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
This is the parashah in which we usually address the para aduma (red heifer) and the correlation to Yahshua and the process of atonement. Detailed explanation on this subject may be found in the parashot teachings listed on the website at rabdavis.org. This year I want to address a different section. We are going to address the overall theme of this parashah; that death defiles, but there is a way of purification. Although not identified directly in the Tanakh, as Messianic believers, we have the information in both Testaments that illuminate the One who provides the way to salvation and resurrection to a life that will never end in the abode of Messiah Yahshua. In this parashah, it is the para aduma and the process of purification that alludes to Messiah Yahshua’s perfection, sacrifice, and the process of purification. However, let’s examine the second time Moshe was told to address a rock for water, hitting it when G-d commanded only that he speak to it. He had struck a rock before Miriam died, should he have assumed that when G-d instructed him to speak to the rock that hitting it would be an acceptable addition to the behavior? We know that hitting the rock was adding to G-d’s words, which is a sin in itself. What was going on in his mind?
The emotions related to loss/grief/death, evoke responses that although are categorized, are manifested in many different ways for each individual. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross described five stages of grieving: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. Although people may experience anger or depression when mourning a loved one or another type of loss, these experiences do not necessarily occur in order. A grieving individual may skip or vacillate between these “stages” at any given time. For some, the loss of something or someone dear to them is more than they can bear, and they may commit suicide or totally withdraw from society and the world. Sadly, this incapacitates them by taking them out of “action” when it comes to glorifying and serving G-d, which is our purpose in life. We need to develop a peace that comes from knowing that G-d will provide a peace beyond human understanding when we have no strength of our own, when we are at our emotional or physical rope’s end. We read that the whole house of Israel mourned for Aharon’s death for 30 days. This brings us to Moshe and a possible explanation for why he chose to strike the rock twice rather than speaking to it as G-d commanded.
Moshe was extremely frustrated and angry with the repeated complaints by the people that they should have been left to die in Egypt and no longer had the foods of Egypt. In Num 21:5 they even tell him they are “sick of this miserable stuff we’re eating” referring to the G-d given manna!
In the case of Aharon’s death, the rabbis were critical of one who mourns too much too long. They said that God himself says of such a person, “Are you more compassionate than I am?” Maimonides rules, “A person should not become excessively broken-hearted because of a person’s death, as it says, ‘Do not weep for the dead nor bemoan him’ (Jer. 22:10). This means, ‘Do not weep excessively.’ For death is the way of the world, and one who grieves excessively at the way of the world is a fool.” With rare exceptions, the outer limit of grief in Jewish law is a year, not more. What we find in the Torah is a 30-day period of mourning described in this parashah (Num. 20:29). However, humans are all different in their individual grief experiences and the process/stages of grief can recur weeks, months, or even years later. But there is a difference in grief and mourning. Mourning is generally a dedicated time set aside to remember and honor the loss. Grief can occur anytime or anywhere. We are not always masters of our emotions. Nor does comforting others prepare you for your own experience of loss. Jewish law regulates outward conduct not inward feeling, and when it speaks of feelings, like the commands to love and not to hate, halakhah generally translates this into behavioral terms, assuming, in the language of the Sefer ha-Hinnukh, that “the heart follows the deed.”
I submit having to listen to the peoples’ complaints over and over surely weighed on Moshe’s mind. The most striking episode is the moment when the people complain about the lack of water. Moshe does something wrong, and though G-d sends water from a rock, he also sentences Moses to an almost unbearable punishment: “Because you did not have sufficient faith in Me to sanctify Me before the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land I have given you.”
The commentators debate exactly what he did wrong. Was it that he lost his temper with the people (“Listen now, you rebels”)? That he hit the rock instead of speaking to it? That he made it seem as if it was not G-d but he and Aharon who were responsible for the water (“Shall we bring water out of this rock for you?”)? In retrospect, we understand that Moshe’s sin was not trusting G-d and not demonstrating that trust as a leader of G-d’s people. Leaders must learn to control emotions when needed and attend to the task at hand. This is a difficult behavior to learn because we are emotional beings. Emotions are much easier and available to express than deliberate, disciplined thought and action. This is our task; to overcome our human instincts and develop Torah behaviors/responses as our “second-nature.”
Although we can understand what he did, it is more difficult to understand why he hit the rock. He had faced the same problem before, but he had never lost his temper before. In Exodus 15 the Israelites at Marah complained that the water was undrinkable because it was bitter. In Exodus 17 at Massa-and-Meriva they complained that there was no water. G-d then told Moses to take his staff and hit the rock, and water flowed from it. So when in our parashah G-d tells Moses, “Take the staff … and speak to the rock,” could Moses have thought he was to hit it also? That would be adding to G-d’s words, a sin similar to that of Chava when she told the Serpent what G-d had said about the forbidden fruit. And if God did not mean him to hit the rock, why did He command him to take his staff?
What is even harder to understand is the order of events. G-d had already told Moshe exactly what to do. Gather the people. Speak to the rock, and water will flow. This was before Moshe made his ill-tempered speech, beginning, “Listen, now you rebels.” It is understandable if you lose your composure when you are faced with a problem that seems insoluble. This had happened to Moshe earlier when the people complained about the lack of meat. But it makes no sense at all to do so when G-d has already told you, “Speak to the rock … It will pour forth its water, and you will bring water out of the rock for them, and so you will give the community and their livestock water to drink.” Moshe had received the solution. Why then was he so agitated about the problem?
Having gone through the grieving process several times myself, I am better able to understand how grief can affect people. When we look at what was going on in Moshe’s life immediately before he committed the sin of striking the rock, we read in the first verse of the chapter: “The people stopped at Kadesh. There, Miriam died and was buried.” Only then does it state that the people had no water. An ancient tradition explains that the people had hitherto been blessed by a miraculous source of water in the merit of Miriam. When she died, the water ceased. We cannot verify this, but neither can we refute it with any authority.
In the context of this parashah that focuses on the defiling attributes of death, and the chesed of G-d who explains and provided the Way of purification, salvation, and redemption through Yahshua abstractly described through the para aduma, we can realize a deeper connection beyond the death of Miriam and the lack of water. We can realize a connection between her death and Moshe’s loss of emotional equilibrium. Miriam was his older sister. She was the one who watched over him as he had been place in the basket in the Nile. She is the one who saw him plucked out of the water. She had had the courage and enterprise to speak to Pharaoh’s daughter and suggest that he be nursed by a Hebrew, thus reuniting Moshe and his mother and ensuring that he grew up knowing who he was and to which people he belonged. He owed his sense of identity to her. Without Miriam, he could never have become the human face of God to the Israelites, law-giver, liberator and prophet. Losing her, he not only lost his sister. He lost the human foundation of his life. Add to this event the constant complaining of the people for specific foods and water shed light on a plausible explanation for Moshe’s behavior although G-d expected him to demonstrate a greater faith even in the midst of his personal turmoil. This narrative provides a lesson for us in learning to internalize the concepts of Torah and not let our emotions rule our lives.
Our parashah is about mortality with the narrative of the para aduma describing how we can overcome and be restored to the Tabernacle; G-d. That is the point. God is eternal, we are ephemeral. We must learn to subjugate our human nature to a higher level of behavior as we relate to man and G-d.
As Messianic Jews we believe in life after death and the resurrection of the dead, but the Tanakh is almost silent on this subject. “The dead do not praise G-d,” says the Psalm. But we must understand what the word “dead” means in the context of the Hebrew scriptures. G-d is to be found in life, this life, with all its hazards and dangers, bereavements and grief. We may be no more than “dust and ashes,” as Abraham said, but life itself is a never-ending stream, “living water”, and it is this that the rite of the Red Heifer symbolizes.
With great subtlety the Torah mixes law and narrative together – the law before the narrative because G-d provides the cure before the disease. Miriam dies. Moshe and Aharon are overwhelmed with grief. Moshe, for a moment, loses control, and he and Aharon are reminded that they too are mortal and will die before entering the land. Yet this is, as Maimonides said, “the way of the world.” We are embodied souls. We are flesh and blood. We grow old. We lose those we love. Outwardly we struggle to maintain our composure but inwardly we weep. Yet life goes on, and what we began, others will continue. May all we do be for the glory of G-d and His Kingdom. Our physical death is not the end. Rather, it is a transition period between our life on earth and either heaven or hell. YHVH/Yahshua will be the Judge.
Haftarah: Shof’tim (Judges) 11:1-33
The haftarah describes how the Israelites were attacked by the Ammonites. The Ammonites were descendants of Lot’s second son and Molech was their idol. Jephtah’s (Yiftach) response to the impending attack is an example of how we should handle conflict, a lesson also described in our previous parashah, illustrated by Moshe’s actions toward Korach. Jephthah first sent a missive to Ammon, declaring peaceful intentions. However, he also mentioned how the Israelites conquered Sichon and Og mentioned in our parashah. Jephthah the Giladite was the son of a prostitute. He fled from his home because of his siblings’ complaints that they would not inherit anything because of his birth status. He settled in the land of Tov where he grew into a great warrior simply from experience with raiding with some of his friends. When the Ammonite nation attacked the people of Israel, Jephtah was the one the Israelites came running to lead them into battle. Jephtah agreed to lead them based on their offer to make him the leader of Gil’ad if he agreed. Jephtah agrees and G-d honored Jephtah’s peaceful attempt to resolve the conflict by allowing the Israelites under Jephtah’s command to eliminate the Ammonites. Unfortunately, Jephtah also vowed to Adonai that if the Ammonites were delivered unto him, he would sacrifice whatever came out of his doors to greet him upon his return to Adonai as a burnt offering. His only daughter and child was the first one to come out of his doors to meet him. She told Jephtah to keep his vow to Adonai but that she wanted to go away into the mountains with her friends for two months and mourn as she would die unmarried. She went away for two months, returned as promised, and Jephtah sacrificed her as he vowed to Adonai. Subsequently, it became a law in Israel that the women of Israel would go every year for four days to lament the daughter of Jephthah from Gil’ad.
B’rit Chadashah: Yochanan (John) 3:9-21
Let’s focus on verses 14-15 for a moment. “Just as Moshe lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that everyone who trusts in him may have eternal life.” Our first question may be “why would Yahshua ask us to look up to a serpent?” Let’s think about what we’ve previously covered in this lesson through the narrative of the para aduma. Yahshua became sin for us; unclean in spirit and in body until He ascended to heaven. In our parashah G-d tells Moshe that anyone who has been bitten and looks up to the snake on the pole will remain alive (Num. 21:9). According to the apocryphal book, Wisdom of Solomon, which says that the serpent served as lesson and symbol: “He who turned toward it was saved, not by what he saw, but by You, Savior of all.” And the Mishnah (contained in the Talmud) teaches “Could the serpent slay or the serpent keep alive? It is rather to teach us that when the Israelites directed their thoughts toward on high and kept their hearts in subjection to their Father in heaven, they were healed; otherwise they perished.” The lesson for us is that we must actively trust in Yahshua and keep our eyes on Him, even when we are in the midst of “being bitten”.
Rabbi Tamah Davis-Hart