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 are raised by our Parasha:
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 [
’s] travail? Did Moses wish
to arouse their [the Edomites’] compassion?” Israel
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 “firey,” 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…” 1
Although we shall not attempt to solve these puzzles, word investigations may help us to connect some of the ideas and discover a possible internal logic within Parashat Chu’kat.
The red heifer, described as being "without blemish (“t’mee’ma”), in which there is no defect 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,” 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. Though the sins are red [ “ya’adimu,” again, root of “dam” – “blood” and “adam” – “man”] like crimson (shani), they shall be [as pure and white] as wool (ref. Is. 1:18). The purification mixture, at hand, was made of the ashes of the red heifer, cedar wood and the “scarlet [shani] of a [special] worm (tolah),” referring to the same scarlet (of the sins) mentioned above (in both cases literal translation). It was this mixture that was made available to the impure for “cleansing” or “purification.” Notably, the verb used is “yit’cha’teh” (“shall cleanse himself”, 19:12ff). The root letters of this particular word for “purification” is ch.t.a (chet, tet, alef), which actually spells “sin” (as we have already seen a number of times, e.g. Ex. 29:36; Lev. 14:49 etc.).
In previous Parashot we noted that the remedy, or cure for "missing the mark" (i.e. sinning) is already being 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 Aha’ron, striving with them (ref. 20:2,3). “Striving” is “meriva” (y.r.b/v, yod, resh, bet/vet), and as it says concerning the Waters of Meriva in Parashat B’shalach (in Ex. 17:7), here too we read: “This is the water of Merivah, because the children of
with YHVH, and He was hallowed among them” (20:13). Right along with the
striving, rebellion and opposition make their appearance. 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 Aha’ron, however, failed and thus
proved their faith to be deficient (20:12), having 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.” It was the rod, symbolic of Moshe and Aha’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, with a promise that the procession of Israelites will not trespass or trample down their land, nor use anything of theirs along the road. Calling them Yisrael’s brothers, Moshe’s messengers to the king of
said, among other things: “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 Edom refused to give Israel
passage through his territory,
turned away [“va-yet”] from him” (v. 21). Thus, the last two episodes (1.
the people’s rebellion and Moshe’s response, and Israel
2. the Edomites’ retort) are characterized by “turning” and “diversions” (of the root n.t.h – noon, tet, hey) from YHVH’s ‘straight and narrow’ path.
Following Aha’ron’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 was 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 attach the sad spy episode to the 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
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.” 2 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. Israel
We now return to the snakes’ story. As we know, the people of Yisrael had complained once more, this time resulting in YHVH sending them fiery serpents which bit them, causing the death of many (ref. 21:5,6). Nechama Leibowitz points out that the verb “sent,” “(va)y’sha’lach,” being in the “pi’el” conjugation and not in the more common “kal” [“sha’lach”], 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 His people. 3 The serpents’ title points to their characteristic of “burning” or of being “firey” (“saraf”), although the actual word for serpent is “nachash” and therefore the bronze object made by Moshe was called “nachash” – serpent - ha’nchoshet” (of the) brass. The play on words and alliteration continue in 21:9: “If a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.” “A serpent had bitten” is “nashach ha’nachash” (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 power grace on the other.
In 21:17-18 we read the following: “Then
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 Aha’ron who dug it without using ordinary work tools, but with ‘m’chokek
mish’a’notam’ (‘their lawgivers’ staves’). Israel 4 A “m’chokek” is a prince,
ruler or lawgiver, but it is also another word used for a ruler’s staff (see
Gen. 49:10). “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, e.g. 18:20), 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 correct (or remedy) the
situation where water should have been gushing freely from a rock by the
utterance of the word, when YHVH commanded Moshe and Aha’ron to do just
that, but was not obeyed. The staff that Moshe used in order to bring
forth water may have been the cause for the proverbial staff of the law having
to be wielded, and for the sweat of the brow to be exerted in order to dig a
well and obtain water by human effort. This takes us back to the beginning of
the Parasha, where “statute/rule (chok) of the Torah” concerning
the red heifer is presented for “purification from sin,” reinforcing the idea
that “rules/laws/statutes” have to be wielded and implemented because of rebellion
(sin) against the ‘Water (of the Spirit)’ flowing from the ‘Rock’ at the sound
of 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 reference to Genesis 24:2), we saw further connection between “proverb” and “rule.”
The Parasha ends with another spying episode. Before the Israelites ventured out to conquer the Amorites, it says 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 (one foot in front of the other :) .
See article below
1. Nechama Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar, Eliner Library, Dept.
of Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora, Joint Authority
for Jewish Zionist Education,
4. Da’at Mikra, A’haron Mirski, Rav Kook Inst.,
The following is an article, now a chapter in a small book that we’ve put together, that deals with some of our Parasha’s themes.
Chapter 4 of the Gospel of John commences with a description of Yeshua travelling north, from Judea to
. It goes on to say that when He
arrived near the city of Shechem, in close proximity to a plot of land that
Jacob had purchased many years beforehand for his son Joseph (see v. 5), Yeshua
stopped to rest by a well while his disciples were in the city purchasing
supplies. Within a short time a local (Samaritan) woman came there to draw
water. In her discourse with Yeshua the woman mentioned that her people
had inherited the well from their “father Jacob” (see v. 12). Samaria
Yeshua proceeded to ask her for a drink. That a Jew would stoop to talk to a Samaritan, a female, and then even make His need known to her startled the woman. She therefore reminded Him that Jews did not have any dealings with the Samaritans (who were considered a mongrel race and hence inferior). But yet she continued, noting that the well was very deep.
The woman’s answer to this Jewish Man’s request for a drink was met by the following words: "If you knew the gift [in Hebrew – “mattanah”] of Elohim, and who it is who says to you, 'give Me a drink,' you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water” (John 4:10). Her reply, however, disclosed that she did not have a clue as to the meaning of what He was saying: “Sir, You have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep” (John 4:11a). The woman could only relate to what she knew and understood about wells and water, and continued to miss the point even after Yeshua promised: “Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst” (John 4:14a). “Sir,” she retorted, “give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw” (John 4:15). According to her way of reasoning, Yeshua would somehow draw water for her from Jacob’s well or perhaps even generate it from some magical source, so that she would never thirst again, nor have the burden of drawing water every day. Still puzzled, the woman felt that Yeshua had not answered her former query (see John 4:11b).
The Samaritan woman’s unawareness as to the “living water” and its spiritual source, may serve as an illustration for those who have been habitually drawing water from the world’s resources. For example, when the Israelites were traveling through the wilderness, just east of the Land, circumventing the Moabites and Amorites, Moses promised that YHVH would supply them with water. So when they arrived at a place called Be’er (meaning “well”) they broke out in a song: “’…Spring up, O well! All of you sing to it -- The well the leaders sank, dug by the nation's nobles, by the lawgivers, with their staves.’ And then they [
from Be’er and went to a place called Mattanah” (Numbers 21:
17-18 emphases added). Israel
Notice that after they left the well, which the leaders, nobles, and lawgivers [“me’cho’kekim,” literally meaning “those who engrave or dig in”] had dug with their staves, they went to Mattanah - “gift”. To the woman’s declarations that the well was deep and that it was dug by “her father Jacob” Yeshua responded: “If you knew the “gift” [mattanah] of Elohim, you would have asked Him and He would have given you living water” (John 4:10).
Just like then, so today, many teachers, philosophers, scholars, and lawgivers are digging wells for us, some of which are very deep, from the world’s education system, making it necessary to use (the proverbial) ropes and buckets in order to draw up the ‘water’ (just the work itself makes one thirsty). However, we find that those wells of water often leave us ‘high and dry’ and thus thirsting for more. And when the ‘wells’ start drying up we, like the Israelites in the desert, are told to sing to the “well”, so that the “diggers” can dig even deeper (until the ropes and the work used for drawing the water all fail). Then, after being exhausted and parched, we sometimes go looking for another such well. Or - do we let go and make our way to the ‘Mattanah’ that Elohim has provided, and drink of the living water of which Yeshua spoke?
Let us also ask: “From which source does Yeshua get living water?” We may find the answer in a statement that He made to His disciples "You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world” (John 8:23). Is Yeshua referring here to Genesis 1:7? “Thus Elohim made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so” (emphases added).
Then, again, on the last day of the feast of Succot, Yeshua repeated what He had said to the Samaritan woman: “…If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his belly will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:37b-38). Obviously He was not referring to natural waters, but to the “waters above” that is, the Spirit of Elohim. “But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Yeshua was not yet glorified” (John 7:39). Hence the Holy Spirit of Elohim is the living water.