Commentary on Parashat Chukat, Numbers 19:1 - 22:1
God said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Speak to the sons of Israel and find a completely red cow on which there is no blemish and no yoke has ever come. You shall give it to Eleazar, the priest, and he shall take it outside the camp and slaughter it. This cow shall then be made into an offering and those that participate in the sacrifice shall be unclean until the evening.
‘Remember this everlasting statute,’ God continues. ‘One who touches the corpse of any human soul becomes unclean for seven days. If the corpse is in a tent, all that is within the tent is also unclean. There is a purification process involving water for people and their possessions. If one does not purify oneself after a state of uncleanliness, that soul shall be uprooted from Israel. Anything unclean must be made clean and pure before coming in contact with the holy Sanctuary.’
The entire community of Israel came into the wilderness of Tzin and settled down in Kadesh. Miriam died in Kadesh and was buried there.
In Kadesh, there was no water for the community and the people assembled against Moses and Aaron. They said, ‘Why did you bring us here in the wilderness to die? Why did you take us from Egypt in order to bring us to this evil place? There are no figs or wine or pomegranates. There is not even water to drink.’
Moses and Aaron went to the Tent of Appointed Meeting and fell on their faces. The glory of God appeared to them. God said to Moses, ‘Take your rod and assemble the community. Then you and your brother Aaron speak to the rock before the people’s eyes. You shall then bring forth water from out of the rock for the people and their animals.’
Moses and Aaron then gathered the congregation before the rock and Moses said to them, ‘Listen now, O rebels, shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?’ Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock with his staff twice and abundant water came forth and the people and their animals drank.
God said to Moses and Aaron. ‘Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me before the eyes of the sons of Israel, you shall not bring this community into the land the land I have given them.’
Moses sent messengers to the King of Edom. In his message, Moses explained the story of God bringing the Jews out of Egypt. Moses asked the King if the Israelites could pass through the land of Edom peacefully and promised not to eat or drink of their land. The King of Edom said no. Then Moses sent word that the Israelites could go by a different road and pay for the water. Again, the King of Edom said no. Thus Edom refused permit to the Israelites to pass there.
They journeyed forth until they came to Mount Hor. God said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because Aaron defied My word at the waters of contention at Kadesh, Aaron shall not enter the Land that I have given to the children of Israel. Aaron and his son, Eleazar, shall be brought up to Mount Hor. There, Aaron shall be divested of his garments and his son dressed in his priestly garments. There, Aaron shall die.’ And it happened just as God commanded.
When Moshe and Eleazar descended from the Mount Hor, the entire community saw that Aaron was dead and the entire house of Israel wept for Aaron for 30 days.
After the Canaanite king heard the Israelites were coming, he made war on them. But God delivered up the Canaanites for the Israelites and the community continued their journey. In order to bypass the land of Edom (because the King of Edom would not let them pass peacefully), they went on a long route by the Sea of Reeds.
Along the way, the spirit of the people grew short and they complained again of insufficient food and water. God sent poisonous snakes against the people, biting many of them to death. The people came to Moses, ‘We have sinned, for we have spoken against God and against you. Pray that God may spare us from the snakes.’ Moses prayed for the people.
God said to Moses, ‘Make a copper snake and place it on a pole and whoever has been bitten by a snake will look upon the copper snake and live.’ And it so happened.
The Israelites continued to journey and God gave them water from a well.
The Israelites sent out a message to the King of the Emorites to try to pass peacefully through the land. The King decided to attack Israel instead. With God’s blessings, the Israelites won the battle and settled in the land of the Emorites.
The Israelites ventured from there to the land of the Amorites asking to travel peacefully through that land. There was another war and another victory sanctioned by God. The Israelites took possession of the land before journeying on and camping in the wastelands of Moab on the other side of Jericho.
Parashat Chukat Discussion Questions
1. Why do you think the Israelites were not allowed to pass through the foreign lands, even though they asked to pass peacefully? What were the Edomites, Canaanites, Emorites and Amorites afraid of? Do you think people today are ever afraid of foreign people? Of the Jewish people? Why?
2. Aaron died because of he ‘defied God’s word at the waters of contention.’ How did Aaron defy God’s word? Why did God impose a death penalty now but not earlier when Aaron allowed the people to build and worship the golden calf? What is the penalty when you defy God’s word?
3. Aaron died on Mt. Hor, and the people mourn for thirty days. However, when Miriam died and was buried in Kadesh, there was no text describing a mourning period for her. Why would the mourning process be different for a woman and man? Is it different today? Why?
4. All that comes in contact with the dead is considered unclean. If death is a part of the cycle of life, why is death considered unclean? Is this true today? After a funeral do you feel unclean? Why or why not?
Reprinted with permission from Jewish Family & Life!
Pronounced: moe-SHEH, Origin: Hebrew, Moses, whom God chooses to lead the Jews out of Egypt.