12 July, 2024

Week of 7-13 July 2024

Torah portion: Numbers 19:1-22:1   Haftarah: Judges 11:1-33

Theme: Because you did not Trust  

For the location of the Israelite community as this parashah begins, we go back to Numbers 13:26, where the scouts reported to Moses and Aaron at Kadesh in the wilderness of Paran. To close the Egypt-to-Sinai segment of the community’s saga, Numbers 19 provides an element of peace and order, following the rebellion of the Levite, Korah, and its consequences (Numbers 16-18). Numbers 19 presents a ritual of purification of “uncleanness” due to contact with a corpse. It is the ritual of the “Red Cow,” in which the animal was slaughtered outside the camp, in the presence of the priest Eleazar. He then sprinkled some of its blood towards the Tent of Meeting, and witnessed the burning of the remains of the animal, throwing symbolic “cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson stuff” on the fire. The “water of lustration” (the ashes mixed with water) was then sprinkled on the unclean person or object, for cleansing. Given the deaths of a generation in the desert, the ritual was likely a familiar occurrence!

Thirty-eight years later, in Numbers 20, the Israelites returned to Kadesh, now situated in the wilderness of Zin, further north in Sinai, which could reflect a different source. The people complain of having no grain, figs, vines, or pomegranates, and even no water when Miriam dies and Miriam’s well dries up (20:2-5). That crisis sends Moses and Aaron to the tent of meeting; God’s instructions are clear and brief: “take the rod, assemble the community, and … order the rock to yield its water.” This is a crucial moment for Moses. As if ignoring God’s instruction, he states arrogantly, “Shall we get water for you out of this rock?!” then he strikes the rock twice with his rod! Copious water does flow, but the Lord warns Moses and Aaron: “Because you did not trust me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.”

Those are the waters of Meribah (complaining, quarreling) by which the Lord affirmed his sanctity (20:13).    

      Moses requests passage through Edom; the king refuses. From Kadesh they go to Mount Hor, where Aaron dies; Moses vests Aaron’s son, Eleazar, to succeed him. When the Canaanite King of Arad attacks Israel, taking captives, those Canaanites are destroyed, and the place is named Hormah (destruction). That incident reverberates in Jephthah’s victory over Arad, in the haftarah, as Ammonites attack Israel.   

     Leaving Mount Hor, by the road to the Sea of Reeds, they skirt Edom. Complaints prompt God to send seraph serpents among the people; Moses appeals to God who directs him to create a copper serpent set on a standard; anyone bitten was healed by looking at it. They go north, past Wadi Zered, Wadi Arnon, and Heshbon the city of Sihon, King of the Amorites, whom they conquer. They head for Bashan, whose King Og attacks them at Edrei only to be defeated. They arrive at the steppes of Moab across the Jordan from Jericho (22:1). This is an amazing feat, but God’s judgment on Moses remains!   

For Reflection and Discussion: 1. Reflect on the copper serpent, the image of a painful memory, which now brings healing. Do you know a symbol like that?  2. In God’s response to Moses, what is the issue?

Bibliography: Plaut, W. G., The Torah, Union of American Hebrew Congregations (New York: 1981); Lieber, D. L., Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary, The Rabbinical Assembly, The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (New York, 2001).

This week’s Parashah Commentary was prepared by
Diane Willey, nds, Canada, Bat Kol Alumna 2005, 2006

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