Weekly Cycle

Monday, June 27, 2011

Words in the Desert: Miriam, the Red Heifer, and the Torah Portion of Chukat


This week's Torah portion begins with the description of the purification ritual of the "Red Heifer" followed by mentioning of the death of Miriam. Rashi notes the juxtaposition of these two subjects in verses regarding Miriam and states as follows:

1. The entire congregation of the children of Israel arrived at the desert of Zin in the first month, and the people settled in Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there.

RASHI - Miriam died there: Why is the passage relating Miriam’s death juxtaposed with the passage of the Red Cow? To teach you that just as sacrifices bring atonement, so the death of the righteous secure atonement. — [M.K. 28a].

The parallels between Miriam and the Red Heifer appear to go beyond the idea of atonement for the Jewish people. The Red Heifer appears related to atonement for Miriam herself. The Red Heifer is said to be an atonement for the cardinal sin of idolatry, related to the Golden Calf (a young cow), but it also appears to be related to a sin that is equal to all three cardinal sins (idolatry, murder, and adultery): Lashon HaRah, evil speech. Miriam's words regarding Moshe, even though they were said with the best of intentions, is the quintessential example of Lashon HaRah. Below are two verses that recount the occurence and Miriam's punishment. The opening verse of the story and the last one:

1. Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses regarding the Cushite woman he had married (lit. “taken”), for he had married (lit. “taken”) a Cushite woman.

15. So Miriam was confined outside the camp for seven days, and the people did not travel until Miriam had entered.

Regarding the Red Heifer, the first verses of our Torah portion contain very similar language to the above:
1. The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying:
2. This is the statute of the Torah which the Lord commanded, saying, Speak to the children of Israel and have them take for you a perfectly red unblemished cow, upon which no yoke was laid.
3. And you shall give it to Eleazar the kohen, and he shall take it outside the camp and slaughter it in his presence.
4. Eleazar the kohen shall take from its blood with his finger and sprinkle it toward the front of the Tent of Meeting seven times.

Rashi's comments also parallel Miriam and her actions towards Moshe:

RASHI - This is the statute of the Torah: Because Satan and the nations of the world taunt Israel, saying, “ What is this commandment, and what purpose does it have?” Therefore, the Torah uses the term “statute.” I have decreed it; You have no right to challenge it. — [Yoma 67b]
and have them take for you: It will always be called on your name; 'the cow which Moses prepared in the desert.’- [Mid. Tanchuma Chukath 8, see Etz Yosef]
perfectly red: lit., red, perfect. It shall be perfect in redness, so that two black hairs disqualify it. — [Sifrei Chukath 5]
1) Just as Miriam was told by Hashem that she has no right to challenge Moshe's separation from his wife, so too, the Satan and the nations are told that they have no right to challenge the mitzvah of the Red Heifer.
2) Just as Miriam is introduced in the Torah as Miriam's sister, so to the Red Heifer will always be called by Moshe's name.
3) Just as Miriam attempted to disqualify Moshe's actions regarding his marriage to a "Cushite" (black) woman, which is repeated twice, so too, even just two black hairs disqualify a Red Heifer. 
There are other parallels between Miriam and the Red Heifer. Miriam is the ancestor of King David, who is described in the Torah as being red. She merited to have the line of David descend from her because she acted with pure unblemished faith before Pharaoh, when she did not obey his command to kill the newborn children of the Jewish people. 
Miriam was also from the Tribe of Levi, which did not have to serve as slaves in Egypt. She therefore had no yoke placed upon her.
It is interesting to note that in Book I of The Kabbalah of Time, Week 27, the week of the Cow, is very close to Miriam's yahrzeit. That week is also a week connected to purification through the Red Heifer, as it comes immediately prior to Passover.
Moshe's actions following the description of the Red Heifer and Miriam's death, appear to be a further attempt to spiritually fix what Miriam had done. After Miriam speaks to Aharon, Hashem appears and tells them:
6. He said, "Please listen [SHIMU NAH] to My words. If there be prophets among you, [I] the Lord will make Myself known to him in a vision; I will speak to him in a dream.
In this week's Torah portion, right after Miriam's death, there is no water for the people:
2. The congregation had no water; so they assembled against Moses and Aaron.
RASHI - had no water: From here [we learn that] all forty years they had the well in Miriam’s merit. — [Ta’anith 9a] 
10. Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock, and he said to them, "Now listen, [SHIMU NAH] you rebels, can we draw water for you from this rock?"
Moshe was trying, once and for all, to make the people stop doubting their leadership: "Please listen, understand!" The problem was that this time it was Moshe that did not properly understand - Hashem had said to use the staff to gather the people, but not to hit the rock... Miriam, whose merit the water had been provided until now, was known to speak (not hit) to crying children in the gentlest of manners:
 15. Now the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one who was named Shifrah, and the second, who was named Puah.

RASHI - Puah: This was Miriam, [called Puah] because she cried (פּוֹעָה) and talked and cooed to the newborn infant in the manner of women who soothe a crying infant. פּוֹעָה is an expression of crying out, similar to “Like a travailing woman will I cry (אֶפְעֶה) " (Isa. 42:14).

After all, knowing the power of words is the main lesson of the entire Book of Bamidbar.

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