Archive for Chukat

Chukat: Detours On The Way

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger
Torah Reading: Chukat 
“They set out from Mount Hor by way of the Sea of Reeds to skirt the land of Edom. But the people grew restive on the journey, ” (Bamidbar/ Numbers 21:4)
Good morning! 
Sorry I’ve missed some weeks recently- we’ve moved offices and I just fell behind, that’s all. 
There is so much to choose from in our Torah portion, which begins with the famous (and mysterious) Red Heifer and continues with two chapters of strife, conflict, war, and grief as the Israelites travel through the wilderness. Today we’ll look at the verse above, which occurs shortly after the death of Aharon, Moshe’s brother, and immediately after a few terse lines describing a battle with the king of Arad. (21:1-3)
The few words of this verse don’t capture the full weight of the narrative: the Torah seems to be saying that the Israelites went from Mount Hor, near the kingdom of Edom, in what we would now call southwest Jordan, almost all the way back to Egypt, to the Sea of Reeds where they crossed when escaping Pharaoh. We know Mount Hor is near Edom- in the Torah’s reckoning- because just a few verses earlier, the place where Aharon died is called “Mount Hor, on the border of Edom.” (See 20:23
Archaeologists and historians have differing theories about the exact location of various places mentioned in the Bible, but for our purposes, you don’t need to know precisely where they went to get the sense that after the death of Aharon and a horrific battle with Arad, the Israelites were in retreat, emotionally if not geographically. The text says they were heading back west in order to “skirt” or “circle” the land of Edom, perhaps to avoid danger or because they weren’t allowed through, but one can only imagine the tremendous disappointment and discouragement they must have felt to be so close to the Land of Israel and yet moving further away.
The Torah describes this discouragement as vatik’tzer nefesh ha’am, literally “the spirit of the people was shortened.” Rashi imagines the people saying “we have to turn back just like our ancestors did 38 years ago!,” which would have been an unbearable burden. Yet as readers, we know the people were very close- just a few weeks, probably, from their camp across the Jordan River from which Moshe would deliver his final speeches (what we call the book of D’varim or Deuteronomy) before they entered the Land. 
This is the problem of hope: when our “spirits are shortened,” we are unable to see how far we’ve come but can only see the roadblocks and difficulties ahead. This is when bitterness sets in, and indeed, the Torah tells us that after their detour back to the Sea of Reeds, the people complained against God and Moshe about the manna, of all things. Change is hard, and take time, and is never without its challenges. Even this very day, today, as the U.S. Supreme Court rules in favor of marriage equality – a goal that some have been working towards for a generation or more, there are those who react with bitterness and complaint and vow to resist. There will be detours, setbacks, roadblocks and challenges- it is to be expected with any big change. Even today, this week, as the nation has, with astounding speed after the Charleston massacre, begun to reckon with the racist legacy of the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of resistance to integration, there is already a backlash to the backlash. There will be backlashes, arguments, political struggle and resistance- this, too, is to be expected, so let us never lose sight of our goal of reconciliation and equality for all. 
The Israelites were “short of spirit” even when their wandering was near its completion; all of us sometimes get negative, kvetchy and blaming when the journey seems long and never-ending. The challenge, then, is to remember that “shortness of spirit” is an opportunity for broadening one’s vision, making the spirit big and free and open and taking in the widest perspective possible. If our spirits can be made short, they can be made big, too- but only if we choose faith, hope and patience. These are not easy virtues, but who said a journey to the Promised Land would be easy? 
Shabbat Shalom, 
The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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Chukat and Taking-A-Break news

Shalom all, Neal here.

The next few weeks are going to be very busy with travel and other responsibilities so we’re taking a break from writing until second week of July or so.

In the meantime, please see some wonderful commentaries on this week’s Torah portion that I’ve linked to below.

R. Charlie Savenor  explores Moshe’s leadership here, Prof. Shira Epstein discusses theimpact of Miriam’s death in the weekly JTSA commentary and from my alma mater the Ziegler School here’s a commentary on the death of Aharon.

Shabbat Shalom and see you in a few weeks!


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Chukat: Speak Words of Torah

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chukat

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts.’ “(Bamidbar/ Numbers 20:7-8, JPS translation)

Good evening!

The Torah portion Chukat is long and varied, containing many interesting and dramatic narratives, including strife in the wilderness, the decree that Moshe will not enter the Land, and the deaths of Miriam and Aharon. The beginning of chapter 20 relates the famous story of “striking the rock,” with the resultant terrible decree on Moshe, who was apparently supposed to speak to the rock when the people cry out for water, as in the verse above. Instead, he struck it with his staff, and is told that he will never enter the Land.

There is oodles and oodles of rabbinic commentary on what, exactly, Moshe did that was so bad, but we won’t get into that today. (You can check out commentaries on that topic here, here, and here.) Rather, I’m interested in a fascinating midrash related to what Moshe was ostensibly supposed to do when the people cried out for water, and there were only rocks around them. The late medieval commentator known as the Or HaChaim (from his famous book of that title) quotes an earlier text to which interprets “order the rock” [literally, “speak to the rock before their eyes”] as “study Torah by the rock,” or maybe even to teach Torah to the rock itself ! The text says that Moshe should have spoken just “a single paragraph” to the stone; given that rocks, unlike people, don’t have ears to hear or minds to understand, what could this possibly mean?

The verse itself is clear that Moshe was supposed to speak to the rock, not just whack it with a stick, but the image of studying Torah by- or with- the rock suggests that the better way to get water from a rock is a more meditative approach, rather than frantic action. This is not about a miracle of hydrology, it’s about what it takes to draw out from others something deep and nourishing: first, go to your innermost core, reminding yourself of your deepest ideals and sense of connection.

Then, speak words of Torah- that is, words which are grounded in our best selves, our most authentic ethical and spiritual traditions and paradigms. That’s how you draw out something sustaining when the community is “dry” of ideas, hopes, and vision. “Speaking Torah to the rock” can mean: Moshe, if you’re swinging sticks around when the people are scared, go back to your own source of innermost meaning- study some Torah so that you act from a place of spiritual intentionality, not negativity, resentment or anger towards the people.

Dealing with human beings- stubborn, stiff-necked and complaining, as all of us are, at least some of the time- often requires a reorientation of our attitude before we can be effective agents of hope and care. Even Moshe had to remember who he was- a teacher, a leader, a lover of Israel, grounded in sacred ideals- before he could give others what they needed. It’s no great failing to want to strike the rock; we fail only ourselves when in haste we forget to slow down and take in Torah and its vision of compassionate humanity.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Chukat: Waters of Strife

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion: Chukat

The portion Chukat begins with the Parah Adumah, or Red Heifer, a red cow which is sacrificed in order to purify those who are ritually impure. Miriam dies, and there is strife and thirst. Aharon dies, and the people have a difficult path through hostile nations.

“But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.’ Those are the Waters of Merivah—meaning that the Israelites quarrelled with the Lord—through which He affirmed His sanctity . . . .” (Bamidbar/Numbers 20:12-13)

One of the most troubling passages in the Torah is the story of the “waters of Merivah,” found in Bamidbar 20:2-13. The people are thirsty and cry out for water, and God gives Moshe instructions to speak to the rock and it will bring forth water. Moshe instead strikes the rock (after making a snarky comment to the complainers), and is told that because he did not trust God enough in the sight of the people, he would not continue to lead the people into the Land. The place where this happened is called Merivah, from the word “quarrel,” as the Torah itself explains in the text above.

Let’s set aside the question of whether striking the rock was so bad that Moshe deserved to be punished- that’s a famous question and there’s lots of commentary on that. Since our theme this year is connections between the Torah and the prayerbook, instead let’s note a reference to these events at a most un-strife-ful time: the beginning of Shabbat. To wit: at the beginning of the service called Kabbalat Shabbat, we recite 7 psalms, beginning with Psalm 95, which begins with the invitation to sing together but also bids us to be different than those who grumbled at Merivah:

“Harden not your heart, as at Merivah, as in the day of Massah in the wilderness;
When your ancestors tried Me, proved Me, even though they saw My work . . . ” (Ps.95:8-9)

The story of Merivah, both in Bamidbar 20 and an earlier version in Shmot/Exodus 17, seems to represent resentment, anxiety, and lack of broader perspective on the part of the people who were speaking out against Moshe. Yet it also seems that Moshe didn’t act out of the deepest compassion- after all, the people were thirsty and fearful, and he appeared to respond with frustration rather than understanding of their needs.

So getting back to Psalm 95, above: as we go into Shabbat, perhaps the reference to Merivah reminds us that what we have, for the next 25 hours, is probably enough; Shabbat is a time to let go of the anxieties and fears and wanting “more” which pervade our working hours. Shabbat is a time to put away our resentments and impossible expectations- of God and each other- so that we can make sacred community in joy. We slow down so we can see more clearly what we have, and what we need, so there is not strife, but peace.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Chukat-Balak: Two Kinds of Memories

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chukat/Balak

This week we have a double Torah portion, Chukat-Balak, and so we read the
hafarah for Balak, from the book of Micah. This collection of prophecies can be
a bit confusing, as it’s not exactly clear which historical events form the
context for the preaching, but for today, it’s enough to know that the basic
idea of the book is that God has sent troubles to Israel, in the form of
surrounding enemies, as recompense for their sins- but Israel will ultimately be
redeemed and restored. The part which forms this week’s haftarah specifically
mentions the king Balak, who, as related in this week’s Torah portion, hired
Bilaam to curse the Israelites and stop their advance. So Micah tells the people
to remember how God saved them from Balak, so they may again turn to God, and
this is the connection between the Torah portion and the haftarah:

“My people,
Remember what Balak king of Moab
Plotted against you,
And how Balaam son of Beor
Responded to him.
[Recall your passage]
From Shittim to Gilgal–
And you will recognize
The gracious acts of the Lord.” (Micah 6:5)

OK, so far, so good, even if the idea of “God will send enemies to punish
Israel” is a difficult and problematic concept- we’ll unpack that more another
day. Let’s turn instead to another interesting detail in the verse above: the
prophet’s exhortation that the people should remember all that God did for them
from “Shittim to Gilgal.” Astute subscribers will remember that we discussed
Gilgal just last week- it’s the place where the Israelites first camped after
arriving in the Land, and the place where Shaul was affirmed as the first king
of the united monarchy. However, Gilgal is also mentioned in later texts as a
place of sin and wickedness (see Hosea 4:15 and 9:15, for example, among other

Similarly, Shittim has both positive and not-so-positive historical associations
: in the book of Bamidbar [Numbers], it’s the place where Joshua was affirmed as
leader after Moshe, but it’s also the place where the Israelite men sinned with
Moabite women. (Cf Numbers 25-27.) It’s where Joshua sent spies out in the
beginning of the conquest of the land, as well. (Josh. 2)

So it’s not clear what Micah means when he tells the people to remember what God
did for them “from Shittim to Gilgal.” Does he mean that God sends leaders to
Israel, and Israel accepts them, as they did with Shaul at Gilgal and Joshua at
Shittim- thus implying that the people have a history of celebration and
blessing? Or does he mean that despite Israel’s sins at Gilgal and Shittim, God
will never forsake the people? To put it another way, are we supposed to
remember the good things that happened at these places- so that Israel will be
inspired to return to the spirit which prevailed at those times- or are we
supposed to remember the bad things that happened at these places, so Israel
will be chastened and humbled by Divine grace despite our noodnik behavior?

Well, as it turns out, great Torah commentators haven’t figured this one out
either. Hirsch, for his part, favors the latter interpretation- it’s about
Divine grace and patience in the face of Israel’s not-so-illustrious history.
Fishbane, however, in the Etz Hayim commentary, sees this geographical reference
as a “synopsis of place of divine beneficence,” citing the transformation of
Bilaam’s curse into a prayer and the people’s acceptance of Shaul as king. To be
fair, these interpretations are not contradictory- it’s a matter of emphasis.

Yet perhaps the prophet is being more subtle than first reading might suggest.
Maybe it’s precisely because both Gilgal and Shittim are places of complex
memory that they serve as shorthand for the richness and complexity of a deep
and long-standing relationship, whether it be between a people and its Source or
even on a much smaller scale, a community, family, or friends. In any long
relationship, there is love and there is disappointment; there is the memory of
celebration and the memory of tension, and so perhaps renewal requires a more
holistic introspection. Israel both celebrated and sinned at Shittim and Gilgal-
so to move forward into the future, Israel must remember its ideals and
commitments, to be called back to them, as well as remembering how the covenant
stood firm despite Israel’s mistakes and misdeeds.

Seen this way, Shittim to Gilgal isn’t about two places, it’s about two kinds of
memories: memories that call us back to who we truly are, and memories of the
good that has been bestowed on us. Taken together, they lead to healing,
humility and forgiveness, and that’s truly hopeful.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Chukat: Service from Love

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chukat

In addition to all those memorable days, we’re also reading the Torah
portion Chukat, which has no mitzvot which are currently practiced as
such, but which opens up with wording which leads to an important
discussion relating to the mitzvot- religious commandments – as a whole.

The first verses of Chukat concern the “red heifer”- the red cow which
was sacrificed in a complex ceremony connected to ritual purity. Thus
we read in the JPS translation:

“The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: ‘This is the ritual law
that the Lord has commanded. . .’ ” (Bamidbar/Numbers 19:1-2)

The first words of the second clause- “zot chukat hatorah” – give the
portion its name, but it’s a hard phrase to translate. For the key
word “chukat,” which is a form of “chok,” JPS has “ritual law,” but
other translations use “statute,” “decree,” or simply imply the idea
of a commandment or imperative. Rashi explains that this word, “chok,”
is used because the nations of the world will demand a rational
explanation for the ritual of the red heifer and Israel can respond
that it is a decree – that is, a religious practice which comes from
revelation, not from reason.

In many discussions of the mitzvot, a distinction is thus drawn
between chukkim- decrees- and mishpatim, or laws which could be
derived from reason or principles of justice. [The word “mishpat” is
related to the idea of justice and the fair governance of society.] To
put it another way, mishpatim are commandments that reasonable people
could figure out on their own (for example, don’t steal, lie, or
murder.) Chukkim are practices which have no obvious basis in fairness
or rationality- like not mixing linen and wool, or not eating ham, or
as we learn this week, sacrificing a red heifer to make what is
sometimes called “waters of lustration.” (Lustration = purification,
more or less.)

Figuring out which mitzvot are chukkim and which are mishpatim would
take a long time- and never yield consensus- and many commentators
find “ritual” meaning in the “ethical” mitzvot, and vice verse. Yet I
still think the idea of chukkim- mitzvot which we can’t reduce to
purely rational principles- is an important one, because for me, it’s
connected to the idea of serving out of love.

Think for a moment about your love for a spouse/ partner, a friend, or
another family member- I’ll bet there are things you do for that
person, to please them and make them happy, which comes from knowledge
of that person’s preferences, tastes and idiosyncrasies. You might
cook certain foods or find decorations of a certain color simply
because that’s what this particular person likes and doing those
things deepens the relationship. The actions may seem arbitrary-
baking raisin cookies rather than snickerdoodles- but the reason for
doing it is anything but: your friend or loved one likes raisin
cookies and making them is an action which makes love real.

Thus, to me, chukkim are those aspects of Judaism which I do because I
love God (as the Divine Source), Torah and the Jewish people- or,
perhaps more precisely, because I want to love God, Torah and the
Jewish people. I won’t lightly override my conscience to obey ritual
law, but I’ll celebrate Shabbat on Saturday, rather than Sunday,
because that’s what my relationship to the Holy One, Torah and Israel

I’ll wear certain clothes and eat certain foods and pray certain
prayers because these actions are the expression of my particular
connection to my faith, my people, my history, and my spiritual path.
Chukkim, to me, are what make Judaism . . . . well, Judaism, and not
just some abstract ethical monotheism. The rational laws connect Jews
to universal moral ideals; the chukkim, “decrees,” celebrate the
possibility of a unique Jewish spirituality. Both are good, and both
are gifts from Heaven.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Chukkat/Balak: Opportunities, Gained and Lost

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chukkat/Balak

Hope you had a happy Fourth of July- if you’re in the USA, then I hope
you had a happy holiday, and if not, well, I hope your Fourth was
equally good going about your regular day, even without the excitement
of barbecues and fireworks. The excitement continues, of course, in
the double Torah portion this week, Chukat-Balak, which includes
rebellions, plagues, sorcerers, battles, negotiations, blessings,
curses, and most poignantly, the deaths of Miriam and Aharon. The
generation of the Exodus is dying out, and the next generation will be
ready to enter the Land, under new leadership.

Moshe is told to take his brother and nephew (Aharon’s son Eleazar) up
a mountain, where the garments of the High Priest will be taken off
Aharon and put on his son. Rashi and others comment that it is a great
comfort to Aharon that he will see his son dressed as High Priest, but
nevertheless, Aharon dies on the mountain, and Moshe and Eleazar come
back to the people:

“When Moshe and Eleazar came down from the mountain, the whole
community knew that Aharon had breathed his last. All the house of
Israel bewailed Aharon thirty days.” (Bamidbar/ Numbers 20: 28-29)

R. Samson Raphael Hirsch notes a tradition that Aharon was mourned
even more than Moshe: the text in Devarim/ Deuteronomy 34:8 says
simply that “the Israelites bewailed Moses in the steppes of Moab for
thirty days,” but here, the Torah is very clear that ALL the “house of
Israel” mourned for Aharon. Rashi says that “all” refers to both the
men and the women; he bases himself on a famous midrash that Aharon
was a pursuer of peace, who made peace between husbands and wives
(among others.)

However, Hirsch also comments on an irony in the image of the entire
Israelite nation mourning its beloved High Priest- only a few verses
before, when they ran out of water, the people were rioting and
rebelling against the very man they are now crying for! The text is
explicit about this:

“The community was without water, and they gathered themselves against
Moses and Aaron. . . . ” (Bamidbar 20:2)

In Hirsch’s interpretation, the people loved Aharon, and their grief
for him was the more genuine emotion; their anger was only a passing
feeling based on temporary conditions or frustrations. That’s
certainly plausible- we’ve all spoken unkind words to our loved ones
when we’re exasperated or exhausted by other problems. However, it’s
also possible that the intensity of the communal grief is deeply
connected to their earlier outburst of frustration. Perhaps the
difference between the death of Moshe and the death of Aharon is that
Moshe blessed the people before he died, whereas Aharon’s final
interaction with the community is one of contention, in which the
people demand water and he and Moshe “strike the rock” in anger in
order to give it to them.

This turns Hirsch’s and Rashi’s interpretation around, to a certain
degree: perhaps the Torah adds an extra word to denote the pain the
Israelites felt upon losing Aharon not only because he was a beloved
man of peace, but because they had unfinished reconciliation to do
after the strife in the wilderness. To take the comparison further: at
the end of his life, Moshe gave his blessing, and the people received
it, but Aharon, whose explicit job description included blessing the
people, simply went up the mountain without having a chance to take
his leave. (Verse 27 says that the three men went up the mountain in
front of the entire community, but there is no indication that the
people knew what was going to happen.)

In this reading, the pain of the people comes not only from losing
Aharon, but from losing their chance to reconcile with him and make
their peace. Having officiated at hundreds of funerals, this makes
sense to me; while there is no such thing as “closure” (I’d like to
ban that word!), having a chance to say goodbye, with words and
rituals of transition and blessing, often brings great comfort to both
the dying and the soon-to-be bereaved.

Of course, the real challenge comes from knowing that any of us could
be “called to the mountain” at any time, making t’shuvah and
reconciliation a constant spiritual imperative. It’s quite simple,
really: if you want to be at peace with your loved ones, you have to
make peace with your loved ones! The people bewailed Aharon, but I
believe they also bewailed their lost opportunity to ask forgiveness
and express their love. Such opportunities can be fleeting, and are
precious beyond measure.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- as per usual, the full text of the parsha is here along with some

and a summary and other commentaries are here:

BUT, here’s something new and fun- I found a Torah commentary blog
which has many interesting thoughts on the parshiot, from modern,
classic, and Hasidic perspectives:

check it out and tell me what you think.

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Chukat: Sing to the Well

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chukat

Shalom Friends!

Our Torah portion this week is a busy one, but the overall theme
is Israel’s journey through the wilderness, with its triumphs and
Along the way, we get the law of the Red Heifer, which becomes
a purifying sacrifice; there are repeated stories about the need
for water in the desert; both Miriam and Aharon die and the
people mourn; there are plagues and battles; and Moshe
himself is told that he will die on the far side of the Jordan river
rather than go into the Promised land.

Much has been written about why Moshe wasn’t allowed to enter
the Land, but the key text is from Bamidbar/ Numbers chapter 20,
verses 7-13. After being told by God to take his staff (compare
with last week’s commentary) and speak to the rock to bring forth
water, Moshe strikes the rock, which is accounted as an act of
rebellion (or disobedience, or lack of faith, or <something> that
is not good) from God’s perspective.

However, today’s discussion will not be about the question of the
proportionality and fairness of Moshe’s punishment- for more on
that, find a link below.

Rather, I want to compare the text in chapter 20 to a passage
from the next chapter. The Israelites are traveling and camping
and shlepping through different places, and they still need water,
but things are a bit different this next time around. The people
end up by a well of water, of which the Torah says:

“. . . this is the well of which the Lord said to Moshe, ‘Gather the
people, and I will give them water.’ Then Israel sang this song:
‘Ascend, O well, sing to it! A well dug by princes, carved out by
captains, the nobles of the people, with their staffs. . . . . ` ”
(Bamidbar/Numbers 21:16-18)

Notice the difference? In the first story, Moshe strikes the rock,
and water comes forth; in this one, the people sing, and the
leaders dig, and water rises up from below.

As we did last week, I’d like to look at these stories as
metaphors for emotional stages along a religious journey. The
people are in a long (40 years!) transition from from the
“narrowness” of Egypt, to the mature state of being self-directed,
autonomous citizens of a nation in its land. They’re journeying
from a place where they had no power to a place of moral and
communal responsibility for themselves; in this sense, arrival at
the Land signifies maturity and the blessing and burden of self-

So what’s with the constant complaining along the way?

Well, I think of it this way: when the people are complaining
about water, what’s really happening is that their fear is getting
focussed on something concrete, something palpable and
definable- after all, if God brought them along for 40 years it
wouldn’t take that much more faith to believe that God would
bring them the rest of the way into the land! However, we know
that fear isn’t rational; a deeper fear than thirst was fear of
abandonment, fear of mortality (remember, Miriam, a leader of
the people, had just died), fear of change, fear of the new and
unknown. These fears were projected onto an immediate need:
“we have no water!”

Now we can go back to our stories and see them in a different
light. In the first story, Moshe strikes the rock; it seems to work,
but it’s not a good thing, as God’s reaction makes clear. Even
though Moshe had just lost his sister, and can’t be entirely
expected to be in control of his emotions, the story teaches that
one can’t conquer fear by lashing out, nor can one adequately
address feelings of frustration with anger and harsh words.

This is where the second story comes in, because in this case,
in order to make the well rise up, the people sang. They sang-
that is, they brought forth within themselves an expression of
longing and celebration. This, in turn, brings forth from a deep
place the “water” that they need. In the story, the deep place is
the earth, but as a metaphor for the journey, I think the deep
place that they “dug into” was within themselves.

By singing- or praying, or meditating, or other means of turning
inward in order to discern a deeper truth- the people were able to
“dig with their staffs” and find what they needed to carry on, in a
peaceable and sustaining manner. This stands in contrast with
the earlier story, in which the place where Moshe struck the rock
is called “mei meribah,” the “waters of contention,” signifying that
the complaining and consequent anger hadn’t really resolved
anything, as, in fact, such displays rarely do.

In anxious times of transition, it’s easy to “strike the rock,” with
words if not always in actual deed, but singing is the better
response. Singing, in our story, means joining together in
emotional authenticity, expressing what is most real in the
context of a sacred community, in order to draw upon the
sustaining Presence that is always available to us, if we dig
deep enough to find it.

shabbat shalom,


To compare these two chapters in their entirety, you can find a
translation here:

For further discussion of Moshe’s punishment including different
views from the classic commentaries, go here:

Finally, for a reasonably good article on Conservative rabbis
reaching out to the gay and lesbian community, featuring quotes
from your humble list owner, click here:

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Chukat 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chukat

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Chukkat (Numbers 19:1-22:1)


One could characterize the overall theme of parshat Chukat as encounters with danger and death. First we have the mysterious law of the Red Heifer, whose ashes are used to purify those who have become impure because of contact with a corpse. Then there are more laws about this severe form of ritual impurity. Miriam dies; the people complain about deadly thirst, and Moshe is sentenced not to enter the Land because he did not follow God’s instructions pertaining to providing water for the people. Aharon dies, and the people have to fight off attacks as they travel through the land.


“Moshe sent emissaries from Kadesh to the king of Edom, [saying], ‘So said your brother Israel: You know all the hardships that have befallen us. Our ancestors went down to Egypt and we dwelled in Egypt many years, and the Egyptians acted terribly to our ancestors. We cried out to God, Who heard our voice, and sent an angel and took us out of Egypt. . . . ‘ ” (Numbers 20:14-16)


The Israelites are camped at a place called Kadesh, and they want to take a shortcut through another kingdom, called Edom, on their way to the land of Israel. Edom is associated with the descendants of Esav, Yaakov’s brother (cf. Genesis 32:4, for example)- thus Moshe apparently hopes to gain some sympathy from the king of this country of “brothers.” This hope is rebuffed, and the Israelites have to take another route.


A key word in our little story is malach, which can mean a messenger or an emissary. Sometimes this messenger is a human being with a straightforward task, such as in verse 14, above: Moshe sends messengers to the king. However, what makes this word so interesting is that the word can also describe an “emissary” from God, what in English we would call an angel. Sometimes the Bible very clearly describes a malach as a heavenly being, as in the story of the birth of Samson:

    A certain man of Zorah, named Manoah, from the clan of the Danites, had a wife who was sterile and remained childless. The angel [malach] of God appeared to her and said, “You are sterile and childless, but you are going to conceive and have a son. . . (Judges 13:2-3)

On the other hand, consider this passage from Exodus:

    See, I am sending an angel [malach] ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared. Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him . . . (Exodus 23:20-21)

Is this emissary a human or divine figure? It’s not clear from the text, though most commentators think that it means a supernatural angel.

In our verse, in Numbers, Moshe tells the king of Edom that God sent a malach to lead the people out of Egypt. The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra says that this was a heavenly angel, sent by God to lead the people. On the other hand, Rashi says that this malach was Moshe himself. Rashi bases this on a text from the second book of Chronicles, which describes the reign of king Zedekiah, to prove that prophets are called “messengers” of God:

    Adonai, the God of their fathers, sent word to them through God’s messengers again and again, because God had pity on his people and on his dwelling place. But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of God was aroused against his people and there was no remedy. (2 Chronicles 36: 15-16)

What I like so much about Rashi’s description of Moshe himself as the “angel” sent by God to take the people out of Egypt is the idea that God works through human beings to accomplish holy purposes. What we know of Moshe from the Torah shows us a very real human being, a man who had real human faults, like anger, impatience, and a sharp tongue. Moshe also had incredible loyalty and compassion for his people- these, too, are the real human traits he displays in our texts.

So by saying that Moshe was the angel whom God sent, Rashi seems to be hinting that human beings, with all their imperfections, are capable of being representatives of God’s purpose in the world. I think this idea is very central to contemporary Jewish theology- human beings must strive to accomplish the redemption of the world. We don’t wait for an angel from heaven, we become the angel here on earth. We don’t necessarily wait for a supernatural being to appear, but we can instead seek to find the holy spark within ourselves, and within each person. The angel you’re waiting for might already be right in front of you.

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Chukat 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chukat

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

Chukkat (Numbers 19:1-22:1)


The overall theme of parshat Chukkat might be encounters with danger and death. First we have the mysterious law of the Red Heifer, whose ashes are used to purify those who have become impure because of contact with a corpse; then there are more laws about this severe form of ritual impurity. Miriam dies; the people complain about deadly thirst, and Moshe is sentenced not to enter the Land because he did not follow God’s instructions in providing water for the people. Aharon dies, and the people have to fight off attacks as they travel through the land.


“When the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who dwelt in the Negev, heard that Israel was coming by way of Atarim, he fought with Israel and made some of them captives.” (Numbers 21:1)


When the Israelites were somewhere in the Negev desert (south of the main populated areas of the contemporary state of Israel), a Canaanite king heard that they were on the way, and decided to attack them. According to the Plaut commentary, this king engaged the Israelites south of his kingdom, in the middle of the desert. After this battle they headed East again, to continue their wandering.


The book of Numbers is full of concise stories, only a few lines long: stories of the complaints of the Israelites, stories of their travels, even stories of their battles. The story in Numbers 21, above, doesn’t tell us much about this king of Arad, other than that he obviously didn’t want the Israelites passing through or near his territory.

That might indeed have been enough to spark a battle in ancient days, but many traditional Torah commentators see here more than just a skirmish over territory. They identify the unnamed king of Arad with the evil nation Amalek, which attacked Israel from behind as they left Egypt (see Exodus 17 and Deuteronomy 25.) One midrash imagines this as another instance of Amalek attacking at a moment of weakness:

    When Aharon died, and the cloud of [God’s] Presence departed on the first of the month of Av, the entire community saw that Moshe came down from the mountain, his clothes torn, crying out: “My woe is upon you! Aharon my brother, the pillar of the prayers of Israel!” They also cried for Aharon thirty days, both men and women of Israel. Amalek heard that the Israelites were encamped in the south of the land, and so they came and disguised themselves and ruled in Arad. Thus, when Aharon died and the cloud of the Presence, which would lead the people because of the merit of Aharon, departed, and when Israel came by way of Hatarim, which was a place that they rebelled against the Master of the Universe [by believing the spies]. . . .Amalek came and fought with Israel and took many captives.
    (from Yalkut Israel, a collection of midrashim from Talmudic times; translation mine.)

This interpretation is more or less followed by several of the classic commentators, including Rashi and Chizkuni. This midrash makes three connections: first, that the story of the king of Arad and the death of Aharon are side by side for a reason; second, that both Amalek and the king of Arad are described as dwelling in the Negev (see Numbers 13:29); and third, that Amalek has a particularly nasty streak, preferring to pick a fight when Israel is distracted and demoralized after Aharon’s death (compare Deut. 25).

The ancient rabbis had several sources in the Bible which described Amalek at the eternal enemy of Israel; it thus makes sense, from their perspective, that Amalek would be the one who attacks Israel for no apparent reason. Yet we can turn the midrash around: not only is Amalek known for taking advantage of Israel’s weak points, but by associating such behavior with the “super-villain” of the Torah, the rabbis are making an extremely strong moral statement. In other words, if Amalek are the kind of people who would attack Israel while they are in mourning for Aharon, then anybody who would take advantage of another in a moment of weakness is like Amalek- considered reprehensible by both humans and God, representing the worst side of human behavior.

Now, one doesn’t have to go as far as the rules of desert warfare to apply this principle to daily life. One could compare Amalek in this midrash to those who defraud gullible people, or use a tragedy to inappropriately sell their services, or even those leaders in society who stir up resentment and prejudice among different groups in order to consolidate power.

Maybe we even sometimes find the spirit of Amalek closer to home, in those moments of anger when we fire off a “cheap shot” at a loved one, using their fears or vulnerabilities against them. After all, in the midrash above, Israel was not only mourning Aharon, but doing so in a place that reminded them of their past mistakes; they were low both spiritually and emotionally.

To me, Amalek not an enemy “out there,” but representative of our most selfish and destructive urges. When we see opportunities for advantage rather than human beings in pain- that’s the spirit of Amalek. When we start regarding the people around us as competitors, rather than manifestations of the Divine Image- that’s the spirit of Amalek. When we start believing it’s a “dog eat dog” world- then we’re worse than animals, we’re back to Amalek again.

Our midrash this week is especially poignant for its comparison of Amalek to Aharon- the “pillar of the prayers of Israel,” described in the Talmud as “loving peace and pursuing peace, loving other people and drawing them close to Torah.” (Pirke Avot 1:12) In this image, Aharon is a worthy role model because he not only did he love the people around him, but helped them grow spiritually (understood by the rabbis as growing in Torah). As the Talmud portrays him, Aharon reached out to those in need with a hand of giving, and as our midrash this week implies, losing such a compassionate person is a loss like the Divine Presence itself departing from the community.

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