June 28th, 2014


Dvar Torah: Chukat

This week's parsha confronts death. First, we encounter death in the abstract, as we learn the ritual of the parah adumah, by which one who has become tamei due to contact with any corpse may be returned to a state of taharah. Then we read of the deaths of Miriam and Aharon, as the forty years of wandering begin to draw to a close. It is from the beginning of this parsha that we learn the principle of shiva, and it is from its middle that we learn the priniciple of sheloshim.

It is therefore a fitting parsha to consider in this week of yahrzeits. My father's yahrzeit was two days ago; his mother's is two days from now; and today is his grandmother's.

When we consider the deaths of Miriam and Aharon, we also realize that they are representative of the entire generation that left Egypt. Their time has come. And yet up to this point, Moshe's fate is not yet determined. Will he die in the midbar, or will lead the people as they enter Eretz Yisrael? It is in this parsha, as well, that Moshe makes his fatal mistake.

The problem is that no two mefarshim seem to agree on what Moshe's mistake actually was. In a sense, this is as deep a mystery as the parah adumah.

Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot writes that Moshe's striking the rock was a failure to adapt to the reality of the new generation. With Miriam's passing, the well that miraculously followed us in the midbar has gone as well. Moshe is faced once again, as he was 38 years earlier, with a people grumbling from thirst; but this time Hashem has given Moshe different instructions. For reasons that perhaps only God understands, the new generation of the midbar needs to see Moshe speak to the rock, not strike it. In this instance, that is the specific behaviour that will optimally glorify God in their eyes. Yet Moshe falls back to the same solution that worked for the generation of the Exodus. In Rabbi Helfgot's reading, Moshe thus demonstrates that it is time for a new leader to take the people forward.

Three years ago, while I was sitting shiva for my father, I heard Rebbitzen Sylvia Kogan give a different perspective. She pointed out that when Miriam died, the Torah does not record that the people mourned her, instead, in the very next verse, they immediately complained to Moshe about the loss of the water that had benefited them on account of Miriam's zechut. Then, when God tells Moshe to speak to the rock, Moshe loses it. No one seems to care about his grief, and he lashes out. Perhaps he even knew the consequences of what he was doing, but he could no longer bring himself to care. Later in the parsha, when Aharon dies, this time the people mourn for thirty days, because they have learned that it is necessary to share the grief of the family when they have lost a loved one.

Generations pass, and new generations arise. We carry forward our memories, our mesorah, and our ahavat Hashem. My great-grandmother, Chaya Grune bat Josef Tuvia ha-Levi, passed away on this date 95 years ago; her daughter-in-law, my grandmother, Reizel bat Yehuda Leib, passed away on the second of Tammuz 11 years ago; Reizel's son, Avi Mori Gershon Eliyah ben Avraham ha-Levi passed away on the 28th of Sivan 3 years ago. May their memories continue to be a blessing.

L'havdil bein hachayim uvein hametim; as we look back, we also look forward. Im yirzah Hashem, later this week, I will dance at the wedding of my cousin, Chaya Grune's great-great-granddaughter, the first of the next generation to get married. The mysterious ritual of the parah adumah reminds us that God not only gives us the strength to grapple with the awful reality of death, but God then guides us back, to embrace the awesome reality of life.