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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland

Parshas Chukas

And the people settled in Kadosh, and Miriam died there...there was no water for the congregation...the people quarreled with Moshe. (20:1,2,3.)

The people followed a pattern that has regrettably become typical: When events did not proceed in their favor, they either complained or protested. The Alshich Hakadosh notes that the Torah does not mention that they expressed grief over Miriam's loss, as it does regarding the deaths of Moshe and Aharon. Thus, he infers that they did not shed tears when Miriam died. Because they did not acknowledge her merit as the source of their water supply, they lost it. Being surrounded by kedushah, holiness, has little effect if one does not recognize and appreciate it.

We must address Klal Yisrael's reaction -- or lack thereof -- to the loss of Miriam. Chazal teach us that the battle with the yetzer hora, evil inclination, is a formidable one. They suggest a number of tactics an individual can employ to enable him to succeed in this battle. After attempting to struggle with the yetzer hora to no avail, one should study Torah diligently. If this strategy does not work, he should recite Krias Shema and accept upon himself the yoke of Heaven. If this course of action does not engender success, he is told to reflect upon his mortality, specifically the day of death which everyone must eventually confront. The fear of this forbidding moment should inspire the individual to overwhelm the evil-inclination and repent. The Talmud is apparently implying that the last approach, remembering yom ha'missah, the day of death, will secure one's ability to triumph over the yetzer hora. If so, we ask, how could Bnei Yisrael debate Moshe? How could they start a conflict immediately after Miriam's death? Did not the death of such a sainted leader serve as a "subtle" reminder of their own mortality?

In his Al Hatorah, Horav Mordechai Hakohen remarks that yom ha'missah certainly serves as a reminder - as a last resort. When it catalyzes machlokes, controversy, conflict, dispute, however, nothing, helps. They witnessed the tzaddeikas, Miriam Ha'neviyah, die. Did it leave an impression on them? No, because machlokes overrides everything - even one's own mortality. How often do we see elderly people - scholars who have devoted so much of their lives to Klal Yisrael - involved in controversy? Why? These adversarial relationships symbolize the overwhelming power of the yetzer hora of machlokes.

Regarding this the poets would come to Cheshbon, let it be built and established as the city of Sichon. (21:27)

In the Talmud Bava Basra78b, Rabbi Yochanan understands this pasuk differently. He contends that the word "moshlim," "rulers," refers to those who rule over themselves/their yetzer hora, evil inclination, while "cheshbon" means "reckoning." Those who govern their passion -- who are not controlled by their yetzer hora -- say, "Let us make a reckoning of the world: the loss that a mitzvah entails against its reward; the profit from a transgression against the loss it brings." In order to progress spiritually, one must triumph over the formidable challenge presented by the yetzer hora. The key to success is making a cheshbon, assessing what one gains and what one loses by everything that they do, whether good or bad. When one performs a mitzvah, the loss, if there is one, is temporary and miniscule in comparison to the everlasting reward he receives. For a transgression, the pleasure is fleeting and quickly forgotten; the loss, the harm that results, in contrast, is devastating and permanent.

Why does everyone not make this very simple reckoning? Some individuals do - at the end of their lives. After they have raised their families, they look back at their mistakes and how these errors affected the spiritual development of their families. For the most part, however, we tend to ignore the obvious. Indeed, most of us scrutinize a simple monetary investment much more than we weigh our actions prior to evading a mitzvah or even worse - performing an aveirah. We do not stop to think, because the yetzer hora does not give us the opportunity to do so. We are so involved in ourselves that we refuse to see what is happening to our lives. Because we do not stop to think, we do not balance the immense and everlasting benefits of a mitzvah against the epic and eternal loss incurred by sinning.

Horav Shalom Schwadron, zl, recounted the following story in conjunction with this Mishnah. One Shabbos night, after a shiur about the importance of weighing the value of a mitzvah, an elderly Jew came to him to tell the following story: After the first World War, prior to the Bolshevik rebellion, the Jews were finally permitted some form of freedom. Peaceful coexistence was in the air. Those Jews who were fortunate enough to have had invested in diamonds benefitted immensely from this reprieve in Jew-non-Jew hostility. "I was one of those who had a successful diamond business," said the Jew to Horav Schwadron. "Every morning I would be at my office in the diamond center at eight o'clock to get an early start on the trading. One day, I left somewhat earlier than usual, since I was carrying with me a large and expensive shipment of uncut diamonds, hoping to get an early start on the cutting and polishing. As I was walking, I heard someone shouting, 'A tzenter, a tzenter!' 'A tenth man for a minyan!' The man came over and begged me to join his minyan so that he could say Kaddish. Assuming that I was the tenth man and it would not take very long, I followed him to the shul. When I entered the shul, however, I was surprised to see that were only three other people waiting for the minyan.

"I attempted to leave , saying it would take all day to gather a minyan -- to no avail. The man begged me to stay so that he could say Kaddish on his father's yahrtzeit. I sat down in the corner of the shul and recited Tehillim with the hope that there would soon be a minyan. I was mistaken. Finally, at ten o'clock the minyan was assembled and Shacharis commenced. I told the man who so badly need the minyan that we were all present for him. Could he just speed it up? He responded angrily, 'It is my father's yahrtzeit, how can I speed up the davening? How would you like it if it was your father's yahrtzeit?' I saw that I was obviously not going to be at work until the afternoon, so I resigned myself to participating patiently with the minyan. Finally, davening ended, and I was able to leave. As I walked toward the diamond center carrying my bag of diamonds, I noticed a friend of mine running towards me, disheveled and shook up. 'Run from here,' he cried out to me. 'Escape. The Bolsheviks have rebelled against the government. As usual the Jews are their first victims. They have destroyed the diamond center and killed many Jews. They are now gathering their ill-gotten booty. Escape while you can!'

"I ran into the forest with my bag of diamonds. After a few days in hiding, I was able to return. I left Russia and eventually came to Eretz Yisrael. I was saved only because I had participated in a mitzvah. Had I ignored the man who needed the minyan, I would have gone to work and probably met the same fate as so many of my friends."

The merit of performing a mitzvah does not always immediately manifest itself. It is sometimes covert. We have only to open our eyes and look so that we might see it.

Hashem said to Moshe and the border of Edom saying...Aharon shall be gathered to his people...(20:23,24)

Rashi explains that the Torah juxtaposes Aharon's death upon Klal Yisrael's unfruitful dialogue with Edom because of a distinct relationship between the two. When Klal Yisrael attempted to join Eisav's descendants, they created a breach in their activities which resulted in the loss of Aharon. Why? How is Aharon's death associated with their attempt to establish diplomatic relations with Eisav? Horav Nissan Alpert,zl, cites the pasuk in Devarim 32:4, "The Rock, His work is perfect, for all His ways are justice." Hashem's rectitude in justice is manifest in that He will not punish a person if it will cause undue and unwarranted pain to another person. His justice is meticulous; only those whose behavior, for whatever reason, warrants punitive discipline will receive said punishment. Thus, if Aharon's time on this world had come to an end, he would not have died if his death would cause unjustified pain and anguish to others. Aharon would not have died at that moment because his death would have caused unjustified pain and grief. When the people submitted themselves to Edom, when they attempted to breach the separation between them by establishing a relationship with them, they created a rift between themselves and a tzaddik of Aharon's caliber. By becoming closer to Eisav, Bnei Yisrael distanced themselves from Aharon to the point that his death would not be as difficult for them to endure as it previously would have been. Hashem, therefore, decided to recall Aharon's soul to its source.

In a second approach, Horav Alpert reconsiders Aharon's involvement in the sin of the Golden Calf. Aharon allowed himself to participate in the Golden Calf, because he felt that if he protested Bnei Yisrael's iniquity, they would kill him. Hashem does not punish a person unless the spiritual damage he has inflicted is obvious. Only when Bnei Yisrael attempted to get close to Edom, an action which undermined their spiritual superiority, was the lesson clear: a relationship with evil or wicked people, regardless of their religious persuasion, is wrong and hazardous. It ultimately cannot produce positive results, even if the immediate results seem promising. Only misery and destruction will be the final product. The incident involving Bnei Yisrael and their attempted relationship with Edom was an indication that Aharon's reaction, although noble, was erroneous. Hashem called upon him to answer for his spontaneous participation in Chet HaAgel.

Take Aharon and Elazar his son...strip Aharon of his vestments and dress Elazar his son in them; Aharon shall be gathered in and die there. (20:25,26)

Aharon merited a unique and exalted departure from this world. The ritual of stripping him of his clothes, so that his son Elazar could don them seems a bit enigmatic. What really is the significance of removing Aharon's clothes prior to his death? If the underlying purpose had been that Aharon could see his son attired in the priestly vestments of the Kohen Gadol, it could have been accomplished without Aharon being dressed and then having his clothes removed. Apparently, the actual removing of Aharon's vestments plays an important role.

Horav Zaidel Epstein, Shlita, cites the Talmud Shabbos, 153A, wherein Rabbi Eliezer says one should repent one day prior to his death. Since no one really knows when his yom ha'missah, day of death, will occur, Rabbi Eliezer is really telling us to repent every day of our lives. If the purpose of this statement is to emphasize the importance of repenting every day, why not simply say, "Repent every day!"

The answer, claims Horav Epstein, lies in the apparent distinction between a person's emotions and his cognitive perception. Some people recite Vidui as often as twice a day. They daily say Tachanun, which is a prayer that focuses upon man's acknowledgement of sin and its devastating powers. This does not have much of an effect on them. Their submission to physical and material temptations preclude them from perceiving the truth. On the day of his death man confronts his own mortality. He is at the end of the rope, time when excuses are no longer valid. At that point, he becomes regretful and remorseful, so that he can truly repent.

This is the meaning of the statement, "Repent one day before you die!" One should always sense that his time is limited. He does not know when his sojourn on this earth will come to an end, so that his teshuvah will be more meaningful. When an individual confronts his mortality, he must respond with sobering seriousness.

The effect of yom ha'missah has a more profound impact upon someone of Aharon Hakohen's caliber than on the average person. He understands the meaning of life and what one can accomplish with the time allotted to him. His life is an acknowledgement of this fact. He lives every moment l'shem Shomayim, with a purpose, for the sake of Heaven. Thus, his teshuvah is effected by this reality.

For a tzaddik, the end creates an almost paradoxical feeling. On the one hand, he experiences the usual fear and anxiety that accompanies a person at this moment. On the other hand, he experiences another type of fear - one of awe and excitement, almost a feeling of joy, as the tzaddik, who has lived a life true to Torah, of purity, sanctity and virtue, realizes that he has achieved a form of perfection. He has attained the tiara of success for a life well-lived.

Aharon earned the kesser Kehunah, crown of Priesthood. He secured this crown of distinction by living a life of distinction. He totally devoted his life to Hashem and His mitzvos, never deviating, never cross-examining Hashem's Providence, never disputing His mitzvos. He reached the summit of avodas Hashem, service to the Almighty. Hashem notified him that today was the most auspicious day of his life. Today he had achieved perfection. It was the culmination of a life of perfection. Today, the kesser Kehunah that was his would be transferred to Elazar, his son. Today, he would don the sacred vestments that he exemplified and observe as they were given over to Elazar. Aharon saw how not only his position in life was consigned to his son, but even his achievements, symbolized by his crown of Kehunah, were transmitted to him.


1. How many black hairs on a Parah Adumah make it pasul?
2. Which avodah regarding the Parah Adumah may be performed by a Yisrael?
3. Does one have to touch a corpse in order to become tamei tumas meis?
4. In whose merit did Klal Yisrael have the well?
5. When Bnei Yisrael arrived at Har Hahor, were there any Jews remaining from the original decree who were not permitted to enter Eretz Yisrael?
6. All Jews felt Aharon's loss. Why?
7. Why is Hashem's Name not mentioned in the Shiras HaBe'er?


1. Two.
2. Shechitah.
3. No. If he has touched a reviis of blood from a corpse, he becomes tamei.
4. Miriam.
5. No - They had all died by that time.
6. Aharon loved and pursued peace. He made every effort to promote harmonious relations between man and his fellowman, between husband and wife.
7. Since Moshe's name is excluded because he was punished as a result of water, Hashem did not want His Name to be included either.

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