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   by Jacob Solomon

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1. What do the various aspects of purification by means of the ashes of the red cow symbolize, according to the Midrash quoted by Rashi?

2. What is the connection between the death of Miriam and the sudden lack of water according to (a) Rashi and (b) the Alshich?

3. What was the actual nature sin connected with the incident of Moses' striking the rock according to (a) Rashi (b) the Rambam (in the Shemoneh Perakim) and (c) Abarbanel?

4. What lesson in good manners may be learnt from the way in which Moses phrased his request to the king of Edom to grant passage through his country

5. Why was Aaron so deeply mourned by all Israel - following the tradition quoted by Rashi?

6. Why, according to Abarbanel, did the Israelites dismiss the Manna as 'insubstantial food' (21:5)?

7. The miraculous event that caused the Israelites to burst out in song is described in the text as 'the outpourings of the rivers… leaned against the border of Moab, and from there to the well' (21:15-16). What actual miracle does the above source describe according to the Midrashic source quoted by Rashi?

8. Why, according to the Ramban, did Moses extend peace to Sihon, King of the Amorites, and ask him for permission to pass through his land (21:21-22) - instead of directly going to war with him, as his lands were the Trans-Jordan part of the Holy Land?


1. The various aspects of purification by means of the ashes of the red cow symbolize the following. The 'red' characteristic of the cow symbolizes sin (c.f. Isaiah 1:18). The cow was never to have worn a yoke, which represents the sinner who cast off G-d's yoke. It was burnt - just as Aaron had used fire in the making of the Golden Calf. (Ex. 30:22). The bringing together of cedar wood, hyssop, and thread dyed with the worm's blood combines the sinner who had been as haughty as a cedar tree, with his need to humble himself like the hyssop and the worm. And just as the sin of the Golden Calf had never been entirely forgiven (Ex. 32:34, see Rashi ad loc.), similarly the ashes of the red cow were to be preserved (19:9).

2. The connection between the death of Miriam and the sudden lack of water according to (a) Rashi is because the water that followed the Israelites came specifically in the merits of Miriam. (b) The Alshich points out that the Israelites are not recorded to have actually wept at Miriam's death, as they did at the deaths of Moses and Aaron. Because they did not shed tears at the death of Miriam, the source of their water dried up, for it was as if her merit did not matter to them.

3. Rashi holds that the sin was in striking the rock rather than speaking to it, as they were commanded. Had he spoken to the rock, it would have taught the Israelites a salutary lesson: if the insensitive rock obeys G-d, how much more should they do. The Rambam focuses on the misplaced anger implied in Moses' rebuke to the Israelites - Listen you rebels! (20:10). He points out the text does not state that G-d was angry about the Israelites' quite understandable vociferous demand for water. Abarbanel agrees with Rashi that the immediate cause of the punishment was because of striking, rather than speaking to the rock - but he holds there were underlying causes, namely previous events. Aaron had been involved in the Golden Calf and Moses (see Rashi on 13:2) had chosen to send the Spies despite G-d's strong hints that no good would come out of it. Both events had caused national suffering. It was wrong, explains Abarbanel, that the very leaders, who could have prevented those events, should have been allowed to enter when the Israelites were excluded. Therefore when they committed a sin which was worthy of some punishment, G-d chose to keep them out of the Promised Land, like the rest of their generation.

4. The words 'we shall not drink from the water of the well' (20:17) is understood by Rashi to mean that they will not even drink water from their own traveling supplies. Implied is a lesson - when one travels, one should do business with the country. In other words, support the host by eating at the local restaurant rather than bring sandwiches.

5. According to the tradition quoted by Rashi, Aaron was deeply and universally mourned because he pursued peace, going out of his way to bring harmony between adversaries, and between man and wife. See Ethics of the Fathers, 1:12.

6. Following Abarbanel, the Israelites dismissed the Manna as 'insubstantial food' because they realized that they were soon to enter the Land. Though the manna sustained them in the spiritual life in the wilderness, they did not think it would be sufficient for the heavy agricultural work they would have to do in the future.

7. Following Midrashic sources, the miraculous event that caused the Israelites to burst out in song is alluded to, rather than actually described, in the Torah. 'The outpourings of the rivers… leaned against the border of Moab, and from there to the well' (21:15-16) refers to the following. The rivers of blood going 'towards the well' signaled to the Israelites that G-d had performed a miracle on their behalf. For the Amorites had planned to ambush the Israelites as they passed through a deep gorge near the Moabite border. [My question - could that gorge be today's Wadi Petra?] They hid in caves over a narrow pass, ready to push huge boulders down upon the Israelites as they came though. By miracle, the cliffs forming the walls of the gorge moved together and the stone outcrops on each side crushed the hidden Amorites. The Israelites only realized how they had been saved when they saw their blood flowing down the gorge towards the well.

8. According to the Ramban, the east bank of the Jordan was not originally planned to be conquered and settled until the main part of the Holy Land was in Israelite hands. Therefore Moses at this stage only wanted permission to pass through. His making peaceful overtures for peace follows his own understanding of Deut. 20:10, whereby the Israelites were required to attempt to make peace with even the Canaanites in the Holy Land, and only go to war if they resisted.


The Torah records that Sichon did not allow the Israelites to pass through his land (21:23). Elsewhere, however, the Torah gives the reason for Sichon's barring passage to the Israelites: "for G-d had hardened his spirit… in order to give him in your hand…" (Deut. 2:30). If G-d deprived Sichon of free choice, why were he and his people destroyed to the last human being (21:35; Deut. 2:34)?

My attempts to answer the above may be found on the Shema Yisrael website under Chukat 5761

Other Parashiot from previous years may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site:

Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.

Also by Jacob Solomon:
Between the Fish and the Soup

From the Prophets on the Haftara


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