Chukat (Law)

ChukatNumbers 19:1 to 22:1

Thirty-eight years have passed since last week’s parsha. A lot has changed. Most of the Israelites who left Egypt have died. The deaths of Miriam and Aaron are told in the text. Moses learns he will not enter the Promised Land.

This week’s parsha begins with a detailed discussion of the law regarding the Red Heifer. We don’t know when this law was given to Moses. But, the text tells us that 38 years have passed since the events we have previously read.

In the 38th year we see that most of the adults who left Egypt have died. In fact, both Miriam and Aaron both die in this parsha. Then, Moses learns that he will die before entering the Promised Land…. We also learn that the younger Israelites actually participate in and win a few battles on their way to Canaan. They are now prepared for the battles that are sure to come as they enter the Promised Land.

As we have seen in the past, Torah often presents brief highlights of the lives of major individuals. Rabbis have often filled in missing information with midrash (stories) that reflect how they understood the Torah…. Following are two such midrash.


Episodes involving Miriam in Torah are often associated with water. In Exodus, Miriam watches over Moses as he is placed in the Nile…. Later at the Sea of Reeds, Miriam leads the women in song and dance. In this week’s reading, Miriam’s death is told in a single verse. “The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there.” (Num. 20:1) That’s all that is said about her death. However, it is significant because the deaths of very few women are even mentioned in Torah.

Regarding Miriam’s relation to water, many Torah commentators through the ages have noted that the text after her death tells us that the Israelites had a lack of water. The midrash tales tells us that while the Israelites traveled through the wilderness they received their water from a specific rock that was provided by God. The rock had holes like a honeycomb through which the water flowed as needed. When the people changed locations, the rock followed them by rolling on its own to the new site. It was felt that the rock was given to the people because of the faith that Miriam had in God. When she died, the rock stopped producing water.

The rock/source of water became know as Miriam’s Well. Today many people place a glass of water on the Passover table to remind us of Miriam and her association with both water and this well.


When the water stopped after Miriam’s death, the people went to Moses and complained. God saw that Moses and Aaron were troubled and spoke to Moses: “You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Then you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts.” (Num. 20:8-9)

God told Moses to go to “the rock.” There are lots of rocks in the wilderness and the Eternal didn’t say go to “a rock”… or go to “any rock” … Moses was told to go to “the rock.” …. Many midrash commentators have indicated that Moses is to go to the same rock that produced water for Miriam. Then, when Moses found “the rock,” he said: “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock.” Then, Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod the water began to flow. (Num. 20:0-11)

After the water was flowing, the Eternal One spoke to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.”
(Num. 20:12)

Commentators through the ages have seen this punishment as excessive. Moses led the people for forty years and devoted all his energy to preparing for the day they would enter the Promised Land…. Now, Moses was denied his ultimate quest. This seemed very unjust. Following is a midrash that explains this episode in a sympathetic manner.

God came to Moses before Miriam died and told Moses that there was a problem. All the adults who left Egypt, except Caleb and Joshua, would die before entering the Promised Land. But, with the arrival of the “end-of-days” all those who died will be reborn and will enter this special land. Moses asked why this was a problem. The Eternal continued by saying that these people would need a leader to show them the way…. And, that leader should be Moses because he was their leader while they lived.

Then Moses interrupted and stated that, if he died before entering the land, it would be assumed that he died for the same reason as the others… a lack of faith in the Eternal. Moses stated that he had faith and didn’t want to be remembered in this manner.

God told Moses that this response was one that, even if it was false, could be understood in this manner. So, God presented a solution to Moses….. Between the time of this meeting and the time that the Israelites entered the Promised land, God would create a different situation where Moses would be punished by not being able to enter the Land…. And it came to pass that God informed Moses that he couldn’t enter the Land because of his actions in obtaining water for the Israelites.

Moses was punished for a different reason than the other Israelites..,. And when the time comes Moses will be able to lead his people into the Promised Land.

Here are two midrash tales that are based on information in the Torah. and the unique thoughts of their authors. These midrash stories help us to understand Torah where information is missing.

Earl Sabes

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