Beth Elohim Messianic Synagogue
Parashah #39 Hukkat (Regulation) B’midbar (Numbers) 19:1-22:1
Haftarah: Shof’tim (Judges) 11:1-33
B’rit Chadashah: Yochanan (John) 3:9-21;4:3-30; 12:27-50
Two of the main subjects generally taught in this parashah are the explanation of the Para Adumah (red heifer) and the concept of placing a bronze serpent on a pole and looking upon it to be spared of dying from a poisonous snake bite. These are extremely important narratives that you may explore by going to rabdavis.org, clicking the link to parashot, and choosing this parashah that includes these subjects in depth. Today I want to focus on another aspect of this parashah. That is, I want to explore the fact that everyone has a story and we must become sensitive to the unseen aspects of individuals rather than judging them. We are going to explore this concept with Moshe and his expression of anger in Num. 20:11 versus the event in Ex. 17:6 where we have no indication of anger when he struck the rock according to Adonai’s instruction. We read in Num 20:1 that his sister Miryam died What may be immediately after, we read of the grumbling of the people about the issues of water again. With all of the conflicts we are witnessing today with the issue of wearing masks, opening and closing businesses, inconsistencies in policy enforcement at every level of government, it should not be difficult to imagine at least in part, how difficult it must have been for Moshe to put up with such complaining as he was trying to lead over 1 million people across the desert. To exacerbate the situation, his older sister just died.
According to the Talmud, we can understand the rabbinical interpretation of a connection between Miryam’s death and water which explains that it was in Miriam’s merit that the Israelites had a well of water that miraculously accompanied them through their desert journeys. When Miriam died, water was no longer available. Therefore, it is inferred that until then there was water because Miriam was alive. It was a miracle in her merit. We have nothing to “prove” this connection, but it is important to understand one of the differences between rabbinical and Messianic Jewish interpretation of the Torah, which for Messianic Jews includes the B’rit Chadashah that thankfully provides the “rest of the story.”
This brings us to the need for understanding that we are not omniscient and must take great care as Israelites to guard our opinions before we get the facts or at least consider the realm of possibilities behind an individual’s words or actions. I submit the connection between Miriam’s death and Moshe’s striking the rock twice may have been an expression of frustration with the people and the loss of his sister.
This was the first time he had to deal with the people’s complaints since Miryam died. We may tend to gloss over their relationship, but we must remember that she was his elder sister, his oldest sibling. She was the one who desperately watched as he was placed in a basket on the Nile and was retrieved by a slave girl of Pharaoh’s daughter. She was the one who offered to have baby Moshe nursed by a Hebrew woman who turned out to be Moshe’s mother. Without Miriam, Moses would have grown up not knowing who he was and to which people he belonged. He may have even perished if G-d had not intervened for all she knew. as far as she knew.
Miriam is a background presence throughout much of the narrative. We see her leading the women in song at the Red Sea, so it is clear that she, like Aaron, had a leadership role. We gain a sense of how much she meant to Moses when she and Aharon, in an obscure passage, she and Aaron “began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married an Ethiopian” (Num. 12:1). We do not know exactly what the issue was, but we do know that Miriam was smitten with leprosy. Aaron went to Moshe and beseeched him to intervene on her behalf, which he does, crying to G-d and begging Him to heal her. G-d honors Moshe’s prayer on Miryam’s behalf but dictates that she isolates herself in shame for seven days. This was certainly a spiritual “time-out” for Miryam. After that time, she had repented and was returned to the camp. Moshe loved her deeply and did not hesitate to pray for her healing.
It is in the style of the dialogue in this week’s parashah that we should be prompted to consider what was going on in Moshe’s mind as he disobeyed G-d’s command to speak to the rock for water. We certainly cannot excuse the fact that Moshe denied G-d the glory owed only to Him by disobeying the command and not overcoming his human nature of anger and emotion at that moment. Leaders are held to a very high level of accountability to set the example for those to whom they are responsible for teaching by example. Furthermore, the angel sent to Zechariah as G-d’s messenger said that “it is not by force, and not by power, but by my Spirit says the L-rd of Hosts” (Zech. 4:6). Moshe denied G-d the glory due Him that would have been demonstrated through Moshe merely speaking to the rock. Considering Moshe was frustrated and grieving the loss of Miryam, we may better understand his response. This is one of the effects of bereavement, and those who have suffered it often say that the loss of a sibling is harder to bear than the loss of a parent which is the natural order of the life cycle. The loss of a sibling can be less expected and more profoundly disorienting. And Miriam was no ordinary sibling. Moses owed her his entire relationship with his natural family, as well as his identity as one of the children of Israel.
The leadership position is a lonely one and one that often causes conflict of personal emotions. Are leaders “slowed” to show their emotions, or should they “hide” them to protect their followers and demonstrate a sense of control and/or bravery? We have at least one example in G-d’s Torah that indicates leaders are neither islands within themselves or the need to portray such an image. Yitro shared this truth with Moshe many years earlier. Seeing him leading the people alone he said, “You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone” (Ex. 18:18). A leader needs three kinds of support: (1) allies who will fight alongside him, (2) troops or a team to whom he can delegate, and (3) a soul-mate to whom he/she can confide doubts and fears, who will listen without an agenda other than being supportive, and who will encourage him/her to carry on. True leaders who have a shepherd’s heart are vulnerable and can suffer from uncertainty and doubt at times. Moshe had G-d to guide him, but we read many instances of his frustration and concern for the Israelites. Leaders can be hurt by criticism although with practice can learn to override this type of hurt by following Yahshua’s example. He was not affected by personal criticism but staunchly defended G-d’s Torah when confronted. True leaders rarely show signs of vulnerability in public. Rather, they make a concerted effort to project confidence and certainty as they draw on G-d for His strength and peace. To whom much is given much is required. The joy of leadership is mitigated with timed of pain. Moshe experienced all of these emotions. He was a true shepherd who loved G-d and the Israelites.
Maimonides in his Commentary to the Mishnah (4) counts this as one of the four kinds of friendship. He calls it the “friendship of trust” [chaver habitachon] and describes it as having someone in whom “you have absolute trust and with whom you are completely open and unguarded,” hiding neither the good news nor the bad, knowing that the other person will neither take advantage of the confidences shared, nor share them with others.
Those who are a source of strength to others need their own source of strength. The Torah is explicit in telling us how often for Moshe that source of strength was G-d himself. But even Moses needed a human friend, and it seems, by implication, that this was Miriam. A leader in her own right she was also one of her brother’s sources of strength.
Through this examination of the account of Miryam’s death, the anatomy of a leader; in this case Moshe, and his disobedience to G-d’s command to speak to the rock, we may gain a deeper understanding and sense of empathy for others that can serve us well and prevent us from rushing to the judgment of others words or actions. May we be a comfort/blessing versus an unlawful judge or antagonist as we continue to live in the world. May HaShem be glorified in all we think, say, and do.
Haftarah: Judges 11:1-33
Yiftach is despised because his mother is a prostitute and he is driven out by his siblings (Jd.11:1-2). He lives as an outcast. But when his town (Gil’ad) becomes desperate, only then do they offer him the judgeship to fight the Ammonites who are invading the land (Jd. 11:4). Yiftach is discerning and consents only if he is made the head after he succeeds. Then he begins a quote from this week’s parashah that recounts that the land of Gil’ad belongs to Israel as a result of their victory over the Ammorites (Jd.11;19-22, Num.21:21-25, Dt.19-22). Yiftach offers peace the Ammorites, an action we are to attempt before going to war, but he is unsuccessful. Before the battle, he utters a vow of which he did not comprehend the consequence at the time (Jd. 11:30-31), then routs the Ammorites. The Haftarah passage ends before Yiftach’s vow is fulfilled. One reason for this may be to emphasize peace as a first step to conflict, negotiations, then final victory.
B’rit Chadashah: John 3:9-21
Nicodemus held the office of a teacher among the Pharisees, but he could not understand the concept of being born again and how it relates to entering the kingdom of heaven. Yahshua alluded to the narrative of the bronze serpent in our parashah that was lifted up in the wilderness. Those who were bitten did not die if they looked upon the serpent lifted up. In like manner, those who die in the flesh will be saved when they look up with the eyes (spiritual) of faith and obedience to the Son of Man, Yahshua who was lifted up, crucified, buried, and resurrected.
G-d sheds light on actions that glorify Him (Mt. 5:16). Those who practice a life walk will continue to have their paths enlightened, keeping the One lifted up within sight. Those who continue to rebel and trust in the wisdom of man cannot see the truth and will die, just as those who refused to look up at the serpent lifted on a pole at G-d’s direction will die…twice.
Rabbi Tamah Davis-Hart