Chukat - in Classical Rabbinic Interpretation - Numbers Chapter 20

Numbers Chapter 20

Rabbi Ammi taught that the Torah places the account of Miriam's death in Numbers 20:1 immediately after the laws of the red cow in Numbers 19:1–22 to teach that even as the red cow provided atonement, so the death of the righteous provides atonement for those whom they leave behind. (Babylonian Talmud Moed Katan 28a.)

Rabbi Eleazar taught that Miriam died with a Divine kiss, just as Moses had. As Deuteronomy 34:5 says, “So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab by the mouth of the Lord,” and Numbers 20:1 says, “And Miriam died there” — both using the word “there” — Rabbi Eleazar deduced that both Moses and Miriam died the same way. Rabbi Eleazar explained that Numbers 20:1 does not say that Miriam died “by the mouth of the Lord” because it would be indelicate to say so. (Babylonian Talmud Moed Katan 28a.)

Rabbi Jose the son of Rabbi Judah taught that three good leaders arose for Israel — Moses, Aaron, and Miriam — and for their sake Providence conferred three good things on Israel — the well that accompanied the Israelites on their journeys for the merit of Miriam, the pillar of cloud for the merit of Aaron, and the manna for the merit of Moses. When Miriam died, the well disappeared, as Numbers 20:1 reports, “And Miriam died there,” and immediately thereafter Numbers 20:2 reports, “And there was no water for the congregation.” The well returned for the merit of Moses and Aaron. When Moses died, the well, the pillar of cloud, and the manna all disappeared, as Zecharaiah 11:8 reports, “And I cut off the three shepherds in one month.” (Babylonian Talmud Taanit 9a.)

The Gemara employed Numbers 20:1 to deduce that one may not benefit from a corpse. The Gemara deduced this conclusion from the use of the same word “there” (שָׁם, sham) both in connection with the heifer whose neck was to be broken (הָעֶגְלָה, הָעֲרוּפָה, ha-eglah ha-arufah) prescribed in Deuteronomy 21:3–6 and here in Numbers 20:1 in connection with a corpse. Numbers 20:1 says, “And Miriam died there (שָׁם, sham),” and Deuteronomy 21:4 says, “And they shall break the heifer's neck there (שָׁם, sham) in the valley.” Just as one was prohibited to benefit from the heifer, so also one was thus prohibited to benefit from a corpse. And the School of Rabbi Yannai taught that one was prohibited to benefit from the heifer because Deuteronomy 21:8 mentions forgiveness (כַּפֵּר, kaper) in connection with the heifer, just as atonement (כַּפֵּר, kaper) is mentioned in connection with sacrifices (for example in Exodus 29:36). (Just as one was prohibited to benefit from sacrifices, so also one was thus prohibited to benefit from the heifer.) (Babylonian Talmud Avodah Zarah 29b.)

A Master taught that as long as the generation of the wilderness continued to die out, there was no Divine communication to Moses (in a direct manner, as Numbers 12:8 describes, “face to face”). For Moses recounted in Deuteronomy 2:16–17, “So it came to pass, when all the men of war were consumed and dead . . . that the Lord spoke to me.” Only then (after those deaths) did the Divine communication to Moses resume. (Babylonian Talmud Taanit 30b.) Thus God’s address to Moses in Numbers 20:6–8 may have been the first time that God had spoken to Moses in 38 years. (Aryeh Kaplan, The Living Torah, 763.)

A Midrash read God’s instruction in Numbers 20:8, “bring forth to them water out of the rock; so you shall give the congregation and their cattle drink,” to teach that God was considerate of even the Israelites’ property — their animals. (Midrash Tanhuma Chukas 9.)

The Mishnah counted the well that accompanied the Israelites through the desert in the merit of Miriam, or others say, the well that Moses opened by striking the rock in Numbers 20:11, among ten miraculous things that God created at twilight on the eve of the first Sabbath. (Mishnah Avot 5:6.)

A Midrash interpreted Numbers 20:11 to teach that Moses struck the rock once and small quantities of water began to trickle from the rock, as Psalm 78:20 says, “Behold, He smote the rock, that waters issued.” Then the people ridiculed Moses, asking if this was water for sucklings, or babes weaned from milk. So Moses lost his temper and struck the rock “twice; and water came forth abundantly” (in the words of Numbers 20:11), overwhelming all those who had railed at Moses, and as Psalm 78:20 says, “And streams overflowed.” (Numbers Rabbah 19:9.)

Reading God’s criticism of Moses in Numbers 20:12, “Because you did not believe in Me,” a Midrash asked whether Moses had not previously said worse when in Numbers 11:22, he showed a greater lack of faith and questioned God’s powers asking: “If flocks and herds be slain for them, will they suffice them? Or if all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, will they suffice them?” The Midrash explained by relating the case of a king who had a friend who displayed arrogance towards the king privately, using harsh words. The king did not, however, lose his temper with his friend. Later, the friend displayed his arrogance in the presence of the king’s legions, and the king sentenced his friend to death. So also God told Moses that the first offense that Moses committed (in Numbers 11:22) was a private matter between Moses and God. But now that Moses had committed a second offense against God in public, it was impossible for God to overlook it, and God had to react, as Numbers 20:12 reports, “To sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel.” (Numbers Rabbah 19:10.)

Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar taught that Moses and Aaron died because of their sin, as Numbers 20:12 reports God told them, “Because you did not believe in Me . . . you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar thus taught that had they believed in God, their time would not yet have come to depart from the world. (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 55b.)

The Gemara implied that the sin of Moses in striking the rock at Meribah compared favorably to the sin of David. The Gemara reported that Moses and David were two good leaders of Israel. Moses begged God that his sin be recorded, as it is in Numbers 20:12, 20:23–24, and 27:13–14, and Deuteronomy 32:51. David, however, begged that his sin be blotted out, as Psalm 32:1 says, “Happy is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is pardoned.” The Gemara compared the cases of Moses and David to the cases of two women whom the court sentenced to be lashed. One had committed an indecent act, while the other had eaten unripe figs of the seventh year in violation of Leviticus 25:6. The woman who had eaten unripe figs begged the court to make known for what offense she was being flogged, lest people say that she was being punished for the same sin as the other woman. The court thus made known her sin, and the Torah repeatedly records the sin of Moses. (Babylonian Talmud Yoma 86b.)

Resh Lakish taught that Providence punishes bodily those who unjustifiably suspect the innocent. In Exodus 4:1, Moses said that the Israelites “will not believe me,” but God knew that the Israelites would believe. God thus told Moses that the Israelites were believers and descendants of believers, while Moses would ultimately disbelieve. The Gemara explained that Exodus 4:13 reports that “the people believed” and Genesis 15:6 reports that the Israelites’ ancestor Abraham “believed in the Lord,” while Numbers 20:12 reports that Moses “did not believe.” Thus, Moses was smitten when in Exodus 4:6 God turned his hand white as snow. (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 97a.)

A Midrash employed a parable to explain why God held Aaron as well as Moses responsible when Moses struck the rock, as Numbers 20:12 reports, “and the Lord said to Moses and Aaron: ‘Because you did not believe in Me.’” The Midrash told how a creditor came to take away a debtor's granary and took both the debtor's granary and the debtor's neighbor’s granary. The debtor asked the creditor what his neighbor had done to warrant such treatment. Similarly, Moses asked God what Aaron had done to be blamed when Moses lost his temper. The Midrash taught that it on this account that Deuteronomy 33:8 praises Aaron, saying, “And of Levi he said: ‘Your Thummim and your Urim be with your holy one, whom you proved at Massah, with whom you strove at the waters of Meribah.’” (Numbers Rabbah 19:9.)

A Midrash interpreted the name “Mount Hor” (הֹר הָהָר, hor hahar) in Numbers 20:22 to mean a mountain on top of a mountain, like a small apple on top of a larger apple. The Midrash taught that the Cloud went before the Israelites to level mountains and raise valleys so that the Israelites would not become exhausted, except that God left Mount Sinai for the Divine Presence, Mount Hor for the burial of Aaron, and Mount Nebo for the burial of Moses. (Midrash Tanhuma Chukas 14.)

A Midrash noted the use of the verb “take” (קַח, kach) in Numbers 20:25 and interpreted it to mean that God instructed Moses to take Aaron with comforting words. The Midrash thus taught that Moses comforted Aaron by explaining to him that he would pass his crown on to his son, a fate that Moses himself would not merit. (Midrash Tanhuma Chukas 17; Numbers Rabbah 19:19.)

The Sifre taught that when Moses saw the merciful manner of Aaron’s death, Moses concluded that he would want to die the same way. The Sifre taught that God told Aaron to go in a cave, to climb onto a bier, to spread his hands, to spread his legs, to close his mouth, and to close his eyes, and then Aaron died. At that moment, Moses concluded that one would be happy to die that way. And that is why God later told Moses in Deuteronomy 32:50 that Moses would die “as Aaron your brother died on Mount Hor, and was gathered unto his people,” for that was the manner of death that Moses had wanted. (Sifre to Deuteronomy 339:3.)

A Midrash interpreted the words “all the congregation saw that Aaron was dead” in Numbers 20:29. The Midrash taught that when Moses and Eleazar descended from the mountain without Aaron, all the congregation assembled against Moses and Eleazar and demanded to know where Aaron was. When Moses and Eleazar answered that Aaron had died, the congregation objected that surely the Angel of Death could not strike the one who had withstood the Angel of Death and had restrained him, as reported in Numbers 17:13: “And he stood between the dead and the living and the plague was stayed.” The congregation demanded that Moses and Eleazar bring Aaron back, or they would stone Moses and Eleazar. Moses prayed to God to deliver them from suspicion, and God immediately opened the cave and showed the congregation Aaron’s body, as reflected by the words of Numbers 20:29 that “all the congregation saw that Aaron was dead.” (Numbers Rabbah 19:20.)

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