I have commented previously on the difference between chukim, mishpatim, and zachorim. This Torah portion is named after the Commandment of the Red Heifer, the strangest mitzvah in the Torah. There is a midrash that after Solomon was given the gift of wisdom by the Lord, he was asked if he now understood all the mitzvot in the Torah. He replied that he understood them all, with the exception of the mitzvah of the Red Heifer.
This is what to do to purify someone who has been exposed to a human corpse. Find a maiden cow under two years of age that is covered in red hairs. If as many as two hairs are not red, the cow is invalid. The cow must never have been yoked, and must be free of blemishes. The cow is to be ritually slaughtered, and its carcass burned with cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson yarn (from a certain rare worm). The ashes are to be collected and used for a special preparation. The priest who slaughtered the cow, and the priest who burned the cow would be required to wash their garments, bathe in a mikveh, and be ritually unclean until that evening.. A different, ritually pure priest would collect the ashes.
If someone were exposed to a human corpse, they would become ritually unclean for seven days. On the third and seventh day, they would be sprinkled with water with these ashes mixed in, and the priest who sprinkled them would have to wash his garments, bathe in a mikveh and be ritually unclean until that evening. After the second treatment on the seventh day, the person would be ritually clean again. Anyone exposed to a corpse who did not undergo this treatment was to be excommunicated.
In the time of the Tabernacle, ritual slaughter could only take place in the courtyard of the Tabernacle. After the erection of the Temple, ritual slaughter could only take place in the courtyard of the Temple. After the destruction of the Temple, no more ritual slaughter could ever take place. The Talmud tells us that when Moses and Aaron heard this commandment, a red heifer appeared ready for them to use for this ritual. The rabbis of the Talmud are divided on how many red heifers there have been, but mostly likely, the number is in the single digits. A vial of the red heifer's ashes survived the destruction of the Temple, but ran out during Talmudic times. There are lots of legends about the various red heifers. There is a legend that when Solomon was ready to consecrate the Temple, a new red heifer appeared. Similarly, the scribe Ezra found a red heifer just before Zerubbabel was ready to consecrate the Second Temple.
Today, there are Christian Fundamentalists who are trying to grow a perfect red heifer to give to the Jews in Israel so that they can consecrate the not-yet-built Third Temple. As this would involve dislodging the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, this might be met with some resistance.
It goes without saying that all Jews who have ever seen a dead body, or have ever been in a room that has ever previously contained a dead body, are ritually unclean forever and should be excommunicated seven days after such exposure. And yet they are not, since the remedy is no longer available to us. Even still, all cohens (descendents of Aaron) are advised by the Orthodoxy not to attend funerals, unless it is the funeral of an immediate relative. I have yet to hear a Biblical literalist remark upon this.
The Torah tells us how to prepare because Miriam dies right after this explanation appears, and Aaron dies later in the passage.
The Children of Israel stop in the Desert of Tzin, and Miriam dies there. The people are thirsty, and complain about having no water. God tells Moses to take haMatteh, or "the staff" (interpreted to be Aaron's Rod) and to command a certain rock (or some say, a cliff) to give forth water for the people. Instead, Moses strikes the rock, twice, and it gushes forth abundantly with water. This angers God, who tells Moses that if he had sufficient faith, he would have spoken to the rock rather than have struck it, twice. By striking the rock, he failed to sanctify God before the people, and as a punishment, Moses is now barred from entering the Promised Land, and will die on the opposite side of the Jordan river, before the Children of Israel enter the land.
Pretty much everyone who reads and thinks about Torah is uncomfortable with this judgment, if taken literally. Is the difference between talking to a rock and hitting a rock with a stick so significant that it should condemn a righteous man to a death that severs him from the fulfillment of his goals and dreams? Especially coming immediately after the death of a sister who took care of him when he was a baby? Even in the midst of an angry mob throwing off his concentration?
The interpretation I am most comfortable with is that leaders cannot stay leaders forever. They have to pass their mantles of leadership to another generation. Moses and Aaron and Miriam have clearly lost control of the mob, who seem to break out in a new rebellion and riot with every new Torah portion. It is time for Eleazar to replace Aaron (hence Eleazar is commanded to slaughter the red heifer, not Aaron), and for Joshua to replace Moses. Those condemned by God to die in the desert have given up hope, and have only bitterness, but their children have a future ahead of them in the land overflowing with milk and honey.
In this age where Masonic membership numbers are much less than they were fifty years ago, we are all aware of lodges run by men who were Past Masters decades ago, who continue to cling to power long after the zenith of their accomplishments. Some are willing to offer the Eastern Chair to a willing subordinate, as long as everyone understands where the real power is coming from. This is a perversion of what Masonry intends to teach us about leadership. The last lesson a Worshipful Master receives is how to vacate his office, content to sit on the sidelines and to let others rule after him. Some Masters never learn that lesson, and their lodges suffer. Others never get the option to learn that lesson, as their lodges remain in leadership crises before, during, and after they are in the East.
After being rebuffed by the Edomites when trying to pass through their country on their way to the Promised Land, they stop at Mt. Hor. Aaron's priestly robes are removed from his body and given to Eleazar, the new High Priest. Then Aaron dies atop the mountain. The people mourned the death of Aaron for thirty days.
Moving along the coast, alongside the nation of Edom, the people began to grumble again, and God sent venomous serpents to bite them, killing many of them. The people begged Moses to save them from the serpents, and God told Moses to fashion a serpent out of brass (or copper), and to place it on a banner. Whoever had been bitten by the serpents couldlook at the brazen serpent, and would not be killed by the venom. This motif of the brazen serpent raised on the pole appears in the Scottish Rite, in the Lodge of Perfection degrees, in the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction.
The Brazen Serpent (נחושתן, or nechustan), was part of the Temple until it was destroyed by King Hezekiah, who regarded it as idolatrous.
The Children of Israel encounter different nations in their journey, and they send emissaries to ask permission to pass through these territories, promising not to forage, scrounge, pillage or even so much as drink any water from their wells. The first time, they are met at the borders by an army, refusing them passage, and they turn away. The second time, they are met at the borders by an army, and they curse the cities of those people. The third time, at Bashan, they are attacked, and fight back, and kill everybody in Bashan, including their giant king, Og, and occupy Bashan and its cities. After this, they move on to the plains of Moab, across the Jordan River from Jericho, their last encampment before taking the Promised Land.
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