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Voids Left By Those Who Die

Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1 )

by Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

In this parashah, we encounter the deaths of two of our spiritual giants, Aaron and Miriam. With their deaths, calamity befalls the nation. After Aaron's death, it is written, "And the Canaanite king of Arad heard ... and he warred against Israel."1 Our Sages ask: What exactly did the king hear that prompted him to do battle against our people? And one answer given is that he heard of the death of Aaron the High Priest and the subsequent departure of the Clouds of Glory that accompanied the Jewish people in his merit. But the question still remains: Why did the death of Aaron render the nation vulnerable to attack and cause the Clouds of Glory to depart?

Ethics of the Fathers describes Aaron as "loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people, and bringing them closer to the Torah."2 So we find that Aaron was forever involved in resolving all sorts of quarrels. Whenever he heard that two people were at odds, he would approach one of them and say, "Your friend said that the quarrel was all his fault, and he deeply regrets it." Aaron would then go to the second party and tell him the same story. Thus, when the two met again, they would embrace and become friends again. It is for this reason that the entire nation wept when he passed away.3

So it is that, with the passing of Aaron, a terrible void was left. Who would make peace between brother and brother, neighbor and neighbor, husband and wife? Thus, when Aaron died, arguments erupted again, and that caused the Cloud of Glory, which represented the spirit of Hashem to depart, rendering the nation vulnerable to attack.

The reading of Parashas Chukas falls in the month of Tammuz, the month that foretells disaster for our people; the month in which the walls of Jerusalem were breached, culminating in the destruction of the Holy Temples. At the root of this tragedy and all the subsequent tragedies that have befallen our people is baseless hatred. It is baseless hatred that caused the Clouds of Glory, the presence of God to abandon us, and it is love - exemplified by acts of chesed - between Jew and Jew that merits God's presence in our midst.

This simple and yet complex message of Aaron is desperately needed in our fragmented, torn families and communities. If we would only follow Aaron's example, we could dissipate the anger that has created ugly walls of animosity that destroy us.


In contrast to Aaron, whom the Torah testifies was mourned by the entire nation, at Miriam's passing, which took place earlier, there is no mention of mourning. Rather, it states "there was no water for the congregation."4 Sometimes silence speaks louder than words, and the silence that should give us pause is the absence of mourning and weeping. God denied the nation water so that they might be ever-cognizant that the fresh sweet water of the well in the desert was all in the merit of Miriam. During the long, bitter years of Egyptian bondage, Miriam was responsible for imbuing the nation with faith. She put herself on the line to save the lives of doomed Jewish babies; she lovingly stood guard over the infant Moses while he was floating in a basket on the Nile; and she courageously convinced Pharaoh's daughter to entrust the baby to the care of Jochebed, Moses' mother. At the Splitting of the Reed Sea, Miriam inspired the women to call out to God in praise, dance, and sing songs of thanksgiving.5 How could the people have forgotten her? Unfortunately, human nature is such that with the passage of time, it is easy to forget. There is an all-too-familiar adage that speaks in every generation, "What have you done for me lately?"

Therefore, with the death of Miriam, Hashem reminded the people of one of the main pillars of Jewish life: hakaras hatov -- gratitude. They had to remember that it was in the merit of Miriam that they had been granted the gift of water in the desert; to drive the lesson home, with her death, her well was lost. The people had to search for it so that forever after, they - and we, their descendants- might bear in mind this basic principle of hakaras hatov.

We are never to forget any kindness that was extended to us, even if it occurred centuries ago. To this day, we gather at our Seder tables and recall with thanksgiving that time so long ago when God brought us forth from Egyptian bondage. We chant "Dayeinu" and enumerate in great detail every blessing that God bestowed upon us. However, it is not only on Pesach night that we are enjoined to thank God for His manifold blessings, but in our daily prayers as well. There is no aspect of life that we can ignore, from the most physical to the most spiritual, from the most simple to the most complex; we thank God for it all.

Unfortunately, too often, these expressions of thanks are just empty words, mouthed without thought or feeling. We would do well to take a few moments every day to consider God's manifold gifts, as well as the kindnesses that our families, friends, and many others have extended to us. The well of Miriam is an eternal testimony to our indebtedness. We dare not take anything for granted, but must count our blessings. If we would only absorb this simple teaching, our lives would have much more meaning; people who realize that they have been blessed are content and happy. In contrast, those who are ingrates know no peace, for instead of appreciating their own gifts, they are forever gazing enviously at others. If we think about it, we will quickly realize that to live by Torah values is to our benefit, and negating them is to our detriment and misfortune.


The parashah begins, "This is the decree of the Torah ... and they shall take unto you a parah adumah (Red Heifer) ...."6 The obvious question is, why does the text preface the commandment regarding the Red Heifer with those puzzling words, "This is the decree of the Torah ..."? It seems that the text should simply state, "This is the decree of the parah adumah - the Red Heifer."

But herein is a very profound teaching. Even as the laws of the parah adumah, which can simultaneously purify and contaminate, are beyond our human comprehension, similarly, all the laws of the Torah (even mishpatim - those laws that appeal to our human intelligence, such as "Thou shalt not steal") have elements that are inexplicable.

King Solomon was the wisest of all men and he proclaimed, "All this I tested with wisdom; I thought I could become wise; but it is beyond me."7 Solomon was not speaking only of the laws pertaining to the Red Heifer, which he could not grasp; rather, he stated that all of the Torah is above man's reason. And that is precisely why it is Torah - the Word of God. We finite beings cannot possibly hope to understand the infinite.

One might argue however, that we have entire responsa on ta'amei hamitzvos - reasons for the mitzvos - but ta'amei hamitzvos doesn't really mean "reasons for the commandments"; rather, it means a taste for them. For example, when a mother encourages a child to eat, saying, "Taste it - it's delicious," does she want the child to eat the food because it tastes delicious, or does she want him to benefit from its nutritional content? The answer is obvious. Similarly, our Sages gave us ta'am - a taste for the mitzvos, but that is not the ultimate reason for observing them.

Through the wisdom of our Sages, through our studies, we can better appreciate the majesty, the sanctity, and the blessings of the Torah, but we have to bear in mind that the definitive reasons for the mitzvos are beyond our reach.

Ultimately, if our relationship with God and our observance of the commandments are to survive the vicissitudes of time, they must be rooted in unwavering faith. Most of life is baffling; death, illness, sorrow - the ups and downs of daily existence - are very much like the Red Heifer; they are beyond the scope of our understanding, but our faith sustains us and keeps us going.

Even as a toddler cannot comprehend why his parent takes him to a physician, makes him go to sleep, and disciplines him, we cannot possibly know why certain things befall us. Next to God, we are not even toddlers. But despite this lack of understanding, the toddler trusts his parents implicitly and would panic if they were absent. Similarly, should we not have as much trust in our Heavenly Father as the toddler does in his parents? At Sinai, we accepted the Torah and proclaimed "Na'aseh v'nishma." We will observe the mitzvos and study the Torah. This unequivocal declaration of observance and study laid the foundation for our relationship with the Almighty.

The moment we attribute our own reasons for the observance of the commandments, we also place them at risk, for "reasons" are debatable. Moreover, that which appeals to us today may lose its attraction tomorrow. Our commitment must be above our human reasoning. It must be constant, immutable, and steadfast. So, why do we observe? Because "Zos chukas HaTorah - This is the decree of the Torah." This is God's decree.


The need for this unequivocal faith is evidenced throughout the parashah: Miriam the prophetess and Aaron the High Priest die, and Moses, the loyal shepherd of the Jewish people is denied the right to enter the Promised Land. Our human reason might rebel against these apparently harsh decrees, but who are we to question the will of God? So, yes, the entire Torah is like the laws of the Red Heifer, beyond the bounds of our finite reasoning. But how else can it be, since it is God's Word?

This teaching is especially relevant to our generation, for while we pride ourselves on our intellectual acumen, we fall pitifully short on faith. We lack spiritual stamina and at the slightest crisis collapse and become angry, bitter, and alienated. Foolishly, we close the door on our only source of help - God - and feel that we are forced to walk alone through life's dark, treacherous valleys.

  1. Numbers 21:1.
  2. Ethics of the Fathers 1:12.
  3. Numbers 20:29.
  4. Ibid. 20:2.
  5. Exodus 15:20.
  6. Numbers 19:2.
  7. Ecclesiastes 7:23.

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