” Chazal teach that the Ammonites planned to ambush Israel by rolling large boulders down from their hiding places on two mountains as the nation passed through the valley in between. The miracle was that G-d pressed the two mountains together, crushing the would-be attackers. B’nai Yisrael would not have known about their salvation but for the blood which ran down from the rock crevices. A juxtaposition of strophes in the apocryphal book suggests that the stream of blood was transformed into the new source of water for Israel.
Three symbolic themes connect these episodes: red/blood, water, and stone. The elemental omnipresence of the three is classic. The red of life-giving blood is tinged with its association with sin. Water is similarly vital to survival, but brings a connotation of purity in contrast. Bringing them together is rock, “Tzur,” symbolic of Hashem, our Rock upon whom we put our trust. The relationship between holiness and sin is a constant dynamic, and the two are in such constant conflict that they can be regarded as a single entity. Yet, if you view two simultaneous conflicts of clear vs. red on opposite ends of a spectrum, what is the fulcrum which provides the opportunity for balance? You got it. Our Tzur, our Rock, right in the middle.
Like our ancestors of old, we strive to balance our tendency toward the worst in our nature with our best and holiest potential. With our feet planted firmly on a strong, stone Divine foundation, may every trace of red be washed away, leaving us perfectly in perfect equilibrium, in every way.
Rabbi/Hazzan David B. Sislen