Congregation Beth El–Keser Israel

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Parashat Huqat Devar Torah

Chadesh yimenu k’kedem
Renew our days as of old.
There’s an inherent contradiction there:
Make our days new like the old times.
How do we reconcile that tension?

Over the years I’ve thought
Of many different things
When I say those words,
Many different ways of thinking
About the old days through which
We will become new.

One of the things I think about is my father,
Meir Elya ha-Levi ben Yitzchok v’Dincha.
Meir Elya the Levite,
Who died a slow death,
And whose garments I wear.

I give this drash in his memory.

* * *

This is the parshah of the red heifer,
Of a death that purifies.

It is the parshah of the death of Miriam
And the parshah of the death of Aaron.

These three deaths bind up the parshah,
And they are bound together.

Miriam’s death comes suddenly,
In a lowland:

“And the Israelites, the whole community,
Kol ha-eydah,
Came to the Wilderness of Zin,
In the first month,
And the people stayed in Kadesh.
And Miriam died there
And she was buried there.”

Kol ha-eydah,
The whole community, came.
Miriam died and was buried.
We have no hint of mourning.

Aaron’s death comes slowly,
In a highland:

“They went up Hor the mountain
Before the eyes of all the community, kol ha-eydah.
And Moses stripped
Aaron of his garments
And put them on
Eleazar his son,
And Aaron died there on the moutaintop,

And Moses came down,
And Eleazar with him,
From the mountain.
And all the community
Saw that Aaron had expired,
And all the house of Israel
Keened for Aaron thirty days.”

The differences are manifest:
Sudden death, slow death;
High death, low death;
Silent death, mourning death.

* * *

This is a story of a family’s loss,
A band of three siblings loses two,
Leaving behind only the stuttering Moses,
The man who even as an adult
Talks far more often with his brother and sister
Than with his wife and son.

And it’s a story of a people’s loss

Their loss of the woman
Who led them in song and dance,
Who gave them
Water in the desert,

Their loss of their priest,
The people’s priest,
A man who would raise them up
When he could –
And build them a golden calf
When he couldn’t.

A man who, at his greatest hour,
Stood between them and death –
A fire pan his only shield.

And it is the story of how G-d
Moved from the death of Miriam
To the death of Aaron.

* * *

In focusing on these two deaths,
I’m hoping to offer an answer
To what may be the parshah’s hardest question.

This is the parashah
Of the striking of the rock,
The smack with the stick

That kept Moses and Aaron
Forever from the Promised Land.

G-d tells Moses
To talk to the rock,
So that it will give water,
And instead he hits it.

But why are Moses and Aaron
Punished so severely
For this seemingly small infraction?

One smack with a stick:
Is this an act worthy
Of brothers suffering unending exile,
Of eternal homelessness?

* * *

To understand this week,
We need to return to last week:

To the parshah of the rebels,
Korach and Datan and Aviram,
Men who asked: who are Moses and Aaron
To set themselves above us?

There the drama begins.

Moses tells them to take their fire pans
And put incense on it.
Korach obeys,
But not alone,
And not just with the rebels:
Vayak’hayl aleyhem Korach et kol ha-eydah el petach ohel moeyd.
“Korach gathered the whole community
kol ha-eydah
Against them at the Tent of Meeting.”

G-d then appears before
the whole community, kol ha-eydah.
And tells Moses and Aaron
To stand back
So that he can destroy this community.

Moses and Aaron plead with G-d not to.
“When one man sins, will you be angry
With the whole community, kol ha-eydah?”

G-d relents,
And tells them to tell the community
To get away
From the homes of Korach, Datan and Aviram.

The community moves,
And in one of the more graphic scenes in B’Midbar,
We read that
“Datan and Aviram had come out
And they stood at the entrance of their tents,
With their wives, their children, and their little ones”

And then “the earth opened its mouth
And swallowed them up with their households,
All Korach’s people and all their possessions.

They went down alive into Sheol,
With all that belonged to them
The earth closed over them
And they vanished from the midst of the congregation.

All Israel around them fled at their shrieks,
For their said, ‘The earth might swallow us!’”

Immediately afterward, Korach’s people
Were destroyed as well: a fire from the L-rd
Consuming the 250 men with the fire pans.

And then, at G-d’s command,
Aaron’s son Eleazar is told to
“Strip the fire pans
From the charred remains.
Scatter the coals.
Korach’s fire pans have become holy.
Hammer them into sheets
And use them to plate the altar,
As a constant reminder
Of what happened to Korach and his band.”

* * *

What would you think the people
Would be like the next day,
After seeing the earth open its mouth
And swallow children whole,
After seeing fire annihilate Korach and his band,
After seeing Eleazar stripping the fire pans
From the charred remains
And hammering them into plating for the altar?

Well, the very next day,
Kol ha-eydah – again, the whole community –
Rallied against Moses and Aaron,
Saying “You two have brought death
On the L-rd’s people!”

Moses and Aaron turn
To the Tent of Meeting
And see that a cloud has covered it;
G-d’s Presence has appeared.
When they reach it, G-d tells Moses
“Remove yourselves from this community
And I will annihilate them in an instant.”

They fall on their faces,
But there’s no negotiating this time.
The Torah doesn’t tell us why.
Did they fear G-d’s anger?
Did they know negotiations would fail?
Did they know there was no time for negotiations?

Instead of bargaining,
They huddle, brother to brother:
Moses tells Aaron to take his fire pan,
Fill it with fire from the altar and incense,
And make atonement for the eydah;
The plague has begun.

Aaron takes his fire pan –
And runs ran to the midst of the eydah.

* * *

His act is provocative in every way.

G-d has just told him
“Remove yourself from this eydah,”
Yet Aaron steps into its midst –
In the very moment of threatened annihilation.

And in violating the order to remove himself,
He carries with him a fire pan and incense,
The very objects that, when misused just a day ago,
Led to the instant incineration of 250 chieftains,
And longer ago but impossibly closer,
The objects that his own sons,
Nadiv and Avihu, carried with them
When fire came forth from G-d and ate them.

Aaron’s act is provocative not only to G-d,
But also to kol ha-eydah.

Just moments ago these people blamed
Him and his brother
For bringing death raining down on them,
And now, death has come again:
A plague spreading like wild fire.

But as his brother’s word,
Aaron stands in the midst of everything –

In the midst of G-d’s anger,
In the midst of the anger of the community.
In the midst of death.

And there, he adds the incense
And makes atonement.

We might have forgiven him
If he had quickly run
Back to the Tent of Meeting
After making atonement.

But the parshah tells us that
“He stood between the dead and the living
Until the plague was stopped.”

Stood literally at the cusp of death,
Himself a barrier
Powerful enough to hold back G-d’s anger.

G-d had promised annihilation;
Aaron caused G-d to change His mind.

* * *

What changed G-d’s mind?

Was it Aaron’s careful technical ritual work –
His adding of incense to make atonement?

Was it his selfless decision to charge into the midst of danger?
His heroic decision to stay in the midst of danger,
Even when his task was done?

His willingness to risk the people’s anger?

His willingness to risk G-d’s anger,
To transgress the command to
Remove himself from the community?
The Torah doesn’t tell us.

[It’s as if Aaron knows
The halakhic principle of A
l-tifrosh min ha-tzibur,
Don’t separate yourself from the community,
Centuries before the rabbis deduce it.

And as if he knew too that it trumped
Even the word of G-d.

Some will think here of carob trees,
Streams that change their course,
The walls of the house of study.]

* * *

What the Torah does tell us
Is that 14,700 people died
In this sudden plague.

It’s a precise number.
And it invites immediate comparison
To the number we heard just a few verses earlier:

Why did only 250 die
From Korach’s active rebellion,
But 14,700 die
For a single line of passive complaint:
“You two have brought death on the L-rd’s people.”

This single line of lament,
Of blame and complaint,
May not seem so surprising, or egregious.

They had seen Moses tell the eydah
To step away
From the tents of Dathan and Aviram,
And a moment later

The earth had swallowed them
And their wives and children.

They had seen Aaron tell
Korach and 250 Israelite chieftains
To put fire in their pans,
And a moment later
The hundreds of dignitaries
Were consumed in fire,
Mere charred remains
In whose midst
Eleazar picked out
The now-ownerless fire pans.

So hadn’t it looked like
Moses and Aaron Had brought death?


These people traveled
With the Presence of G-d
All their desert years,
And still,
When these unprecedented events
Take the lives of the rebels,

The people see Moses and Aaron
As the agents of death.
They rebel still against Moses and Aaron,

But more importantly they are
Confusing Moses and Aaron for G-d.
G-d rained death on the rebels:
Moses and Aaron just told the bystanders to stand clear.

And it is not just a few people –
Not just Korach and his allies –
But kol ha-eydah that now rallies
Against Moses and Aaron.

So one explanation of the much higher death toll
The second time around
Is kol ha-eydah’s ongoing failure
To see that G-d is in their midst.

If opening the mouth of the ground
And having it swallow families alive
The very day before
Is not enough to remind them
That G-d is in their midst –

What will ever remind them?
What hope is there for the Israelite project?
Maybe annihilation is the only choice.

* * *

This explanation suggests
Not just a severe and harsh G-d,
But also a deliberative G-d,
A G-d who hears kol ha-eydah’s response,
Considers it in recent context,
Judges kol ha-eydah,
And executes judgment –
Until Aaron’s provocative courage halts the execution.

There’s another way to see it too:
G-d as not deliberative, but reactive,
Still angry from yesterday’s rebellion,
From the rebels’ flouting
Of Moses and Aaron’s leadership.
That anger is now rekindled
By kal ha-eydah again attacking Moses and Aaron.

It’s too much in too short a time,
And G-d lashes out.
Moses and Aaron know
That this time,
Unlike last time,
The anger is too extreme
To be spoken to.

When Moses tells Aaron
To take the fire pan and incense
And run into the midst of the community,
He also tells Aaron why:
“for the fury has gone out from before the L-rd.”
The word for “fury” here
is qetsef, which Robert Alter tells us
connotes a “foaming wrath,”
an almost animalistic anger.

Moses and Aaron haven’t read Pirkei Avot
But they seem to know what
Rabbi Shimon ben Eleazar says there:

“Don’t appease your friend at the height of his anger;
Don’t comfort him while his dead still lies before him;
Don’t ask him about his vow the moment he makes it;
And don’t try to see him at the time of his disgrace.”

Rabbi Shimon’s categories apply:
G-d is at the height of His anger; He foams with qetsef.
His dead lie before Him: His own children.
And He has just made a vow – of annihilation.

Is G-d also, in this moment,
At the time of His disgrace,
With G-d on the verge
Of slaughtering his own people?

It is a difficult question,
But one that brings us, I think,
To the deaths of Miriam and Aaron.

* * *

One thing to notice
About the number 14,700
Is that it promises reduction:
It moves toward its own diminishment.

There is a half-life logic to it,
An inherent halving:
14 in the thousands category,
Then 7, half-14, in the hundreds.

In this promise of reduction,
We move toward zero,
Though we will never reach it.

Just after the number of dead is given,
Parshat Korach turns suddenly.

G-d tells Moses to take,
From the chieftain of each tribe,
A staff: mateh.
And Moses would then write
The chieftain’s name on each staff,
With Aaron’s name
On the staff of the Levites,
And he would take the staffs
To the Tent of Meeting,

And then, the text tells us,
“The staff of the man whom I choose
Will sprout,
And I will rid Myself
Of the incessant mutterings
Of the Israelites against you.”

The movement here is enormous.
The moment after the number of dead are announced,
We know that rebelliousness endures:
The “incessant mutterings” still exist.

But G-d’s anger has disappeared.
Instead of the mouth of the earth opening
To swallow whole families,

Instead of the incineration of hundreds,
A plague killing thousands,

G-d turns now to a symbolic magic,
And to a very particular form of symbolic magic:
Sprouting, a symbol of life, not death.

And not just sprouting, but a sprouting stick:
The refined reverting to nature,
An object of force and power that will flower.

Moses collects the staffs
And brings them to the Tent.

The next day Moses enters the Tent

“and there the staff of Aaron
Of the house of Levi had sprouted;
It had brought forth sprouts,
Produced blossoms, and borne almonds.”

Sprouting is mentioned twice in six words,
And the imagery of life and growth
Could not be more pronounced:
Sprouts, blossoms – even food.

G-d tells Moses to put Aaron’s staff
In front of the Tent
“As a safekeeping, as a sign for the rebels,
And let there be an end
To their mutterings against Me,
And they shall not die.”

The movement here is from attempted extermination
to “they shall not die,”

From the earth’s mouth
opening to swallow children
To a dead staff
sprouting and flowering and bearing fruit.

* * *

Are the people ready for this flowering?

Their response is to turn to Moses
And lament:

“Look, we perish, we are lost.
Whoever just comes near
The L-rd’s Mishkan will die.
Are we done with perishing?”

G-d may have taken a turn away from killing,
But the people don’t recover so quickly.
The fear of death is strong.

They may not fear annihilation,
But they fear still the accidental death
That comes with coming Too close to G-d.

Then G-d does something odd.
He talks directly to Aaron.

And in talking to Aaron,
To the man whose provocative courage
Stopped the killing at 14,700,
Who helped G-d turn from
Annihilation to flowering,

G-d tells him:
“You and your sons and your father’s house with you,
You shall bear the guilt of the sanctuary,
And you and your sons with you,
You shall bear the guilt of your priesthood.”

G-d has heeded the people’s fear
Of accidental death,
Of coming too close.
The priests will bear the guilt.

* * *

So Korach ends.
And we enter this week’s parshah, Chukat
With the rebels vanquished
And G-d’s anger tamed,

With a staff, a mateh
As the symbol not only of selection –
Of the special role
Played by Moses and Aaron and the Levites –
But also of peace and of burden.
The staff is special, distinguished from its fellows,
The staff flowers,
And the staff’s shoots and sprouts and almonds
Mean that it bears a heavier weight.

In this new world
There is still death:
The ashes of the red heifer,
After all,
Are used to wash away
The impurity that comes
From touching the dead.

And death is coming.

“And the Israelites, the whole community,
Kol ha-eydah,
Came to the Wilderness of Zin,
In the first month,
And the people stayed in Kadesh.
And Miriam died there
And she was buried there.”

The text tells us nothing of
Kol ha-eydah’s emotional response
To Miriam’s death.
Instead, it turns immediately

To the physical world:
“And the community, eydah, had no water
And they assembled
Against Moses and against Aaron.”

In the Midrash, of course,
Miriam is associated with water:

After her spontaneous song and dance
At the Sea of Reeds,
A spring of water sprung up
And followed her around,
Providing for the people
In their wanderings,

But when she died,
The well disappeared.

They focus on the missing water,
Instead of on missing Miriam,
Muttering against Moses and Aaron again:

“If only we had perished
When our brothers perished
Before the L-rd.
And why did you bring the L-rd’s assembly
To this wilderness to die here?
And why did you take us out of Egypt
To bring us to this evil place,”
A place where there is “no water to drink.”

* * *

The last time the eydah complained
About Moses and Aaron bringing death,
G-d’s foaming wrath was triggered,
And 14,700 died.

On hearing the complaint,
Moses and Aaron go straight
To the Tent of Meeting.

G-d appears and tells Moses to tell Aaron
To take “the Staff,” ha-mateh,
Assemble the eydah,

“And before their eyes speak to the rock
And it will yield its water,
And I will bring forth water for them from the rock
And give drink to the eydah.”

Instead of chastising the people
For their complaints,
Instead of branding them as rebels
And vowing to annihilate them,
G-d listens.
G-d hears what the people fear and need.

And to give them what they need,
To save them from what they fear,
G-d chooses a very particular
Four-part choreography:

Moses will bring the Staff,
Moses and Aaron will assemble the eydah.
Moses will speak to the rock,
And G-d will bring forth the water.

The first two steps go well:
Moses brings the Staff,
And he and Aaron assemble the eydah.

But then Moses goes awry.
We see it in his first words:
“Listen, rebels!”

Where G-d has learned to hear their fears,
Moses brands them still as rebels.

His second words show him further astray:

“Shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?”
G-d had been very specific
That G-d would bring forth the water,
But now Moses is about to take credit
For G-d’s miracle.

It’s the mirror image of the eydah’s earlier error:
When Korach and his gang died,
The eydah blamed Moses and Aaron
For bringing death

Now Moses stands before the eydah
And lauds himself for bringing life.

It was G-d then, and it is G-d now.

And after his words, the act:
“And Moses raised his hand
And he struck the rock with his Staff twice
And abundant water came out,
And the community, with its beasts, drank.”

G-d, who turned
From making the people his enemy
To hearing their pleas,
Who turned from a vow of annihilation
To almond blossoms,

Told Moses to talk to the rock,
And Moses hit.

Moses made the people rebels,
Took credit for miraculous power not his,
And he hit.

And not only did he hit,
But he hit with the staff – the Mateh,
The dead branch that blossomed.

* * *

This is far more than
Just getting the directions wrong,
Than just using the wrong method
To draw water from a rock.

This is a failure to follow the new path
That G-d has charted,
The path that started
When Aaron stood on the cusp of death and life,
When G-d’s foaming wrath stopped,
When the diminishing logic of 14,700 dead
Hit home.

Moses did not follow that new path.
He is still in the old world –
Where the people are rebels,
Where the Levites are seen as aggrandizing,
Not burden-bearers,
Where hitting works better than talking.

G-d tells Moses and Aaron
“Because you did not trust Me
To sanctify Me
Before the eyes of the Israelites,
Even so you shall not bring this congregation
To the land that I have given to them.”

This episode ends with a curious sentence:
“These are the waters of Meribah/Dispute,
Where the Israelites disputed with the L-rd
And He was sanctified through them.”

G-d was sanctified through hearing the people’s pleas,
Through allowing their disputations,
And through the water –
Through choosing water,
Not fire or plague.

* * *

How far will it go,
This Divine experiment with peace and cooperation?
Not all the way, we know:
There’s no path back to Gan Eden
In our tradition.

We will live in a world
Of talking and hitting,
Union and division,
Unfairness and burden.

But in this parshah
We take one more step away from the 14,700,
One step closer to a world
In which G-d listens and cares.

We see that with the death of Aaron.
“The whole community,
B’nai Yisrael kol ha-eydah,
Came to Hor the Mountain.”

And G-d spoke to Moses and Aaron:

“Let Aaron be gathered to his kin,
For he shall not come into the land
That I have given to the Israelites
Because you both
Have rebelled against
My word At the Waters of Meribah.

Take Aaron and Eleazar his son
And bring them up Hor the mountain
Before the eyes of all the community,
Kol ha-eydah.

And Moses stripped Aaron of his garments
And put them on Eleazar his son,
And Aaron died there on the mountaintop.”

Again kol ha-eydah is there,
And again there is death.

But this time the death is slow and intimate.
Aaron climbs the mountain
With his son and brother.
All the people watch him go.
Aaron watches as his brother
Removes his garments
And puts them on his son.

Only then – with his brother and son beside him,
With his son wearing his clothes,
Does Aaron die.

Even the necessary death of Aaron
Is managed with gentleness and respect.

And the gentleness and respect is not only for Aaron,
But for kol ha-eydah as well.

After Aaron dies,
“Moses came down,
And Eleazar with him,
From the mountain.

And all the community, kol ha-eydah,
Saw that Aaron had expired,
And all the house of Israel
Keened for Aaron thirty days.”

All the community sees
Aaron’s death,
But not just Aaron’s death:
They see too the promise of continuity –
Eleazar wearing his father’s garments,
Bearing his fire pan.
The kohenim will endure.
The Israelites will endure.

Assured of their own continuity,
Of their most basic needs,
They do not need to mutter,
To fear something that – like water –
They do not have.

Instead, they are free
To keen, to wail, to mourn.

Loved by G-d,
They can feel their loss,
The loss of the man
Who stood at the cusp of life and death
To save kol ha-eydah.

Aaron was not the red heifer.
But if Miriam’s death
Was a sudden and lonely death
In the wilderness,
At a time so fragile
That no one mourned,

Aaron’s death was, like the red heifer’s,
A death that purifies:
An ending with love,
That could be mourned,
And that promised a new beginning.

Shabbat shalom.

* * *

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