Hebrew Insights into Parashat Chu'kat – Bamidbar (Numbers) 19 – 22:1
This week’s Parashat Chu'kat (“statute of…”), not unlike many of the other Parashot, deals with several issues, some of which are unrelated or appear to be so. Moreover, a number of these topics are clouded over with an air of mystery, or at least with insufficient information, leaving us wondering as to their full meaning. Nechama Leibowitz  lists for us some of the queries which our Parasha gives rise to:
1) Chapter 19: “The chapter on the red heifer… is one of the most mystifying in the Torah…
[which] even the wisdom of the wisest of men failed to fathom.”
2) Chapter 20:7-13: “What was Moses’ sin for which he was so severely punished?”
3) Chapter 20:14-21: “What was the point of referring to all their [Israel’s] travail? Did
Moses wish to arouse their [the Edomites’] compassion?”
4) Chapter 21:1-3: “What made the King of Arad attack the Israelites? Especially with view to
the assertion made in the Song of the Red Sea that all the nations of the world were terror-
struck by the Divine miracles and dared not interfere with Israel (Ex. 15:14-15)?”
5) Chapter 21:4-9: “The serpents’ description as “fiery,” which in Hebrew is seraphim
[s’rafim], is curious in itself, but more so is this method given to Moses to heal the victims
[which] is somewhat strange” and “has puzzled many commentators…”
Although we shall not make an attempt to solve these puzzles, word investigations may help us to connect some of these ideas and discover a possible ‘internal logic’ within Parashat Chu’kat.
The red heifer, described as being "without blemish, in which there is no defect (“t’mee’ma”) and on which a yoke has never come”, is “para – cow – aduma - red” (19:2). As far back as Parashat B’resheet (Genesis 1-6:8) we noted that “man” – “a’dam” – is ‘rooted’ in “adama,” “earth” and that “dam” is “blood,” and hence the color “red.” Thus, the animal used in the purification process, whose blood was to be sprinkled (ref. 19:4) was ‘earthy,’ but was also without blemish or defect, recalling the humanity of Messiah (who “was in all points tempted as we are,” Heb. 4:15), as well as His perfection (“a lamb without blemish and without spot,” 1Pet. 1:19). Messiah is also the One who turns our scarlet sins, making them as white as snow and wool (ref. Is. 1:18). The mixture contained the ashes of the red heifer and the “scarlet of a [special] worm (tolah),” referring to the same scarlet (of the sins) that we just read about in Yisha’ya’hu-Isaiah (in both cases literal translation). It was this mixture which was made available to the impure for “cleansing” or “purification,” with the verb used being “yit’cha’teh” (“shall cleanse himself”, v. 12ff). The root of this type of purification is ch.t.a. (chet, tet, alef), which means “sin” (as we have already seen a number of times, e.g. Ex. 29:36; Lev. 6:19; 14:49 etc.). In the past we have noted that the remedy, or cure, for "missing the mark" (i.e. sinning) is already taken into account in sin’s very definition. This principle takes us to another topic of examination contained in the Parasha - the bronze serpent: “And it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live" (21:8). Once again, the very cause of the disease (the serpents’ bite) also becomes, symbolically, its cure. Additionally, the serpents’ rendering as “srafim” (“fiery or burning”, of the root s.r.f – sin, resh, fey) forms another link to the red heifer (whose carcass was to be burnt), as the same root for “burning” is employed several times in the course of the red heifer passage.
At the very onset of the narrative, which leads up to Moshe smiting the rock, the congregation gathers around him and A’ha’ron, striving with them (ref. 20:2,3). “Striving” is “meriva” (y.r.b/v, yod, resh, bet/vet), and as we read concerning the Waters of Meriva (Parashat B’shalach, Ex. 17:7), here too it says: “This is the water of Meribah, because the children of Israel contended [“ravu”] with YHVH, and He was hallowed among them” (20:13). Right along with the striving comes rebellion and opposition. In verse 10 Moshe addresses the “rebels” who are called “morim” - “those who are contentious or disobedient.” The root is m.r.h (mem, resh, hey) and it means “oppose.” Moshe, like Y’chezkel (Ezekiel), was not to be “rebellious [“meri”] like that rebellious house [“beit ha-meri”]” (Ez. 2:8) of Yisrael, and although commanded to “take the rod,” he was to speak peaceably to the rock (ref. 20:8). Moshe and A’ha’ron, however, failed, proving their faith to be deficient (20:12) and acted much like their compatriots.
Moshe’s “rod” is called “ma’teh,” which aside from being rooted in the verb to “stretch out” also means to “incline, turn or turn away.” Thus, it was the rod, symbolic of Moshe and A’ha’ron’s authority, which the people followed, while the two leaders had the power to turn their subordinates either toward YHVH or away from Him.
The next part of the chapter presents Moshe’s surprising approach to the Edomites (20:14-21), whose compassion he appears to be seeking, promising that the procession of Israelites will not trespass or trample down their land, nor use anything of theirs along the road saying, “we will not turn aside (“nita”, once again of the root n.t.h that we just looked at) to the right hand or to the left” (v. 17). And when “Edom refused to give Israel passage through his territory, Israel turned away [“va-yet”] from him” (v. 21). Thus the last two episodes (the people’s rebellion and Moshe’s response, and the Edomites’ retort) seem to be characterized by acts of “turning” and “diversions” (of the root n.t.h – noon, tet, hey - again) from YHVH’s ‘straight and narrow’ path.
Following A’haron’s death on Mount Hor, the Canaanite King of Arad, upon hearing of Yisrael’s approach, fights them and takes some of them captive (21:1). As we have already pointed out, the fact that he dared to do so is rather curious. However, the mention, in that connection, of the “road to Atarim” led Nahmanides to connect the sad spy episode to this present adversity, as “Atarim” may share the root “tour” – to “spy out” - which we looked at in Parashat Sh’lach Lecha (Numbers 13-15). “What connection then was there between the incident of the spies and this attack on the children of Israel? The latter had shown their lack of confidence and fear of the future, by sending the spies. The Canaanites fortified themselves with the knowledge of Israel’s sense of weakness and inferiority. The lowering of the Israelites’ morale was followed, automatically, by the rising morale of their enemies.”  Thus, if Yisrael were indeed coming by “the way - or manner - of the spies” it would have given the Canaanite king the confidence to assail them.
We now return to the snakes’ story. The people complain once more, this time resulting in YHVH sending them fiery serpents which bit them, causing the death of many (ref. 21:5,6). Nechama Leibvowitz points out that the verb “sent”, “(va)y’sha’lach,” being in the conjugation of “pi’el”, and not in the more regular one of “kal”, connotes a “letting go” or “releasing” of the serpents, whereas up until that time they were held back by YHVH, who did not permit them to harm the Israelites in the desert.  The serpents’ title points to their characteristic of “burning” or of being “firey” (“saraf”), although the actual word for serpent is “nachash” and the bronze object made by Moshe is called “nachash” – serpent - ha’nchoshet” (of the) brass. The play on words and alliteration continues in 21:9: “If a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.” “A serpent had bitten” is “nachash nashach” (although there no etymological connection between these two words). This unusual ‘formula’ of looking at the brass serpent and being cured, is interpreted for us by Yeshua: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3: 14, 15). The healing is found in lifting up one’s eyes to the Creator, while the object (which has no power in and of itself) may serve as a reminder of one’s sin and disbelief on one hand, and of YHVH’s grace on the other.
In 21:17-18 we read the following: “Then Israel sang this song, ‘Spring up, O well. Sing to it. The well which the rulers dug, which the nobles of the people dug with their lawgivers’ staves and rods’”. Daat Mikra Commentary says: “The digging was initiated by the ‘nobles of the people,’ being a reference to Moshe and A’ha’ron who dug it without using ordinary work tools, but with ‘m’chokek mish’a’notam’ (‘their lawgivers’ staves’).  A “m’chokek” is a prince, ruler or lawgiver, but it is also the word used for the ruler’s staff (see Gen. 49:10). “The usage of this term is aimed at pointing out that many miracles were performed with this staff.” “M’chokek” originates with the root ch.k.k (chet, kof, kof) and means to “inscribe or engrave” (see Parashat Yitro, Ex. 18 – 21, where we examined this root more extensively), and is thus employed in the word “statute” – “chok” or “chukka,” such as we see in the title of our Parasha (“chu’kat” – the “statute of”). Perhaps the content of this song, describing a source of water that has been dug by a ruler’s staff of the law, sets out to present a counter-distinction to what otherwise should have been a bringing forth of water from a rock by an utterance of a word. This takes us back to the beginning of the Parasha, where the “statute/rule (chok) of the Torah” concerning the red heifer is presented for the purpose of “purification from sin,” enhancing the idea that the “rules/laws/statutes” have to be wielded and enforced in order to deal with rebellion (sin) against the Water (of the Spirit) which flows from the Rock by the Word.
The encounter with the Amorites, after bypassing Moav, resulted in a military victory and the possession of their cities. One of those cities was their capital, Cheshbon (Heshbon). This conquest engendered a statement by the “those who use proverbs … ‘Come to Cheshbon…’” (21:27). ‘Those who make use of proverbs’ is “moshlim” – also meaning rulers - while “cheshbon” is rooted in ch.sh.v (chet, shin, b/vet), which means “important, to think, ponder, calculate.” Thus, the combination of proverb and rule, as well as ponder and calculate led the commentators of the past to view the above quote as a statement relating to the rule (control) one should have over one’s natural inclinations (“flesh”) by self-examination (pondering and evaluating). In Parashat Cha’yey Sarah (in Gen. 24:2), we saw further connection between “proverb” and “rule.”
The Parasha ends with another spying episode. Before the Israelites venture out to conquer the Amorites, we read in 21:32: “Then Moses sent to spy out Jazer…” The word there for “spy out” is different than the one we encountered previously, this time it is “ra’gel”, of the root r.g.l, meaning “foot or leg” (“regel”), a term also used for the spies who were later sent by Yehoshua (Joshua) to explore Yericho (ref. Joshua 2:1). It seems that these spies (“footmen”) were not to “tour” – survey – the land, but rather walk to their designated destination one step at a time.
1. Nechama Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar, Eliner Library, Dept. of Torah Education and Culture in
the Diaspora, Joint Authority for Jewish Zionist Education, Jerusalem, 1995.
4. Da’at Mikra, A’haron Mirski, Rav Kook Inst., Jerusalem, 2001