Parshat Hukat is the 6th in the Book of Numbers covering Chapters 19-21. It begins with the enigmatic laws of the Red Heifer (Parah Adumah) which, after being processed into ashes and mixed with pure water, restored spiritual purity to those who had come in contact with a corpse.
The parasha then described in the 40th year of their sojourn the death of Miriam which led to a water crisis. Moshe & Aharon, commanded to speak with a rock that would provide water, struck it instead. G-d told them for their lack of Faith they wouldn’t merit bringing the people to Canaan.
Moshe sent messengers to the King of Edom seeking permission to take the shorter route to Canaan through their land but was rebuffed. Bnei Yisrael instead travelled by way of Mt Hor. A top the mountain Moshe removed Aharon’s priestly garments, Aharon died and was succeeded by his son Elazar. Bnei Yisrael mourned Aharon for 30 days.
The Canaanite King of Arad attacked Bnei Yisrael taking captives. The people pledged to G-d all of the spoils of war if only they’d be granted victory and G-d heard their prayers.
But forced to back-track to circumvent the land of Edom, the nation complained of a lack of food and water; and a plague of fiery-serpents broke out. Confessing their sin to Moshe, they asked for forgiveness and G-d instructed Moshe to cast a copper snake, suspend it on a pole so that all who were bitten who looked at the image would be healed.
They continued to travel to a series of encampments until reaching the border of Moab. There they found a well and sang a song in its praise.
Messengers were again sent, this time to King Sihon of the Emorites, asking permission to take the shorter crossing through their land. Sihon refused, instead amassing his army for war. Bnei Yisrael defeated Sihon, capturing cities he had earlier taken from Moab. Continuing on the road to Bashan, they were met by King Og and his army. G-d assured Moshe that Bnei Yisrael would defeat Og in battle and capture his cities as well. After that they reached the plains of Moab along the Jordan River.
Comment: Parshat Hukat occurring at the end of the 40 years of wandering in the desert, marks a turn-around in the relationship between Bnei Yisrael and the Almighty. Progeny of the original generation to leave Egypt who stood at Mt Sinai, their fate was different from their parents. When encountering difficulty and hardship, rather than complain frivolously about how good their lives were in a previous period, they instead recognised G-d’s aid when misfortune arose.
Ironically, the Parasha begins with Parah Adumah (Red Heifer) Laws – concerning the process to rid one’s self of spiritual contamination arising from contact with death – but continues with an abundance of death; the passing away of Miriam & Aharon, those killed by the fiery-serpent plague and the wars against Kings Sihon and Og.
One of the intrinsic lessons from the story of Miriam’s death that may still have relevance today, is that compassion for others offered selflessly has the potential to create merit for those around us.
A Midrash tells us that Bnei Yisrael enjoyed the benefit of 3 things during their wanderings in the desert due to the merit of 3 individuals. The Manna was provided in Moshe’s merit, the clouds of Glory in Aharon’s and water access in Miriam’s.
The reason water was in Miriam’s merit goes back to Egypt when Moshe’s older sister followed the basket he was placed into as a helpless infant, until it reached Pharaoh’s daughter, in a way protecting baby Moshe from Pharaoh’s decree of death to all new-born male children.
For that reason, not only did the Jewish people wait a week for Miriam to heal from her spiritual leprosy in Parshat BeHa’alotekha, but for nearly 40 years they benefited through her to have a constant source of water.
In this week’s verses, Miriam’s death was followed immediately by Hukat’s water crisis; thus the commentaries directly link the lack of water to the stopping of a well that travelled with Bnei Yisrael in Miriam’s honour.
In our days, we don’t see miracles of nature like a traveling well. But, perhaps, were we sensitive enough we might see that acts of kindness done selflessly by those who love us continue to provide blessings we hardly can begin to appreciate.
Miriam’s Hesed in looking after her brother occurred nearly 120 years earlier, yet it remained as part of her legacy to Bnei Yisrael until her last days. Only with difficulty was Moshe able to reactivate the well after Miriam was gone.
If it’s really the case, that we’re benefitted spiritually by selflessly-motivated good works, how much more should we be thinking of ways to create our own Hesed to protect and enhance the spiritual quality of those who are dear to us and to the wider community.
A More Detailed Look at the Parasha
G-d spoke to Moshe & Aharon charging them with the Laws of Parah Adumah (Red Heifer); to take an unblemished red heifer that hadn’t carried a yoke. They gave it to Elazar to slaughter outside the camp. Elazar took its blood and sprinkled 7 times in the direction of the Tent of Meeting. The entire animal was burned and with it a piece of cedar wood and some hyssop tied with red thread. The officiating Kohen washed his clothes washed himself in water and returned to the camp, remaining Tamei until evening; and similarly the one who burnt the animal.
Someone Tahor (spiritually pure) gathered the ashes and kept them outside the camp as a keepsake for Bnei Yisrael, these were the Niddah Waters. The one gathering the ashes washed his clothes, remaining Tamei until evening. A person who came in contact with the dead would be Tamei for 7 days; having the waters sprinkled on them on the 3rd and 7th days.
Anyone not sprinkled with Niddah Waters would remain Tamei. Entering the Mishkan in a state of ritual impurity was punishable by excision. When a man died in a tent, impurity affected anything in the tent for 7 days. Any open vessel was contaminated.
Similarly, anyone who came across a corpse, bones or graves in a field was Tamei for 7 days. Ashes from the burned red heifer were mixed in water in an earthen vessel. A hyssop dipped in the ash-water was used to sprinkle on the tent and on all that was inside or on those who had made contact with the dead – on the 3rd and 7th days. After washing their clothing and bathing, those Tamei would become pure after the 7th nightfall. Anyone refusing this practice remained Tamei and was cut-off from the community. The one who sprinkled the waters and anyone who touched them had to wash their clothing and remained Tamei until nightfall.
In the first month Bnei Yisrael reached Midbar Tsin and Miriam died in Kadesh. There was no water for the people to drink so they gathered and fought with Moshe & Aharon, demanding why they were brought to die in the Midbar. ‘It was a barren land lacking figs, grapes, pomegranates and water.’ Moshe and Aharon took refuge in the Tent of Meeting, prostrated on their faces until G-d’s glory appeared to them.
G-d told Moshe to take his staff, and with Aharon, gather the people and speak to the Rock which will release its waters before their eyes. Moshe & Aharon gathered the people and said ‘Listen you rebels, shall we draw water for you from this Rock?’ Then Moshe raised his staff and struck the Rock twice and much water came out.
G-d told Moshe & Aharon that ‘because you failed to believe sufficiently to sanctify My name before the people, you won’t bring this congregation into the Land’. These were the waters of Meribah at Kadesh.
Moshe sent messengers to the King of Edom explaining ‘your brother Israel experienced much turmoil in Egypt, being enslaved there for many years. Finally, G-d heard our cry and redeemed us. We’re now on your border seeking permission to cross through. We’ll not harm your fields or vineyards, nor drink your water. Let us travel the King’s road until passing beyond your borders’.
But Edom refused them at the threat of war. Bnei Yisrael asked to travel on their highway offering to pay for their food and water, but again were refused. And Edom came out against them with a large army, so they turned back.
From Kadesh they arrived at Mt Hor where G-d told Moshe & Aharon that Aharon would die for having rebelled against G-d’s word at the Waters of Meribah. Moshe ascended the mountain with Aharon & Elazar, took Aharon’s priestly garments, dressing Elazar in his stead; and there Aharon died. When Moshe & Elazar descended alone, the nation mourned Aharon for 30 days.
The Canaanite King of Arad heard them coming by way of Attarim and attacked Bnei Yisrael taking captives. The people pledged to G-d all the spoils of war if only they could be victorious in battle. G-d heard their plea and they were successful to destroy the Canaanites and their towns. The place was called Hormah.
Bnei Yisrael left Mt Hor via Yam Suf to circumvent Edom. Feeling constrained, they complained against G-d and Moshe asking why they were taken out of Egypt to die in the Wilderness. Many died from a plague of fiery serpents that G-d sent against them. The people confessed their sin to Moshe and pleaded for his intercession. G-d told Moshe to cast a copper serpent and suspend it on a pole, and all who had been bitten could look at the image and be healed.
The people travelled 5 stations arriving at Arnun, land between the borders of Moab and Emor. They reached Be’airah, singing a song in praise of its well, and continued 3 more stops until the valley by the top of Pisgah.
The people sent messengers to King Sihon the Emorite asking permission to traverse his land – but they were refused. Instead, Sihon gathered his army and warred with Israel at Yahtsah. But Israel defeated them from Arnon until Yabok up to the border of Ammon. They captured all their cities including Heshbon – land that previously had belonged to Moab but that Sihon had won from them in battle. [A parable celebrated his earlier victory.]
Moshe sent spies to Yazer – they took those towns, driving out the Emorites. Then they arrived at Bashan where King Og came-out against them. G-d reassured Moshe Bnei Yisrael would prevail, conquering Og just as they’d done to Sihon. They pitched their tents in the plains of Moab near the Jordan River.