I do "magic" for preschoolers at our Kabbalat Shabbat. I make a Kiddush cup drink the wine. I fill a blank coloring book with colored pictures. I make a lightbulb glow in my hand.
In Parashat Chukat, Moses also performs "magic." When the people cry out that they are without water in the desert, God tells Moses to speak to a rock. But Moses does not speak to it, he strikes it: "Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank." (Numbers 20:11) That feat makes my pouring wine out of a newspaper look pretty tame.
God then tells Moses that because he struck the rock, he will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land. Why such a dire consequence for so small an incident? The p'shat, or simple answer, is in the text: "Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them." (Numbers 20:12) God punishes Moses because Moses tried to make the "trick" his instead of God's. The point was to increase trust in God, not awe for Moses.
But there's something more.
Before Moses strikes the rock, he says to the people: "Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?" (Numbers 20:10) He is angry and frustrated. These people are impossible! When the ten spies reported that the people could never conquer the Promised Land, the people panicked and refused to go farther. Later, three of them—Korach, Datham, and Abiram—openly challenged Moses' leadership. Moses is clearly fed up with this band of ex-slaves.
Perhaps that is precisely the point: Moses cannot lead them into the Land of Israel because he has contempt for them. He no longer respects them. He can give them water but not dignity. He can lead them, but he does not love them.
When performing "magic" tricks, I have two choices: I can try to bewilder the audience and emphasize my own special power or I can have them "say the magic words" or "find" the lost wine or make the lightbulb glow. I can make them my partners or my puppets.
There are many leadership roles in life. A parent is a leader of his or her children. A husband and wife are the leaders of a household. Employers are leaders, as are teachers and officials and camp counselors. But no matter how good they are at "making magic," if they treat their "audience" with contempt, they are not fit to lead.
Moses reminds us that even the wisest and most capable leaders can lose their patience and respect for their children, workers, students, or constituents. And when they do, everyone suffers.
Eventually, Moses overcame his frustration, swallowed his disappointment, and did his best for the people until his death. We remember him, we honor him, and we learn from his example, his teachings, and his mistakes.
Questions for Discussion
- Did being called "rebels" add to or detract from the people's appreciation of what Moses had done for them?
- Can a person who has no respect for his or her followers truly lead them?
- How does this issue relate to the rabbis' teaching that to humiliate someone publicly is as bad as shedding blood? Does this also apply to teachers and parents and employers? What about political leaders?
- Is the quality of the relationship between employer and employee important or does only the quality of the work count?
- How does the popular idea of "empowering" apply to this story and the lesson it suggests?
- Do people tend to respond by acting the way in which their leaders say they are acting?
Rabbi Harry K. Danziger is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Israel in Memphis, TN.
A midrash says that there are four laws in the Torah that defy reason yet must be obeyed because they are divinely commanded. They are the laws regarding the levir—marrying your brother's widow; sha-atnez—not mixing linen and wool; the scapegoat; and the red heifer. In other words, "God is holy. You are to be holy. Follow these instructions."
This week's parashah, Chukat/Balak, begins with one of those unexplainable mitzvot—the ritual of the red heifer. This is essentially a rite that makes a person ritually pure after he or she has come into contact with a dead body and has thus been rendered impure. The rite involves the sacrifice of a specific kind of heifer and the use of its ashes in a ritual of purification. While we do not understand why the ritual is spelled out in such complete detail, it clearly reinforces the idea found elsewhere that being holy and connecting to the divine require a state of physical and spiritual purity.
There is a basic irony in the ritual of the red heifer: The ashes of the sacrifice are used to purify someone who has been made unclean by contact with the dead. At the same time, those who prepare the ashes of the cow are rendered unclean through their contact with the sacrifice and must themselves be purified. (Numbers 19:7-10) (Incidentally, the rabbis of the Talmud maintained that in all of history, only nine red heifers were ever found—and the tenth will be found and prepared by the Messiah.) So what is the lesson of this paradox? How can this arcane ritual help us find some meaning today?
Rabbi Yechiel Michel of Zlochov taught that "the ashes of the red heifer have the quality of making ritually impure those who are pure and making ritually pure those who are impure. Generally speaking, that is true for all of the Torah." In other words, the Torah, like most really worthwhile things, is a sword with two edges: If we embrace it and use it to inform our values and behavior, it will uplift us and bring us closer to the Divine. If we ignore it or forget about it, it remains an artifact of some other generation. The chacham, the wise child at the Pesach seder, puts himself or herself into the story by asking, "What happened to us?" The rashah, the wicked child, says, "What happened to you?" The wise child embraces the Torah and is made pure and enriched by it. The wicked child rejects it and is left empty, wondering if this is all there is.
My rabbi and I study Talmud with a group of lawyers each month. We all enjoy wrestling with the text, searching for meaning. In the course of those struggles, we discuss both liberal and orthodox interpretations and practices. While we may not agree with the choices made by less liberal communities, we share one basic core value, namely, details matter. We may use different ways to embrace the Torah, but we all embrace the same Torah.
Why the ritual of the red heifer? Perhaps to remind us that our lives are made up of details, which individually may seem unimportant but together make us who we are. The ritual of the red heifer teaches us that God is in the details.
Questions for Discussion:
1. Why should we discuss ancient rituals that we are unable to perform today?
2. How can we emphasize the importance of detail? Is it enough to say, "Be good," or should we say, "Do this," or "Don't do that"?
3. What does being ritually pure or impure mean? Why should we care whether we are one or the other?
4. Why were the ancients concerned about contact with the dead? Should we share their concern?
5. Are there ways of becoming impure other than those described in the Torah? If impurity refers to our spiritual well-being, our ability to make connections with holiness, can you identify behaviors that might make us feel impure?
6. How might the idea of being pure or impure, clean or unclean, affect how we relate to one another?
Ira J. Wise, RJE, is the director of education at Congregation B'nai Israel in Bridgeport, CT.
Chukat, Numbers 19:1-22:1
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,145-1,164; Revised Edition, pp. 1,022-1,042
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 915–936
Balak, Numbers 22:2–25:9
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,173–1,194; Revised Edition, pp. 1,047–1,067;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 937–960