Of sticks and slithering snakes and much more…
A good director knows that in the end, the story’s hero somehow survives, the viewing audience goes home happy and a good time is had by all. Walking out of a movie where the hero or heroine doesn’t make it, we’re left mamish tzibrochen (crushed); we’re down and feel like crying. And that’s what you’ll feel like after kriyas hatoirah this shabbis, unless, of course, you break out early to the kiddish club (which, I understand, a number of my readers do regularly: a shout-out mamish to the boys over at CBS).
I was considering telling you to skip it and move on to another happier parsha; efsher we should re-read the love story of Yankiff and Ruchil, but it’s my job to teach the heylige toirah as it is, as it was mistama given over to Moishe Rabaynuu and avada with my own twist.
To me there is no more depressing parsha than the one we will read this coming shabbis. Parshas Chukas is mamish a downer and if you halt kup for just a few minutes more, soon I’ll tell you why.
Hard to believe but over 38 years will have passed between the aliyos this shabbis and since we started reading sefer Bamidbar just a few weeks back. With the exception of the Poro Aduma (the red heifer) story which was decreed in year two of the midbar journey, the rest of the parsha takes place in the beginning of the 40th year. The Poro Aduma is, of course, known as the ultimate in Chukim (decrees given down by the RBSO without rhyme or reason), hence the name of the Parsha: Chukas.
The excitement is building. Since childhood you recall that the yiddin spent 40 years in the midbar valgering around (roaming aimlessly) in the sand and getting into all sorts of trouble, what else was there to do, but you know it’s coming to an end and we should mamish all be happy: the Yiddin are getting ready to enter the promised land. Ober (but) nebech (sadly), for many, it’s not meant to be. Raboyseyee: this week we learn the fate of Moishe Rabaynuu and it’s not a happy ending, any way you look at it, if you chap.
Not just does Moishe get the bad news but also this shabbis we have additional depressing headlines. Miriam dead!! Aharoin the Koihen godul and peace maker, also dead! And a few more yiddin, mistama thousands, also dead. But wait there’s more: the yiddin are restless again. They’re thirsty and want water. Hey it’s the midbar- of course they’re thirsty! And they wanted grain, figs, vines and pomegranates. Efsher they thought they were in the tea room.
Wait, still more: the yiddin are attacked by Amolake (for a second time,) go to war against Sichoin. Oh and let’s not forget that Moishe’s shteken (stick) makes yet another appearance and so do snakes, though luckily not his. Yes we get to meet the slithering fiery snakes that attack and kill yet more yiddin. Is this a parsha you want to learn? A snake and a stick in one parsha is mamish a recipe for disaster, if you chap. Either one can, and typically does cause trouble: together they’re deadly!
For my readers with severe ADD, that was the parsha recap and for those who want to hear more about the trouble Moishe’s shteken caused, read on. But first…
What the hec is a Poro Aduma (a red cow), why do its ashes make people pure and impure and why do we have this strange law on our books? Excellent kasha and many have wondered the same. Guess what? They haven’t a clue, but that hasn’t stopped them from pontificating and writing hundreds of medroshim about its uniqueness. Here’s the bottom line according to the Oisvorfer and avada who knows better?
Ober before I give you real pshat, this is what we have to know and because you mistama don’t, allow me to start with basic information. The word Chukas means a statute. The commandments of the heylige Toirah are divided into three groups: testimonies, statutes and judgments. Judgments (Mishpatim) are logical commandments and include such regular items as thou shall not murder, helping the poor, taking responsibility for damages and respecting parents. You hear the ah-say, even the loi sah-say, you chap and it makes sense though you don’t always follow the rules, Testimonies (Edois) are Mitzvois that are reasonable but are not logically inherent, such as buying hand baked shmura matzoh for over $20 a pound and eating it until you’re mamish constipated. Statutes (Chukim) are Mitzvois that are followed purely because that’s what the RBSO told us to do and He’s the big boss. There a number of those but for brevity’s sake on this long (weekend) I’ll list but one or two including not eating meat and dairy together, the law of the Poro Aduma and others. You still with me? Ok veyter!
As we learned just above, this is a topic few ever chapped and that includes me. Many, though, wax on prophetically with their own unique spin as to why, where, when and other details. Of course it’s all made up as we really don’t know why and mistama the RBSO didn’t want us to know why. If He did tell us why- hec- it wouldn’t be a chok after all, would it? A chok with a reason is by definition not a chok! Think about that pshat- it’s mamish brilliant! Said Shloime Hamelech, the wisest of all (though we have to question his wisdom after learning that he had 1,000 wives- gevald!!) in Koheles 7:23: “I thought I could become wise yet it is far from me.” What is the word ‘it’ referring to? The only thing in the world that was beyond his grasp was an understanding of the red heifer (seemingly he didn’t have trouble grasping the 1,000 veyber he collected). Adds the Ba’al HaTurim, an excellent source for gematria of all kinds- that the gematria of the words “and it is far”, “v’he rechoika” = 341 which is also the gematria of poro aduma- gevaldig mamish. Nu, if Shloime and his harem couldn’t figure it out, will we?
Raboyseyee: if I’ve told you once, I’ve told you dozens of times- not everything needs to be understood; it’s all about faith, many times blind faith and in this week’s parsha, we are told to take a red heifer and do all sorts of things with it. If you’re tomay (impure), it makes you tohoir (pure) and if you’re the one making the tomay tohoir- you become tomay. Got that? Neither do I. Efsher we should find Marisa Tomei and get tohoir with her.
Immediately following the cow story, Miriam dies so let’s say goodbye to Moishe’s older sister. She was, after all, a good and decent person, seemingly her only aveyro in life was some loshoin hora about Moishe’s black and beautiful or just beautiful and maybe not black, eishes chayil- err I mean Kushite wife (depending on which pshat talks to you) . Avada as kids, we were excited to hear that Moishe had a tinkele veyb (black wife); it zicher assuaged our guilt when our minds began to wander and as we imagined minuvildike acts with a tinkele beauty. And is loshoin horo so giferlich? Don’t we speak it daily? Anyway it’s not nice to speak ill of the departed so let’s move along.
But let’s give her a shtikel sendoff, a hesped if you will. Our first major hero, the righteous and prophetic sister of Moishe Rabbaynu is gone. Some say her name came from the word mar which means bitter, because she was born in the midst of the bitterness of the Egyptian oppression. But here’s more. Grada without Miriam, the course of history might look very different. It was she who inspired the birth of Moishe in the first place when she convinced her parents to remarry in spite of Paroy the minuvil’s decree against Jewish males. Says the medrish that when Amrom separated from his eishes chayil Yoicheved, Miriam, then only a little girl, said to her father, “Who knows if the redeemer might come from your union.” And what happened? Moishe was born. And the BNY taka missed her as we learn immediately following her passing.
As mentioned above, the parsha begins in year two of the Midbar and then moves to year 40. What happened in between? Ver veyst but if the heylige toirah doesn’t want to tell me, then it’s none of my business- your’s either and let’s move on. Says Rashi: that other than the odd cow laws given down at the beginning of the parsha, the rest of the narrative occurred mamish right after the last members of the previous generation, those previously condemned to death a few weeks back in the meraglim incident, all finished dying out. Nu, wouldn’t you expect those lucky enough to have survived this debacle to be on their best behavior? Of course you would, but you’d be dead wrong. The yiddin, though mamish at the precipice, as they stood anxiously awaiting the goodies that were promised them in the holy land, were acting up again. What’s with these clowns? Didn’t they see enough in the last 38 years? Just last week they witnessed the earth open its mouth wide to swallow up Koirach and his gang followed by another 14,000+ dead Yiddin. Hey: wake up and smell the coffee. It’s not such a good idea to anger the RBSO. Moreover, thousands more continued to die each year, not all naturally. And they’re at it again? Will they never learn? Are they behaymes (animals)? Is it a wonder that the RBSO is always getting this close to wiping them out and starting over again? Oy vey! Mistama you’re thinking to yourself….. compared to them, you’re mamish tzadikkim. Well maybe some of you are, but zicher not all. A good number of you are doing even worse things than they did and you know who I’m talking to and what I’m referring to.
Ok, let’s get to the main story line of the Parsha: Moishe Rabaynu and the infamous encounter with the rock; the story of “Mei Meriva” (the waters of contention). By all accounts he’s zicher the greatest leader the yiddin ever had but this week he too is in trouble. What terrible thing could he have done? Did he clean out the shul’s coffers? Avada nisht, chas v’sholom!! And if he did, would they have called the authorities or asked the RBSO through the Urim V’tumim for help? Taka, what happened? Nu let’s learn. Says the heylige toirah “And Moishe raised his arm and struck the rock…” (20:11). You hear this news? Moishe struck the rock. Not once but twice!
Says the heylige gemorah that after Miriam died, the well, which was a water source for the BNY in the midbar, disappeared. The yiddin were thirsty and complained. In response, the RBSO commanded Moishe to bring forth water from a rock. The Toirah records that Moishe and Aharoin sinned, however the exact nature of the transgression is not specified in the verses. Says Rashi that Moishe’s sin was a result of striking the rock to bring forth water rather than communicating with it. How does one communicate with a rock? Or at times, even with the eishes chayil, if you chap? Let’s get real: What geferliche avayro did he commit and what took place?
As we learned earlier when Miriam died, the well of water that accompanied the BNY, dried up. Nu, a dry well is taka not so good, if you chap. Says the heylige gemorah: The water was in the zechus (merit) of Miriam, the munn people ate, in the merit of Moishe, and the anany hakovoid (clouds of glory), in the merit of Aharoin. When the Yiddin complained about the drought, the RBSO told Moishe to take his staff, not the one you chazerrim are thinking about, instead the same one that’s been doing magic tricks since Mitzrayim and to gather all the yiddin around the rock. Moishe got more instruction: speak to the rock, which will then give forth water.
Moishe selected the wrong rock, mistama this was before rocks could be bar-coded or efsher the rocks moved around and Moishe spoke to the wrong rock or efsher he didn’t speak nicely enough to the rock, ver veyst?. Nu, the rock was insulted, the result being that nothing happened, no water for the yiddin. Does your eishes chayil put out if she’s insulted? Still thirsty, the yiddin complained, and Moishe lost his temper.
Next: he consults his older brother, Aharoin and seemingly together they decided that talking is not getting the job done and maybe it’s time for the shteken. Didn’t your Rebbe pull out his shteken when he was done talking? Mine did! Moishe hits the correct rock, but it only yields a few drops. Moishe gives it a second whack and fresh desert water came gushing out, the Yiddin were tzifredin (satisfied) but the RBSO not so, and, immediately following this incident, tells Moishe and Aharoin azoy:
Because you two did not “believe in Me to sanctify Me before the people” (Bamidbar 20:12), both of you are doomed and will not make it over into the land- oy vey! Did you chap all that happened here? Did you just read that the RBSO specifically told Moishe to take his shteken (staff) and produce water? You did, and for that he was punished?
Asks The Ramban mamish gevaldig: if the RBSO instructed Moishe to take the staff from the Holy of Holies and bring it with him, what was he, Moishe, to think?
Was Moishe set-up, entrapped efsher- a topic I mamish chap, do you? Let’s review the facts: the RBSO told Moishe to take his stick. Nu, if he’s told to take his stick, the same stick he’s been using for many years, the stick that split the sea and did other wonders, wouldn’t Moishe be led to believe that this same stick will be used to make water? Lemoshol (by way of example,) if I invited you to my house and told you to bring a bathing suit, would you not expect to go swimming? And if I invited you over to my house Friday night following shul, would you not expect diner? What’s pshat here? Why did the RBSO get so angry with Moishe when he used his stick?
Of course there are answers, none of which impress me and one day when the Moshiach arrives, I will surely ask this question, assuming I get the chance.
Moreover, for those who remember- way back in Shemois 17:6, the RBSO told Moishe to take his shteken and hit the farkakte rock. If you were Moishe and avada you’re not because in fact you’re an oisvorf, a minuvil and a bum, but if you were, and after hearing such instructions way back when, wouldn’t you think it’s ‘the old hit the rock with the stick routine’ all over again?
Ok, as you can only imagine, hundreds of pages have been written on this episode, each with its own twist as to what went wrong, why the RBSO dealt so harshly with the two brothers, our heroes mamish. And based on what happened to them, can you only imagine what’s in store for us? As an aside, why did Aharoin get the boot as well, as there is no mention of him hitting the rock or even holding onto his shteken? Was he an accessory to the crime? Ver veyst!
Long before David Letterman popularized his ‘top ten list’, the heylige Ohr HaChaim compiled this list of Moshe’s heinous crimes.
- Rashi: the RBSO told Moishe to speak to the rock, but he hit it. We must always bear in mind that properly speaking to someone will accomplish more than physical contact, even something hard as a rock.
- Ibn Ezra: Moishe did not have the right concentration when he hit the rock because he was distracted by the nation’s bickering and complaining that they were thirsty. In other words: when pounding the rock, one needs kavono, if you chap.
- Ibn Ezra: He was only supposed to hit the rock once, because that constituted speaking to it, but he hit it twice. Sometimes a “potch” may be necessary, but it must be exact. Overhitting is verbotten.
- Ibn Ezra: the BNY should have sung a song of thanks to the RBSO. Was Moishe a choir leader as well?
- Ibn Ezra: Moishe called the BNY “rebels”. In other words: he insulted them.
- Rambam: Moishe got angry, leading the Yiddin to think that the RBSO was angry at them as well, which was not the case.
- Rabbeinu Chananel: Moishe made it sound as if he and Aharoin were bringing out the water and not the RBSO.
- R”M Kohen: Moshe made it sound like it was impossible for the RBSO to make water come from the rock.
- R”Y Albo (Ikrim): Moishe and Aharoin should have brought the BNY water before they even had to complain; he should have had water bottles ready as has become the minhag at chasunas (weddings) during dancing.
- Maaseh Hashem: The BNY and Moishe were arguing and Moishe threw his stick onto the rock in anger.
In any event, my understanding is that for whatever reason the RBSO had previously decided that neither Moishe nor his siblings were going to make it over to the land. Why? Ver veyst? It’s all part of the master plan; we are but puppets. Did Moishe do something so giferlich? It’s not like he was playing with his shteken or someone else’s, if you chap. Let’s just say it wasn’t bashert and move on. Efsher the yiddin needed some younger blood to take over; he was, after all, a mature 120. Did he have the koiach to walk the hills of Yerushalayim? Could he have made it up the hill from the Kotel to the hotels?
I was thinking to stop here but since it’s mamish a long weekend and rather than have you sitting around and thinking or acting out with your own shteken over shabbis, let’s cover one more parsha event, efsher it will prevent an aveyro.
Not much later the Yiddin are at it again, more complaining to Moishe. “Why have you brought us up from Egypt for there is no food and there is no water and our soul is disgusted with the Munn? This time the RBSO took exception to the constant whining and sent venomous snakes and serpents, and they bit the people and many of the nation perished. You hear all this? Sounds like the yiddin are having anger management issues.
Next: The people came to Moishe, confessing their sin. They begged that he pray to the RBSO for their forgiveness and, as always (except in the Koirach incident,) Moishe did just that and the RBSO gave him the snakebite antidote, but it didn’t involve some of the more tried and proven methods, including suction. See, he was a nice guy after all.
Says the medrish azoy: Snakes have no taste buds and all food tastes the same to them. When the snake is asked why he bites without getting any pleasure, he merely replies, “And what physical pleasure does the slanderer receive?” In other words: as always, it’s all about loshoin horo (badmouthing) and retribution. The measure-for-measure punishment for complaining about the munn – which tasted like anything one desired, was to be bitten by a snake – to whom all food tasted the same.
And we close this amazing parsha with this. The RBSO told Moishe to make a model of a fiery serpent, place it on a pole and advise the people suffering from snakebites to stare at it. Moishe decided to make it out of copper. Why? The answer will take up another few pages; we’ll cover that topic another time. Asks the Mishneh in Rosh HaShono (29a): “does the (copper) snake kill or cure?” How does gazing at a snake on a pole cure? Rather, when the yiddin lifted their eyes (toward the snake on the pole) they looked heavenward toward their Father in Heaven and this cured them; otherwise they withered away.” In other words, the farkakte snake was powerless and useless, as it has been since it lost its legs after slithering up to Chava (Eve) in Gan Eden and you know the rest. Only by looking up to the RBSO could one get cured.
Some say that the universal symbol of the medical profession today is the caduceus, the winged staff with two intertwined snakes which avada has its origins in this week’s parsha: “They shall gaze at the copper snake and live.” In other words: And where they ripped off Moishe Rabaynu’s patent and trademark.
Says the heylige gemorah that hundreds of years later, the Yiddin turned the copper snake into an idol which prompted king, Chizkiyahu to destroy it. Now, you’ll have to admit that from all the stories we read in the toirah, this one about fiery snakes and then the copper serpent wrapped around the pole sounds epes like a Steven Spielberg production and not words we’d typically read in the toirah, ober that’s exactly what happened. This is not medrish or the imagination of a few other holy rollers: this is toirah mamish!!
A gitten shabbis-