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Dvar Torah: Parshas Chukas

Once again, I have to speak at my mother’s shalosh seudos next Shabbos, so for once, I started preparing EARLY – like yesterday, on Shabbos.  I don’t write divrei Torah often and without a formal yeshiva or “seminary” education, even a baal teshuvah yeshiva/sem, fortunately don’t get tagged all that often.
But my mother seems to like having me speak, perhaps because it beats making her prepare all the food AND a dvar Torah.  So she picked me and I like to at least try to do a good job.  I think my divrei Torah tend to be on the weird and long side.  And generally, I don’t deliver them well – I just read them, rather than making rough notes and just SAYING them.  Well, we can’t all be gifted orators…
Previous summer divrei Torah:
And here’s where my wanderings led me this time around.  I have a few days, so feel free to fact-check, proof-read, and tear this thing to pieces if you’d like!

There’s a joke about a Jewish man who went to court over a parking ticket. He said “Your honour, I’m a Talmudic scholar and we spend our days analyzing sentences without punctuation and extracting every possible meaning. To me, the sign said, ‘Tow-away zone? No, parking!’ Anyway, they shouldn’t make it so confusing. Another sign nearby said, ‘Fine for parking here!’”
The Torah doesn’t come with punctuation. Sometimes, that confuses us or causes machlokes – dispute. But sometimes, that gives us tremendous freedom to play fast & loose with the meanings of the words.
This parsha starts with the narrative of the parah aduma, the red heifer, which was burnt to atone for various types of impurities among bnei Yisrael. And right afterwards, there’s a funny sentence:
יד. זֹאת הַתּוֹרָה אָדָם כִּי יָמוּת בְּאֹהֶל כָּל הַבָּא אֶל הָאֹהֶל וְכָל אֲשֶׁר בָּאֹהֶל יִטְמָא שִׁבְעַת יָמִים:
On the surface, the pshat / literal level, it means “This is the law: if a man dies in a tent, anyone entering the tent and anything in the tent shall be impure for seven days.” That’s what our great teacher Rashi says: the tent is impure along with anyone who enters while the body is still there. Clean-cut; simple.
But because it comes to us without punctuation, we can pick it apart – what freedom! We can prop up the first bit on its own: “Zos HaTorah: Adam ki yamus baohel” - “This is the law: a man should die in a tent.” Now that’s a bit different.
What’s a tent? We know from Bereishis, the beginning of the Torah that the Torah uses the word in connection with Avraham. After he became a Jew, Avraham was “יֹשֵׁב פֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל” – sitting at the mouth of his tent. But the word is used again in connection with Yaakov. Eisav, his wild, red, hairy brother, is called an “אִישׁ שָׂדֶה / ish sadeh,” a man of the fields – an animal! While Yaakov, is “יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים / yoshev ohalim” a refined dweller in tents.
Rashi explains that “tents” here refers to the yeshivas founded by Shem and Ever, the righteous sons of Noach. Tents, then, represent Torah, torah Study, a life of Torah.
Avraham sat at the entrance to the tent – he pointed the way. But Yaakov lived in a tent – he made it all the way inside. And now the parsha tells us we should die in a tent. What does that mean?
Of this week’s verse, the great Rambam, while he accepts the pshat (literal) explanation of Rashi, says there’s a hint with the following explanation: “Zos haTorah: Adam ki yamus” … “the Torah only endures for the one who dies for it in the tents of the wise.” More provocatively, we could also read it: “Adam, ki yamus baohel.” Ki, which means “because.”
It says in Pirkei Avos that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai used to say,
“אִם לָמַדְתָּ תּוֹרָה הַרְבֵּה, אַל תַּחֲזִיק טוֹבָה לְעַצְמָךְ, כִּי לְכָךְ נוֹצָרְתָּ.“
Don’t think so much of yourself just because you’ve learned a lot of Torah: it’s what we’re made for.
As Jews, Torah is what we’re born to do. But that still doesn’t explain what that means to “die” for it because we know we must prize life above almost all else. So what does it mean that Hashem put us here to “die in the tent of Torah?”
Two major events of this week’s parsha are joined by a thread, as it were – connected, but just barely.
The first is the Para Aduma, the red heifer and its purifying ashes. The second is the shortage of water and the ensuing rabble-rousing of the Jews. Incidentally, 38 years pass between them – hard to imagine since they seem to happen one after another, so quickly.
And the only thing linking the two events – the para adumah and the water shortage – is the death of Miriam, tzadekes and navi’ah. It’s the first memorable thing in 38 years. Amazing.
There are two lessons, two threads which connect these narratives. First, the death of a tzaddik or tzadekes is thought to atone for its generation. Miriam’s death purified her generation just as the ashes of the red heifer, the para adumah, purified them.
And then Rashi also learns from the water shortage right after Miriam’s death that the water must have appeared in the desert in her merit. [Actually, midrashim explain that there was a stone that followed bnei Yisrael around… not just any stone, but coincidentally, the same stone that gave water to Hagar and Yishmael when they were parched in the desert hundreds of years before. Amazing.]
So a tzadekes has died, taking with her some of the sins of her generation. Where’s the hoopla? Where’s the hesped, the eulogy? Moshe, who davened for Miriam just a couple of weeks ago, crying out to Hashem, “please Hashem, heal her now” is startlingly silent at her death.
When Aharon dies, later on in this same parsha, it says: “the entire house of Israel wept for Aaron for thirty days.” When Moshe dies “the sons of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab for thirty days.”
And for Miriam, what did they do? They ganged up to kvetch against Moshe and Aharon – there wasn’t any water. Not a tear, not a clue that their greatest asset has been lost. Who can survive half an hour in a desert without water?
So now we start to see who the Torah is hinting at when it says “Adam ki yamus ba-ohel.” The one person in the parsha who lived utterly this ideal of nullifying herself, of “dying” every day, for Torah was Miriam.
Dying not bodily over those thirty-eight years, but surely dying in the sense of killing off her own ego, of handing over the grandeur and hoopla, the thunder and lightning and accolades, to her younger brothers Moshe and Aharon.
Which makes sense when we think about Sarah Imeinu in Parshas Vayeira. While Avraham was sitting at the mouth of his tent, his three visitors (who are really melachim), ask him, אַיֵּה שָׂרָה אִשְׁתֶּךָ, “where is Sarah your wife?” His answer: הִנֵּה בָאֹהֶל - “Behold, in the tent.” This is taken midrashically as praise of her modesty and domestic virtue.
Tents, again. A very fitting topic for summer, a season of camping. A season of coming and going, a season of temporary living arrangements, and a season of transition from one activity to another.
Two women: tents for living and tents for dying. But these are really the same thing, because the type of “death” a person must experience for Torah isn’t really physical death – it’s the death of ego, it’s setting aside vanity and personal aspirations for the goodness of Torah.
There is a very strange and interesting line found near the end of this week’s parsha when it talks about the travels of bnei Yisrael in the desert:
עַל כֵּן יֵאָמַר בְּסֵפֶר מִלְחֲמֹת יְ־הֹוָ־ה אֶת וָהֵב בְּסוּפָה וְאֶת הַנְּחָלִים אַרְנוֹן:
B’sefer milchamos Hashem es vahev basufa.
“In the Book of the Lord’s battles, it is written, Vaheb in Suphah, and the valleys of Arnon.”
This is a surreal reference, hard to understand in the midst of some very concrete wanderings.
It’s sometimes translated as “‘What He gave at the Sea of Reeds and the Streams of Arnon.” But it’s still ambiguous – plus, the idea of the “Book of the Lord’s Battles” is never repeated anywhere in the Tanach. Was it an actual book, which was lost, or a metaphor which was never used again?
And what are the Lord’s battles, anyway? The actual little battles bnei Yisrael fought on their way to Israel are NOT recorded there – for example, the one in the next chapter against Sichon, kind of the Amorites. So swordplay is clearly not “the Lord’s battle.”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, chief Rabbi of England, says there’s a hint here – an important idea about machlokes - dispute:
Even a teacher and disciple, even a father and son, when they sit to study Torah together become enemies to one another. But they do not move from there until they have become beloved to one another. Therefore it says "Waheb in Suphah", meaning: there is love at the end. (Kiddushin 30b)
Where does this come from? The word “vahev” contains a bit of the root AHAV meaning love. Suf, besides meaning reeds, also contains the root word Sof meaning END.
Rabbi Sacks continues,
The phrase "the Wars of the Lord" [refers] to the debates within the House of Study, the dialogue and disputation about Jewish law and the meaning of sacred texts.
The Mishnaic, Talmudic and Midrashic literature are, for the most part, anthologies of argument: "Rabbi X says this, Rabbi Y says that." There is no attempt to gloss over the differences. To the contrary: the texts preserve not the conclusion of the debate but the debate itself.
The great and classic exception to this rule was the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah in which he attempted for the first time codify, to fossilize the actual LAW rather than the DEBATE. And as Rabbi Sacks says, this attempt “attracted more dispute and debate, commentaries and counter-commentaries, than almost any other work of Jewish law.”
In Pirkei Avos, we learn that a dispute for the sake of heaven will endure; it will last forever. While a dispute that is not for the sake of heaven will pass away; it will be forgotten.
When two sides fight, not with weapons but with ideas, they recognise that their very disagreement presupposes an agreement: about the value of argument itself. Two chess players may be bitter adversaries, but they agree on the rules of chess and their love of the game.
Most importantly, the chess players love the game more than they love THEMSELVES, just as the true “yoshevet ohalim” – the tent-dwelling woman – loves Torah more than she loves herself. Of her, we say she “dies” in her tent in the same sense that Sarah lived in her tent: modestly, privately – but powerfully enough to sustain an entire generation and even to atone for them.
Do you know how many Parah Adumahs were slaughtered in total during the years the Jews wandered with the Mishkan in the desert, and later, with the Bais HaMikdash in Yerushalayim? I was very wrong about this – I thought, like the korbanos of Yom Kippur – it was done every year. How many years were there between the time this mitzvah was given and our current exile?
  • · 440 years of the Mishkan wandering, including hundreds parked in Shiloh.
  • · 420 years of the first Bais HaMikdash
  • · Perhaps 420 years of the second Bais HaMikdash
So that’s about 1200 years of history (though some of those counts are fuzzy). And how many times did they do the mitzvah, this 397th positive mitzvah, to slaughter an unblemished red cow?
Nine times!  Midrash says, in fact, that the tenth parah adumah will be offered in the time of Moshiach.
I’m guessing you get a lot of ashes from one cow, so they didn’t need to do it that often. It was a very rare, and very special mitzvah. But the way the parsha describes it, there’s no way to differentiate the wording from that of lighting the menorah, which the kohein lit each and every night.
Okay, there IS one way to tell. Hashem says, unusually, “וּנְתַתֶּם אֹתָהּ אֶל אֶלְעָזָר הַכֹּהֵן” – give the cow to Elazar the kohein. Not to Aharon, which is Hashem’s way of hinting that Aharon is going to die soon and that this is a mitzvah more for the coming generations than for you. And the ashes, too: if they only burnt nine parah adumahs, they would have needed to find extraordinary ways to stretch those ashes through time, across generations.
All that is left to the imagination, and the mitzvah is described in such a matter-of-fact way you’d think it happened every day.
It’s the same with the death of Miriam. With Moshe’s death, and Aharon’s, the camp shuts down for 30 days. For Miriam’s death, they don’t even miss a single beat. You’d think a tzadekes like her happened along every single day. But like the Parah Adumah, she was rare and special. And her merit stretches through time and across the generations.
People often ask about the role of women in Torah Judaism. It troubles them because they can’t see us: we’re not on the bimah, not holding the Torah; we’re not always front and centre in the same way the men and boys are.
But that doesn’t mean we’re not here, and as we see from Miriam, that doesn’t mean that we and our Torah study are not truly sustaining our generation and most importantly, nurturing – WATERING – the coming generation. May we all merit to be fountains like Miriam, sustaining those around us – family, friends, and each other.


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