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THOUGHTS ON CHUKAT BY MALCOLM GREENBAUM

The Unfathomable Mitzvah? (partly based on the writings of R’ Shlomo Katz)

The law of Parah Adumah  (the red heifer) is regarded by our Sages as the quintessential chok (decree, i.e., a law with no discernible rational explanation).

However, there is disagreement about exactly what aspect of Parah Adumah is a chok. It is not the basic mitzvah – the Sages tell us that the Parah Adumah atones for the sin of the Golden Calf (“Let the mother come and clean up the mess that her calf made.”). At a simple level, the sin of the Golden Calf brought death to the Jewish People, while the red heifer cleanses man of the impurity of death.

R’ Shlomo Kluger z”l suggests that the chok is contained in our verse. “Speak to Bnei Yisrael and they shall take to you (i.e., to Moshe) a completely red cow.”  Why should the Parah Adumah be Moshe’s?

There is an opinion in the Gemara which states that each Parah Adumah in history was prepared only by someone who was first sprinkled with the ashes of Moshe’s Parah Adumah. Of all people, Moshe seemingly was the one who least needed atonement for the Golden Calf. This could be said to be the true unfathomable mystery of the Parah Adumah.

Later in the parsha, Moshe (and, in fact, Aharon) are instructed to speak to the rock (the parsha uses the plural ‘dibartem’) but instead Moshe strikes it with his staff (Aharon does nothing).

Why was this a sin which deprived Moshe of the joy of entering Eretz Yisrael? Chief Rabbi Sacks ztl postulates that Hashem’s intention was for a ‘Kal Vechomer’ (literally meaning light to the stringent) to take place: The people should have said ‘woah, if a rock can listen to a commandment, how much more so  (Kal Vechomer), should we be obeying the commandments of Hashem’. Instead, they made a different Kal Vechomer. They said, ‘if Moshe of all people can disobey the word of Hashem and strike the rock when he was told to speak to it, then Kal Vechomer, how much more so, can we disobey His word’.

As a result, Moshe was punished. But Hashem says – ‘Vayedaber Hashem el Moshe v’el Aharon’ (‘Hashem called out to Moshe’ ), because the two of you did not sufficiently believe in me to sanctify my name.

But Aharon did nothing. This is the whole point – he should have done something.

We are told  in Parashat Kedoshim, ‘hocheiach tocheiach amitecha’ ( ‘you shall surely reprove your fellow’), in order to tell us that sometimes it is a Mitzvah to intervene, but sometimes it is a Mitzvah to keep quiet (the latter if we do not think the person will change their ways).

But to keep quiet when your intervention can save the day – if you can prevent somebody from doing something wrong then of course, you need to speak up.

This is what Aharon failed to do. He could have inspired and motivated his brother to do the right thing but he just stood there, not opening his mouth at all. And therefore, he was an accomplice and he suffered the fate of his brother. Both of them did not merit to enter into the Holy Land.

In today’s world, with people on social media attacking Jews and Israel every day, we need to speak up. If we can change one person’s mind it is worthwhile.  As Edmund Burke famously taught, ‘all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing’.

We should redouble our efforts to support Israel from the defamation it is suffering every day.

Shabbat shalom

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