Weekly Reading Insights

Chukat 5763

Overview of the Weekly Reading: Chukat (outside Israel: Korach)
To be read on 5 Tamuz 5763 (July 5)

Torah: Num.19:1-22:1; Haftorah: Judges 11:1-23 (Messengers to Edom)

Pirkei Avot - Chapter Five

Stats: Chukat , 6th Reading out of 10 in Numbers and 39th overall, contains 3 positive mitzvot and 0 prohibitive mitzvot. It is written on 159 lines in a parchment Torah scroll, 39nd out of 54 in overall length.

Overview: Chukat opens with G-d's command to slaughter a red heifer, and to use its ashes to purify anyone who had become impure by contact with corpses. The water that the Jews drank in the desert was miraculously provided in merit of Miriam the prophetess, Moses' sister, whose passing is described. When the Jews complained about the subsequent lack of water, G-d tells Moses to speak to a certain rock. After Moses hits the rock instead, Moses and Aaron are punished with a decree that they will not merit to enter the Land. Next, the Jews seek passage through the Land of Edom, but the Edomites refuse them entry, and the Jews must go around. Following this, Aaron passes away on Hor Hahar. When the Canaanite king of Arad hears that the Jews are nearing his land, he wages war with them. G-d fulfills the Jews' appeal to allow them to defeat the Canaanites and conquer their land, which they dedicate to G-d in return for their victory. The Jews complain to Moses again, and G-d sends poisonous snakes to punish them. Moses prays on behalf of the Jews, and so G-d instructs him to make a figure of a snake. Moses makes a copper snake, places it aloft on a pole, and those who were bitten are cured by gazing up at the copper snake. Next, the Torah relates the details concerning some of the places where the Jews traveled, and also the Song of the Well. The Reading concludes relating the Jews' defeat of Sichon and Og, two very powerful kings, and the conquest of their lands.


"This is the statute of the Torah... and they shall take to you a red heifer…." (19:2)

In speaking of the laws of the red heifer, the Torah states, "This is the statute of the Torah," not just the statute of the red heifer. The red heifer has the power to purify one who was defiled, yet those who partake in the preparation of the red heifer become defiled. The verse is teaching us one of the basic lessons of the Torah, that we are obligated to help our fellow Jew, even if it requires sacrifice.

(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)

"…Which has no blemish, which has never borne a yoke." (19:2)

If a person sees himself as "without blemish," confident that he has already reached perfection, it is a sure sign that he "has never borne a yoke" -- he has never accepted the yoke of heaven. Otherwise he would understand that he is still full of flaws and imperfections...

(The Seer of Lublin)



Selected with permission and adapted from the three-volume English edition of Shney Luchot HaBrit -- the Sh'lah, as translated, condensed, and annotated by Eliyahu Munk.
Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (1565-1630), known as the 'Sh'lah' - an acronym of the title, was born in Prague. A scholar of outstanding reputation, he served as chief Rabbi of Cracow, and more famously, of Frankfort (1610-1620). After his first wife passed away, he remarried and moved to Israel in 1621, where he became the first Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Jerusalem. He later moved to Tiberias, where he is buried, near the tomb of the Rambam.

Generally speaking, the term gezeirot HaMakom, decrees of the Omnipresent, is understood to imply decrees that cannot be explained rationally. This is also the way Maimonides explains this term in the mishna in Berachot (ch. 5, mishna 3), where we are told that if someone claims that the law of chasing away the mother-bird prior to taking its young (Deut.22:6) is an expression of G-d's mercy, such a person must be stopped, since we must not interpret G-d's laws as being based on human sensitivities. G-d's laws do not need a rationale in order for us to observe and cherish them. Maimonides was attacked for having made such a statement, as is well known. At any rate, if it is as Maimonides says, then all the commandments are merely decrees that need not be investigated as to their specific rationale.

There is an illuminating comment by the Maharam from Padua, on the Sefer HaMada of Maimonides, commenting on the miracle by which the world was created and how strange (contradictory) it is that certain celestial bodies are sources of light, while others only reflect light, having none of their own to give. Some stars race around the universe; others travel at a leisurely pace. Some natural phenomena exude heat, others cold. All these phenomena are examples of contradictions. Nonetheless, they are all part of the same universe. What is so strange then if the Torah contains some laws that appear contradictory? On the contrary, nothing could be a greater proof of the Divine authenticity of Torah than these so called contradictions. Had Torah been man-made legislation, surely it would have reflected the lawgiver's "consistency!" Surely, when G-d created Nature, He did so with intelligence! This then must be our answer when confronted by those who claim that the Torah's commandments are devoid of reason, only intended to assert G-d's authority over His creatures.

Our answer to such arguments must be that this would be a very poor way for G-d to win adherents to His law. Surely, if He had only wanted to secure our obedience, He would have legislated only laws that we could comprehend, and which by their logic would make us accept Him as our supreme authority! The only reason then that He legislated such apparently illogical laws must be that they are beneficial for us, though we do not understand how--a condition due to the limitation of our perceptive faculties!

(adapted from Torat Moshe - the 16th commentary of Rabbi Moshe Alshech of Zefat on the Torah, as translated and condensed in the English version of Eliyahu Munk)

An essay from Rabbi Shaul Yosef Leiter, director of Ascent

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(W:39-63 Chukat)

"And G-d said...this is the law of the Torah... take to yourself a pure red heifer that has no blemish, that never bore a yoke." (Num. 19:1-2)

Regarding the words "pure red", the word "pure" modifies the redness. The heifer has to be pure red to the extant that if it grows even two black hairs in its first year, it is disqualified. The Sefat Emet writes that people are also commanded to be "pure". While an animal is allowed two black hairs before it is disqualified, even the smallest misstep causes us to lose the title "pure". It is true that when we stand in front of the Heavenly Court to be judged, we will not be alone in having transgressed. The person about whom it can be said "This one is pure" is indeed truly special.

There have been a total of nine red heifers in the history of the Jewish people, from the first one in the desert until the destruction of the Second Temple. The Midrash says that the tenth and last heifer will be found just before the arrival if Mashaich. Since Mashiach will cause the Third Temple to be built, we will need the ash of the red heifer to purify ourselves before we can serve in the Temple. Every once in a while you hear in the news in Israel that a red heifer was found, but so far none have made it through the first year. May it be the will of the Almighty that we all merit to live in the times when the tenth red heifer is found.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe speaks about the difference between the word Korach - the name of last week's reading and Chukat, the name if this week's reading: Both words have the letters chet and kuf which spell chok, which means "law" in Hebrew. In addition, the word Korach has a reish and Chukat has a tav. Let's compare these two letters to the letter hei, the last letter of G-d's Ineffable Name, and the best model for how we are supposed to act in relation to the world:

On the right side of the hei is a full vertical line, exemplifying speech. The small line on the left exemplifies action. Korach was an evil person, consumed by his ego, who rebelled against Moses and Aaron. His name is appropriately spelled with a reish, telling us (relating to the letter hei) that when it came to true action, he was empty, lacking. Tav, on the other hand, has a full left line. What is the secret of being able to act in a correct and complete way? The secret is the tiny fraction of a line that we find at the left base of the tav. This is to tell us that to fulfill our purpose properly, we have to be humble and nullified to G-d's Will. Once this has been accomplished, we will always be able to properly complete the actions that are required of us.

The Kotzker Rebbe said that someone who sees himself as complete, who after self-examination feels he has no negative qualities, has a sure sign that he has not yet truly taken on himself the yoke of heavenly service. Anyone who does so sincerely will see that he is not perfect and has a long way to go to serve the Almighty properly.

In the book Divrei Torah, it is written that the opening verse contains a directive as to how our service to G-d should be: Pure - when we are commanded to do a mitzva, we should do so purely, without complaining or looking for excuses. No blemish - we should do our service in a complete way, not leaving anything out. No yoke - we should not view the commandments as a burden.

In the middle of the reading, we find that Moses was denied entrance to the Land of Israel. After the death of Miriam, the well that supplied the water for the Jewish people in the desert dried up. The people complained about the lack of water. Moses was commanded to gather all the people together and publicly command a certain rock, identified with the well, to renew the water supply. That the rock responded to Moses' words would have constituted a sanctification of G-d's name. The Midrash explains the course of events that brought Moses to hit the rock, instead of simply speaking, and not just once but twice! (Me'am Loez describes it very beautifully - I suggest everyone read it.) In the confusion, Moses yelled at the watching masses calling them "rebels". While there are different opinions about what exactly Moses had done wrong, the Rambam says he was not punished because of hitting the rock, but rather because Moses became angry at the Jewish people. Even if they deserved to be reprimanded, G-d expected more of a person of Moses' stature.

The Shla writes that we all should take a lesson from this about how much the Almighty values our acting properly. Especially in public, where an outsider who is watching can judge the entire Jewish nation because of something we do individually, it is very important to be in control as much as we can.

Had Moses been allowed into the Land, he would have conquered the inhabiting nations and built the First Temple. In Moses' merit, the Temple would not have been destroyed, and this long and bitter exile we are in would never have begun. So much lost because of anger!

Chasidut explains that there is a positive side. When we finally do enter the Land, it will be with Moses at our head. Moses was the first redeemer, and the soul of Moses, reincarnated in the leader of the generation, will be the final redeemer that ushers in the end of the exile. He did not lose out completely. Rather G-d was saving him for the last "Hurrah!" May we see it soon!


Shabbat Shalom, Shaul Leiter

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