“Tribal Journeys, You Kept The Women Alive – Mattos, Safe Haven For Killers – Mas’ey” by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

TRIBAL JOURNEYS – Num. 30-36 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

         The Book of Numbers ends with two contrasting sections, which are frequently read on the same Sabbath in the synagogue. 

         First comes Chapter 30-32 which centers on the Israelite tribes in relation to Moses and his leadership, and their experiences in war. Here it is:


YOU KEPT THE WOMEN ALIVE? – “Mattos” Num.30-32 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

         Punishment, revenge, anger – all motivate the story we will read in this section called “Mattos,” literally “tribes.”  The heads of the Israelite tribes hear Moses call for 1,000 fighting men from each tribe – including his own tribe of Levi which otherwise does not provide soldiers but only chaplain’s assistants.  This is to be Moses’ last battle, and he is told he must conclude it before being “gathered to his people,” the beautiful Biblical euphemism for dying.  Even when facing his earthly end, Moses responds gladly.  We can expect this to be a highly important battle.

         The military operation has a specific purpose, namely to punish the people of Midian.  To execute “Divine revenge” on them is how the Torah phrases it.  The sexual epidemic that took the lives of thousands of Israelites was engineered by the false prophet Bilaam.  Remembering how that all started with the Israelite men getting seduced by the “girls of Moab,” we might wonder why the revenge is not ordered against Moab.  True, Bilaam himself was a Midianite, but what about those girls?  So let’s go back to Chapter 25.  There we find the violent action Pinhas (Phinehas the priest) took to stop the spread of the epidemic.  He saw a grandee of the tribe of Shimon take a woman into his tent, and Pinhas proceeded to grab a spear and strike them both fatally, through the tent. Who was this woman?  Her name was Cozbi, daughter of a prince of Midian. Not Moab.  Midian.   Conceivably Bilaam saw an opportunity to destroy Israel with poisonous orgies, and brought in his own female operatives to carry it out.

         Another reason for not attacking Moab, says Rashi, is because Divine punishment is withheld in consideration of one great woman who will come from there to join Israel and bring it glory.  Her name was Ruth, whose name and story grace a book in the K’tuvim (“Writings”) section of the Bible.  Ruth set the pattern for all future converts – “Your people shall be my people, and your G-d shall be my G-d” – and became the ancestor of King David.

         So Midian gets attacked.   Indeed it gets destroyed.  The Israelites besiege Midian, wipe out the male population, execute the kings, kill Bilaam, and take the women and children prisoners.  Quite a complete punishment, right? 

         Wrong.  Moses meets the returning troops and he is angry.  “You kept all the women alive?” he shouts.  These are the women whom Bilaam sent to lure you to the orgies of Baal-Peor!  They brought you the plague!  And he proceeds to give orders to execute all women old enough to have sex, and the male children too.  Just keep the little girls…  They’re clean.

         Did Moses himself commit a sin here?  The “Arizal” teaches that anger is a most dangerous sin. In his mystical thinking, when someone becomes angry his soul leaves his body and gets replaced with an “external soul.” Anger can make one forget all his Torah learning, misled by that external soul.  Spurred by his anger, did Moses insist on a mass slaughter of defenseless people?  Was this some kind of genocide?  Or did he give this order in desperation, hopeful that this, his last battle, would guarantee his people’s survival?

         Just maybe, our teacher Moses recognized in Midian the kind of dangerous deceit we see in some of our enemies today.  Executing the leaders is not enough.  Eradicate the source of the danger, whether or not that source is female.  Just maybe, that last battle set an example that every free people needs to remember.


         The second section, which closes the Book of Numbers, is a good deal longer, and includes a review of the Israelite travels through the desert.  In fact it is called “Mas’ey” (“Travels”). 

         In Chapter 33, we can read the itinerary of every time they broke camp, and where they pitched their tents next.  The Gutnik edition of the Pentateuch – the Chabad chumash – prints a few maps of their progress, showing changes of direction that are not evident in the Biblical text.

         The first 12 moves go south, from Ramises near the Mediterranean to Mt. Sinai near the lower end of the Sinai Peninsular.  There, of course, they received the Torah.  Then they spend the next 5 weeks moving northeast to Kadesh Barnea.  For the next 18 years they will be wandering through the desert, in and out of Kadesh Barnea, until Journeys #35-42 take them east and then north to prepare for crossing the Jordan River at Jericho.

         Experiences and instruction during those years should equip our ancestors to conquer and settle the Promised Land.  One unique commandment they receive for that process is fully described in Chapter 35.  This is the rule of the City of Refuge.

         Details follow.


SAFE HAVEN FOR KILLERS? – Mas’ey – Num. 33-36 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

         From Cain’s murder of Abel, on throughout the Bible, violence and justice recur.  Rules like “One who sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed” establish the ultimate punishment for the ultimate crime.

         The Torah even recognizes the ancient practice of the avenger, called the “blood redeemer,” who took responsibility to kill whoever killed his kinsman.  Of course the court required two eye witnesses to confirm guilt.  Two or three, never just one.  And no circumstantial evidence was considered. Even that standard was extended to require that someone warn the killer before he struck.  After a court convicted a murderer, the ancient custom still gave this blood redeemer the right to execute him.

         But suppose the killing was an accident? Manslaughter, yes, but not willful murder?  This Torah section cites the classic example of two men who go to the forest to chop down trees.  One swings his axe, and the iron head flies off the wooden handle and kills his friend. Shall he be exposed to the vengeance of the victim’s brother?  After all, says the Torah, “he did not hate [the victim] yesterday or the day before.”  No premeditated crime here.  No crime at all, really.  A tragic accident.  And so in two passages – one here in Numbers 35 and one in Deuteronomy 19 – we find the commandment to designate Cities of Refuge where the inadvertent killer can go and be safe, and the blood redeemer cannot follow him.  The Hebrew text calls these cities a-rey miklat.  The word miklat (refuge or shelter) is used in Israel today for an air-raid shelter.  Moses set up three such refuge cities east of the Jordan, and the people were to add three more after entering the Land.   There the manslayer could flee and stay, until the death of the current High Priest, after which time the blood redeemer would have no further right to take his life.

         These ancient laws give us a handle on some basic concepts of right and wrong, fairness to the suspect, and at the same time a realistic way to deal with primitive human emotions like revenge.  Surely that poor fellow with the faulty axe faced an awful change in his life, from independent woodsman to cooped-up fugitive.  But he was alive. And the victim’s brother had to deal with his family‘s loss without a violent vengeance that certainly could not bring back the victim of that tragic accident.

         Ancient history?  Sure.  Or is it?

         If you go to Hawaii, take a little excursion to some of the state parks, and you will likely find one of them in a cave that is accessible only by water.  I found that one particularly interesting.  Getting out the boat, we walked through the cave and saw a diorama that an artist executed on one wall.  It showed that cave’s importance to the old Hawaiians.  The cave was a special place where a fugitive killer could go and be safe – until the death of the Big Kahuna.  Big Kahuna = Cohen Gadol =High Priest.

         Unbelievable, I thought.  An exact parallel to the Torah’s Cities of Refuge!  So I contacted an old friend of mine, Rabbi Julius Nodel of blessed memory, who at that time was the only rabbi in Hawaii, and we talked about it.

         “That’s not all,” he told me.  Not only does “kahuna” sound like “cohen,” but a University of Hawaii researcher found some 500 words in the Hawaiian language that have parallel sound and meaning to those same words in Hebrew.  Like “makana” – a gift.  Hebrew word: “matana” – the Hawaiian language substitutes K for T since it has no T sound.  How did all this happen?  Are the Hawaiians the mysterious lost tribes of Israel?  Not exactly.  But some historians deduce that when Polynesians adventured north to explore and later populate the Hawaiian islands, they had to cross many hundreds of miles of open ocean, and they needed some skilled navigtors.  At that time, the best navigators in the Pacific were Jews, refugees from European massacres now living on the Chinese coast and very available.  They piloted the Polynesians, and apparently some stayed with them in their new Hawaiian home, and left their mark.

         Including the Refuge Cave – the miklat – a safe haven for killers!



Posted in Jewish Blogs | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on “Tribal Journeys, You Kept The Women Alive – Mattos, Safe Haven For Killers – Mas’ey” by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

ONE HAPPY JEW – a review of Sam Glaser’s book “The Joy of Judaism” – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

ONE HAPPY JEW – a review of Sam Glaser’s book “The Joy of Judaism” – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

     By all means, take the time for this book.  It is not a weekend read.  But invest yourself in it, and you can inhale the author’s supremely positive attitude toward life in general, and Jewish life in particular.

     So, is this a memoir?  Yes, it encompasses more than a quarter century of experience, contacts, performances, and growth.  Starting, as many of us do, from a partly secular and minimally observant youth, the author recounts his progress as he finds out more and more about his Jewish identity – and describes how he implements that knowledge in his personal life. We feel the joy this process brings him. Along the way he quotes some of the numerous Jewish clergymen and lay leaders he meets.  As an internationally successful composer and performer, he comes in contact with Jewish communities and organizations of all types – movement-connected, politically targeted, strictly recreational, name it!  He loves them all, entertains them all, and does his best to connect them all.

     He implements his joy of Judaism at home, too.  He finds a way to activate his love for his wife and children by leading them to create an observant Jewish home, and to share the beauty of their Jewish life with friends, family and strangers whom they host.  That process is summarized in a later chapter where we can read his vigorous 4-page letter to his first son.  Other fathers might well learn a little here, about how Jewish growth improves life, and the importance of communicating that growth to those we love.

     So, is this a textbook?  Definitely, it builds a detailed example of how the reader can use the author’s experience to reach a level of sacred joy.

     Of course, this author’s personal experiences are tied to a career in music – singing, playing, recording, marketing albums, etc. How he applied that profession to his Jewish growth, could be quite different from anything the reader does. But here we can find some constructive ideas on raising the commitment level, for those in any line of work.

     In chapter after engrossing chapter, we join the process of exploring Jewish life.  And music figures in that process, as we roam the Jewish year.

     Each chapter opens with lyrics and links to the author’s songs.  With a little help from your computer, the author’s voice and his group’s music can  provide a melodic intro to the subject.  From the unplugged simplicity of a Shabat Shalom to Passover with an equally unplugged but so much more dramatic B’chol dor vador (“in every generation we must see ourselves as if we came out of Egypt”) quoting the Seder Haggadah, and on into the emotional Hatikvah of Israeli holidays like Jerusalem Day and Israel Independence Day, the year sings to us in familiar sounds and in the author’s added ones.

     From the shofar calls, the solemn Kol Nidrey and some Sam Glaser chants, to the pure fun of a Shlomo Carlebach tune, we sample the High Holidays. From dancing in the Succah to the rhythm of some of the author’s favorite recordings, to kindling Hanukkah lights and memorializing the Maccabees along with Louis Armstrong and Martin Luther King and all who fight for freedom, we join in this extended excitement of the Jewish calendar.

     Sampling the author’s experiences in professional engagements for groups including Hillel, Chabad, the Reform Biennial and a multi-cultural High Sierra program, we watch him pick opportunities to share Jewish music with any and all audiences.   

     So, is this book a promotion?  After all, the appendix includes a sampling of the 1000-plus dates of Sam Glaser’s appearances the world over.  We can cruise a list of his recordings.  He names fans who follow him and even help sponsor his book.  Yes, of course it’s a promotion – and it promotes more than Sam Glaser’s stardom.  It promotes a noble cause. That cause is Jewish unity.  Whether or not we are as observant as this author has become, we can accept each other – Hassidic, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Renewal, Reconstructionist, Labor Zionist, etc. etc.  We share our Jewish roots.  And so we share in growing the tree whose fruit we eat to live.  As we nurture that tree, we strengthen our future. 

    Whatever your personal Jewish habits, you will find this book surprising, and sometimes exciting.  Its stories from “the road” bring us humor, and some inspiring “small miracle” memories. Here and there, it suffers from some first-edition text-editing oversights (like omitted words, faulty usage, etc.) but the beautiful message comes through.  “The Joy of Judaism” is definitely worth reading.

Enjoy it.

Link to the book The Joy of Judaism

Posted in Jewish Blogs | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on ONE HAPPY JEW – a review of Sam Glaser’s book “The Joy of Judaism” – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

HERO OR CRIMINAL? – Pinkhas – Num. 25:10-30:1 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

HERO OR CRIMINAL? – Pinkhas – Num. 25:10-30:1 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

         These five chapters cover a rare variety of subjects, from the end of an epidemic, to a plan to attack an enemy, then to Moses’ second census after 40 years, determining future ownership rights in the Promised Land, which brings up a question of female inheritance for the daughters of a man named Zelophehad who had no sons.  We will see Moses climb a mountain to get his last view of the land of Israel, and since he will never enter it, he now proceeds to appoint Joshua as the leader who will succeed him.

         Next, we will learn about the sacrificial offerings – daily and seasonal.  This section is quoted on all occasions of the Jewish year.   Reading about bringing the first fruits of the harvest to the sanctuary, we may find it a charming idea, and indeed a version of it is observed by religious farmers in Israel today.  A different effect comes from the number of sheep, cattle and goats slaughtered for various holidays.  Of course we know that animal sacrifices had to be discontinued after the destruction of the Temple, to be replaced by spoken prayers.  Here we will see how they lead up to climactic ceremonies still observed – and still animal-related – like sounding the ram’s horn, the shofar to proclaim the New Year. 

         Most dramatic and most discussed of all these subjects is the opening section of this reading, which concerns a man named Pinkhas (Phineas).  The entire reading bears his name.  At the end of the previous section, we saw him take a spear in his hand and kill both an Israelite tribal prince and the Midianite idolatrous prostitute he was showing off – thus halting the orgies and the resulting epidemic that was raging in the camp.  

         This reading opens with Moses receiving the Divine word to award Pinkhas “My covenant of peace.  He and his progeny will have a covenant of eternal priesthood because he was jealous for his G-d and he atoned for the people of Israel.”

         By his act of violence, does Pinkhas earn permanent High Priesthood for himself and his descendants?   He was not carrying out a legal execution.  The couple he killed, Zimri and the woman named Cozbi, never went to trial.  They flaunted their violation.  All the Israelites saw them enter the tent together.  And all saw Pinkhas run them through, right through the tent. 

Of all the major characters in Biblical literature, Pinkhas ranks with the most controversial.   Rashi and other commentators recount that the tribes ridiculed him, considering him as lacking any right to take the law into his own hands and kill a tribal leader like Zimri.  Maybe he should be tried for murder.  How could such a violent crime qualify him for the priesthood? 

The opening line of this portion identifies Pinkhas as the son of Elazar and therefore grandson of Aaron, which already should make him a priest, a cohen. But Elazar’s wife, Pinkhas’ mother, was the daughter of Jethro, a heathen priest who in Rashi’s words “fattened cows [to slaughter] for idolatry.”  So if Pinkhas’ father could marry a woman who was not born Jewish, what gives Pinkhas the right to execute Zimri for cohabiting with a heathen woman?  Negative opinions about Pinkhas continue through the writings of subsequent commentators including Sifsey Khakhomim (“Lips of the wise”), Klee Yokor (“Vessel of Value”) etc., all the way to Maimonides, the famous Rambam.  He states that the law permits a “zealot” to kill a Jew who is having intercourse with a non-Jewish woman, even though a bet din (a Jewish court) cannot give him permission to do so.  The reason for this ruling concerns the possible offspring of that couple. If the birth results from a forbidden relationship between two Jews, as when they are not legally married to each other, the baby will be a mamzer (illegitimate) but will still be a Jew, and will be identified as the Jewish father’s son or daughter.  But in the case of a non-Jewish woman who gives birth, her baby is not a Jew at all, and “is not considered to be [the Jewish father’s] child…”.  

         And yet, this Torah portion that bears his name asserts that through his violent action Pinkhas turned G-d’s anger away from the people Israel.

         Or did he?  Psalm 106 tells the story a little differently.  “Pinkhas stood and prayed,” says the Psalm, “and the plagued ceased.” Was King David, author of the Psalms, taking liberties with the facts in order to elevate the reputation of Pinkhas? Is Pinkhas really such a hero?  He killed two defenseless people.

           Was it prayer or was it murder?  Or was it something else, something unique?   Maybe Pinkhas carried out an act of affirmation, a violent and shocking act to be sure, but an extreme act made vital by an extreme situation.  Maybe he saw a need no one else could see, a need for a nation to be shocked.  They did not seem to realize that Midian was their enemy, with the false prophet Balaam plotting their destruction and actually causing the infection and death of some 24,000 Israelite victims of the disease contracted from the Midianite women.  In Chapter 31 we will read about the military campaign that defeated Midian and killed Balaam.  Pinkhas is there too, but he is not the leader of the campaign. More like an enlisted man.  His father Elazar is the army chaplain.  But without Pinkhas and his spear, would the battle of Midian ever be fought?

         An extreme story, yet one to remember.  The goal of many a war is peace.  World War 1 was supposed to make the world safe for democracy, so in World War 2 we used to wisecrack that we were fighting to make the world safe for peace.  Sorry, folks. That didn’t happen.  Ink on the peace treaties of 1945 was scarcely dry before Arab armies attacked the new State of Israel in ’48, Communist forces fought their way to ruling China in ’49, and other conflicts followed.  We know them and their victims all too well.

         And yet, Pinkhas and his sudden violence did save his people from an immediate threat.  There are situations where nothing else works.  Not diplomacy, not negotiations, not even prayer.  He “turned back [Divine] anger from the people of Israel” with a brutal but courageous attack.  He shocked his people into action, and gave his name to this Sedrah – as well as to countless Jewish boys throughout the centuries.  We don’t name our sons Balaam, or Cain or Adonijah (David’s spoiled son).   But young Pinky’s abound. 

         Sometimes extreme situations need extreme action.

Posted in Jewish Blogs | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on HERO OR CRIMINAL? – Pinkhas – Num. 25:10-30:1 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

FOR ALL US TALKING DONKEYS – Numbers 22-31 – Balak – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

FOR ALL US TALKING DONKEYS – Numbers 22-31 – Balak – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

         You see your friend riding a bicycle too close to the lane of a fast moving truck, what do you do?  You yell “Look out!”  Right?  But what if you lost your voice? Do you catch up with your friend and pull him away?

         Such emergencies spice this Torah reading, in the story of the soothsayer from P’tor, known in Jewish tradition as Bil’am harasha – Balaam the wicked. 

         Why wicked?  Early in the story we might accept Balaam as a friend of Israel. After all, he declares his faith in the Jewish G-d, he apparently follows Divine orders, and he even gives Israel its most famous blessing in the words we repeat when we enter any synagogue: Mah tovu ohalekha Yaakov – “How goodly are your tents, Jacob.” 

         How does Balaam deserve the end he gets in Chapter 31 when the Israelites defeat the kings of Midian, and finding him there, “slay him with the sword?”  

         He gets warned, but rejects his warnings. 

         It starts when Balak, king of Moab, sends messengers to P’tor to ask this famous soothsayer to come and “curse this nation that came out of Egypt” and now frightens Moab.  Balaam invites the messengers to stay overnight, while he communicates with G-d. In the morning he refuses to go with them because G-d told him not to.  “Do not curse this nation, for it is blessed.”  So he stays home.  Balak does not give up, however.  He sends higher-ranking nobles, and promises great honor to Balaam, a kind of write-your-own-ticket deal.  Again Balaam consults the Divine and reports this answer: “If they came to invite you, go. But only the words I put in your mouth may you say.”  The next morning, Balaam saddles his donkey, takes his two servants with him and begins his journey with Balak’s representatives.  No sooner are they on the road than the Torah tells us: “G-d was angry because Balaam went.”

         What happened here?  Did G-d change His mind?   Not likely. The commentary called Or haKhayyim (“Light of Life”) explains the story. While Balaam refused the first invitation and told the messengers G-d would not permit him to go, he behaves differently now.   He just picks himself up and goes.  Not a word about Divine permission or about the limitations on it.  He acts as if he is above all that, just doing what he wants to do.

 That is his first mistake.  The Torah describes him confidently riding down the road, oblivious of a Divine angel – presumably the malach hamovves, the angel of death – standing in front of him with a drawn sword. His donkey sees the angel and veers off the road into a field to save Balaam’s life, whereupon he slaps the donkey.

         Mistake #2 proceeds from there.  Balaam decides that now that he is going to Balak, nothing – not even G-d — can keep him from damaging Israel.  Sensing this, the angel with the sword intercepts Balaam at a narrow spot between two fences.  Again the donkey swerves and bruises Balaam’s leg against one wall.  Again Balaam slaps the donkey.

         Mistake #3 involves Balaam’s experience the night before, relying on his own witchcraft to determine if this trip will really benefit him. He decided that it will make him rich and powerful.  So he ignored the first two warnings.  He keeps riding.  This time the angel of death blocks the road at a turn so narrow that there is no way to get around him.   So the donkey sits down.  Furious, Balaam takes a stick and starts beating the donkey.

         Now comes “Look out!”  G-d “opens the donkey’s mouth” to ask: “What did I do to you, to make you strike me three times?”

 Balaam rages: “You ridiculed me!  If I had a sword in my hand I would kill you.”  More reasonable than he is, the donkey pleads: “Am I not the same donkey you rode all your life?  Did I ever do this before?”  Balaam has to admit: “No.”  Only then does he see the danger.  He bows before the angel, who tells him that if not for the donkey’s alert action, “I would kill you, and keep her alive.”  Her?  For no apparent reason, Balaam’s donkey is female.  Her warning is worth heeding.

         Still Balaam does not change his mind.  The Torah text traces his course.   He reluctantly speaks the words of blessing that G-d puts in his mouth.   So Balak withdraws his offer.  Then Balaam, no longer trusting in his sorcery, sets out to destroy Israel another way.  He organizes a campaign of seduction.  “The men of Israel began to whore around with the daughters of Moab,” as we will read in Chapter 25, resulting in an epidemic of idolatry and disease.  The plague spread by Balaam’s sacred prostitutes kills 24,000.    When the Israelite army conquers Midian, no talking donkey will warn Balaam this time. His evil life ends on a sword.

         One element under-riding this whole amazing story, but apparently ignored by the commentators, poses unasked questions. Why and how did Balaam, a heathen sorcerer, connect with G-d?  Did he have some knowledge of Israel’s faith, and wish to align himself with a military winner?  Did the Almighty accept him as a potential prophet?  Or does this story indicate that good intentions must be sincere, and if not they can result in disaster.  Preventing false prophets from bringing on that disaster requires some strong warnings – dramatized in our story by the talking donkey.  Who can qualify as a talking donkey, to give those strong warnings today?  You and I. 

         No lack of false prophets these days, speaking in the name of religion or democracy or whateverturnsyouonbaby. 

         Most of us might not have the opportunity to grab our friend’s bicycle and pull it away from that truck.  But we can yell “Look out!”  And hope our friends take warning from us — us, the talking donkeys.   We need to talk.  Those who do, can be heroic – or mistaken.  Or villains like Balaam.  They can also be worth listening to.

Posted in Jewish Blogs | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on FOR ALL US TALKING DONKEYS – Numbers 22-31 – Balak – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

KNOW THE LAW – AND UNDERSTAND IT? – Khukas – Numb.19:1—22:1 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

KNOW THE LAW – AND UNDERSTAND IT? – Khukas – Numb.19:1—22:1 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

         Torah law comes in three varieties.  One is called eydos – ordinances.  A second one is called khukim – decrees.  And the third is called mishpatim –judgments. 

We define eydos  as rules of life that would be obvious without even writing them down.  Frequently they are compared to accepted customs that acquire the force of law.  Wearing clothes, for example.

Mishpatim are logical conclusions from reality, formalized into law. The word mishpat means “justice.” To be fair, to be just, we must follow these laws.  Like the Torah’s admonition that a murderer shall not be put to death until he stands trial.   Make sure we have the right one.

Khukim – decrees, or statutes, present a different challenge.  They seem to defy human intelligence.  Since this reading is called Khukas we have a perfect opportunity to explore some puzzling commandments.  One which opens our reading describes the sacrifice of the Red Heifer, an offering which has no stated purpose but is described in full detail.  The cow must be slaughtered and the body totally burned, with cedarwood, hyssop and scarlet cast into the burning body.  We are told that this offering took place only nine times in all Jewish history, and we still don’t know why.  But it is anticipated for the tenth (and last?) time when the Messiah arrives. Along with that sacrifice comes the law of tum’ah – contamination – applied to the priest who gathers the cow’s ashes.  He sprinkles the sacrifice with holy water, thus purifying it.  But he himself becomes contaminated – therefore unable to join in any normal activity – and remains so until nightfall.  So this is a case where the same action “purifies the contaminated, and contaminates the pure.” 

Tum’ah becomes more serious when a human being comes in contact not with a dead animal but a dead human body.  Now it lasts a week.  And if the death takes place in a tent, or if the body is brought into the tent, everything in the tent is contaminated and must be sprinkled with cleansing water, as of course the living humans too.  In today’s Jewish world the mikvah (sacred bathhouse) substitutes for the ancient sprinkle.  Proximity to death still contaminates, so a modern Jewish cemetery will have water faucets available for visitors to use.  And returning from the funeral to enter a house of mourning, we prepare a pitcher and basin on the porch for our guests. 

Yet the riddle remains.  How do we explain the concept of ritual contamination?  This law is not based on logic.  Don’t argue.  Just do it!

A decree or a statue, therefore, is a law passed down from above by absolute authority, whether human or Divine.   In Chapter 30 we will read: “These are the decrees that G-d commanded Moses.”  And later in the Book of Joshua we see how he signed a treaty with the people binding their agreement to dispose of all their idols, and ”made it a statute and a law.”  

All through this chapter we will find the imminence and effect of losing treasured people.  First it is Miriam who dies.  We read simply that she dies and gets buried.  We don’t know who buried her, or what kind of mourning the people did. But we know they felt her loss. In her honor, says our Midrash, a miraculous well followed the Israelite people all through their 40 years in the desert.  As soon as she died, they had no water to drink.  That’s what they complained about.   

Soon thereafter, they lose Aaron.  He and his son Elazar climb the mountain, he gives Elazar his priestly robe, and his life ends.  He is buried on the mountain, and the people mourn him for 30 days. 

Why 30 days?  Significantly, we will read no law about 30 days of mourning.  Yet we still observe it.  Granted, when parents die, these 30 days are now just the first of 11 months of Kaddish, the memorial prayer. But the first month is the deepest, starting with the week of shiva when the mourners traditionally stay at home and refrain from work or other regular activities while they accept sympathy calls; and proceeding through the rest of the 30 days when it is customary not to visit the grave or to partake in entertainment.  Aaron was a great man in our history, but memorializing him took no different form from how we honor each of our departed ever since.  As we will read in Deuteronomy, Moses himself was also mourned by the entire people for 30 days. 

We need these various kinds of laws – ordinances, judgments, decrees — to help us relate to each other.  They teach us to respect those who live by those laws, to support those who teach and enforce those laws and to share an ordered society. 

Dealing with death is different.  No law we can write — or even understand — limits any one lifetime.  Human beings live and die by a decree we cannot know. All we can do for those we love while they are with us, is to help them live.  After that, we can honor good people’s memories as we have always done — from the heart.

The second chapter of this reading details the Israelite adventures — victorious, violent or miraculous – en route to the Promised Land.  Even before Aaron’s death they were denied permission to go through the land of Edom, and facing a powerful army they turned away. Now they face an attack from the Canaanite king of Arad, identified by our commentators as a descendant of Israel’s classic enemy Amalek.  Arad’s men take a prisoner – just one, say the commentators and that one a chambermaid. That’s enough to cause the Israelites to take a vow committing themselves to destroy Arad’s cities, which they do.

Then the detour they take, going around Edom, discourages many of the people, and they speak against G-d and Moses, protesting the decision to leave Egypt “only to die in the desert.”  They are attacked by snakes, in a Divine punishment for their disloyalty, and many of the people die.    But G-d responds to Moses’ prayer and provides a miracle to save the survivors. With Divine help, Moses makes a copper snake to be held on a pole.  If anyone is bitten they could look at that snake and live.  

That miracle is perhaps no less to be expected than what follows in the stories of the Divinely created well that provided water to the entire thirsty nation, and then their successful campaigns against the forces of the Amorites and of Bashan.  Both of those kings tried to keep the Israelites out of their countries.  And when Moses had to face Og, the giant king of Bashan, G-d told him not to be afraid.  So we will read that Moses killed Og singlehanded.  And the reading concludes with Israel camped by the Jordan River, facing Jericho.

Progress toward a goal cannot be guaranteed.  It can be achieved in spite of our own doubts, our tendencies to give up. Unlikely as it may seem, our Torah narratives assure that it’s possible when G-d is with us.



Posted in Jewish Blogs | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on KNOW THE LAW – AND UNDERSTAND IT? – Khukas – Numb.19:1—22:1 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon