The Yoke of Sacrifice: Parashah Chukkat Numbers 19:1 – 22:1

Why did the Israelites have to spend 40 years in the wilderness? I was brought up to believe that the reason was that they still were drenched in the slave mentality that they had when they were in Egypt. It took two generations to wash out the residue of a sense of submission and dependency and thus enable them to take on the tribes of the Promised Land and defeat them.

This macho explanation seems on the surface to make psychological and sociological sense. Further, such an interpretation is consistent in many ways with this week’s parashah. After all, God instructs Moses and Aaron to obtain a red unblemished cow “upon which no yoke was laid.” Those who must offer their bodies and blood in the war that is inevitably coming must not have experienced the yoke of slavery. Instead of a golden calf to be worshipped by the mentally enslaved, this rare and perfect specimen must be burned and sacrificed and its ashes kept as “a keepsake for the congregation of the children of Israel for sprinkling water used for cleansing.”

Why do the Israelites have to cleanse themselves this way? Why does contact with a corpse make them unclean, whether it be the corpse of someone who died a natural death, died of a disease or whether the individual was slain in battle? “If a person becomes unclean and does not cleanse himself, that soul shall be cut off from the congregation, for he has defiled the Sanctuary of the Lord; the sprinkling waters were not sprinkled upon him. He is unclean.” (Numbers 19:20) So instead of the golden calf being an idol of worship, the ashes of a red heifer “shall be for the Israelites a perpetual statue.” 

Why have ashes of a pure red heifer that has never been yoked to a plough serve as a statue rather than a golden calf? Precisely to get men to face their humility rather than their pride. For from ashes dost thou come and to ashes wilt thou return.

This is the backdrop of the portion which continues in chapter 20 on a seemingly very different subject – the complaints of the Israelites to their leader Moses about the scarcity of water. We read the same refrain – why did you bring us here into this wilderness without water so that we and our cattle may die? The wilderness is an evil place without seeds, fig trees grapevines or pomegranate trees. Then we read of the famous scene where Moses takes his staff, hits a rock and from it water gushes forth. And the equally famous rejoinder of God to Moses, “Since you did not have faith in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the Land which I have given them.” (20:12) Moses will not be allowed to lead his people into the Promised Land. What was Moses error? He asked the congregation, not whether God would let water flow from the rock but whether we (Moses and Aaron) can draw water from the rock.

One additional issue became clear; the Israelites were not a strong enough and disciplined military force to take on the Edomites who refused to allow Israel to cross through their territory. The evidence piles up that time was needed in the wilderness to turn them from slaves into a fighting force.

Further, Aaron too will die in the desert because he did not acknowledge God as providing the water. Moses stripped Aaron of his priestly garments and gave them to his son, Eleazar; Aaron died on Mount Hor. Then the Canaanite king of Arad warred on the Israelites and took a captive. However, the Israelites prayed to their God and He destroyed the Canaanite cities and consecrated them for the Israelites.

As the Israelites march on and complain bitterly of their situation, God this time sent a plague of snakes, serpents to bite them and they died. But Moses made a rod with a snake wound around it that bore a striking resemblance to the rod of Asclepius which is used to cure a bitten Israelite from a bite.

Their wandering continued – from Oboth to the wasteland that faced the Moabites, to the stream of Zered and on the other side of the Arnon. Again, the Israelites sent a message to Sihon, king of the Amorites, asking for permission to pass through their lands. Again, they were turned down. But Sihon went a step further and attacked the Israelites. This time, the Israelites turned on the Amonites and slew them and captured their cities.

Does this not seem proof enough that the tour of duty in the wilderness was intended to turn the Israelites into a formidable fighting force? The Israelites went on from victory to victory.

The dilemma with this interpretation is that it leaves too many puzzles unexplained. First, why is the scene where Moses strikes the rock with his staff to bring forth water followed by the explanation that the Israelites were too weak as a military force to engage in a conflict with the Edomites who would not let the Israelites cross their territory? However, this was their 40th year of their sojourn in the wilderness. If not then, when? Further, immediately after they go on the war path, they beat one tribe after another.

There is an explanation. This story did not take place in the 40th year but in the first year when they began their sojourn in the desert. The story of Moses striking the stone with his staff to bring forth water was told before – in Exodus (17:1-7). Then, the people complained to Moses over escaping slavery only to bring them to a desert where they would die of thirst. If this were the fortieth year of their wandering, why would they still be complaining about being misled in their escape from slavery? The wilderness of Zin would appear to be the wilderness of Sin referred to in Exodus. Further, the place where the water gushed forth was named “Waters of Quarrel” (Mei Meribah) [or “Testing of Quarrel” in Exodus] symbolizing the Israelites quarrel with Moses.

Why tell the story again here? It is to make a different point. The issue is not simply that Moses and Aaron this time were punished for taking the credit for bringing forth the water. Moses and Aaron broke faith with God. (Deuteronomy 32:51) They took credit. They stood on their own feet instead of simply following orders. And they paid the ultimate sacrifice for their disobedience, but a sacrifice necessary if the Israelite army was to act independently, creatively and as a unified force. For the Israelites were now powered by a self-confidence and morale based on a unified polity.  

The story is about giving birth to a new kind of Israeli as symbolized by the breaking of a membrane and waters gushing forth as when a woman is ready to give birth. Miriam died at the beginning of the story with no comment on the significance of her life and death. Moses and Aaron were left to die in the wilderness without entering the Promised Land. This in itself suggests that the Israelites were about to embark on a new cultural order, not dependent as before on absolute rulers. The old order dies and gives way to the new. Did it mean that they were no longer dependent of an absolute patriarchal order?

Rashi explained the repetition of the event (and not just the story) as arising because Miriam had died and it was because of Miriam, the one who saved her brother by floating him on the water, that the Israelites had water. When she died, once again water became scarse. I do believe Miriam has a key role in interpreting the portion, but not as an explanation why water became scarce. She did die in the wilderness of Zin where the miracle of the water gushing from the rock took place.  

The overwhelming evidence suggests that this was the same story about the same event, but one given a very different twist when the Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land. And it will be about a feminine principle and not about the need to socialize men to be macho rather than slavish. Further, they battle unlike any army I have read about. They politely ask for permission to pass through a territory and guarantee that they will not steal a single animal. They engage in war only when passage is denied. They not only surrender the greatest strategic benefit of all – surprise – but they clearly signal that they do not want war. Not very macho!

Further, this portion continues the pattern of the Torah of giving very short shift to the death of heroines and almost no attention to their burial in contrast to how the tales of the great men’s deaths and burials are recorded and, as well, in contrast to post-biblical accounts of women’s deaths, such as those told by Philo and Josephus.

Finally, it is questionable whether the Israelites had a slavish personality in the first place. In fact, I would claim that a major theme running from Exodus to Numbers about the Israelites’ forty years in the wilderness is about their grumbling and complaining, about their dissent and willingness to say it as it is rather than buckle under and simply obey the commands of their authoritarian leaders and God. The story of the snakes offers another example.

“YHWH sent saraph serpents against the people. They bit the people and many of the Israelites died.” (Numbers 21:6) The people surrender and express once again their regret. In criticizing Moses and God, they were out of line. Once again Moses is asked by his people to intercede with God. Once again, God relents. He tells Moses to make a sculpture of a serpent coiled around a rod. It can be used to heal people who are bitten. It is the same icon that the Israelites will have come to worship in the time of King Hezekiah (Kings 18:4) but one that Hezekiah would destroy. (But that is another story. How did a symbol of health and healing become an object of idol worship to which sacrifices were offered?)

In Egypt, serpents were symbols of life and healing, of monarchial rule and protection. In ancient Greece, Asclepius, the son of Apollo, was rescued by his father from the womb of his mother Coronis before she died. Asclepius was identified by the staff he held with the serpent wound around it that became the symbol of medicine. The story told in this week’s portion links the Garden of Eden story where the serpent of poisonous tongue is reduced to a slithering figure on the ground. Contrast this with the resurrection of the snake to a position among the gods and rulers to serve the most humanitarian of purposes, bringing life back to a person on the verge of death.

I suggest that this tale of fertility, of healing, of the resurrection of the snake from being regarded as a sinful danger, of sexual temptation, offers a critical element in interpreting the portion. Moses is transformed before he dies from a ruler who governs by division and divination to one who serves as a healer bringing the people he led together. This is what made the Israelite army powerful. It was unified and not divided by factions. It was not a murderous band, however much destruction it brought, but its goal was civility and peace. In sum, it was not a macho army.

Like Asclepius, Moses was a baby rescued from death. The Israelites were on the verge of entering the Promised Land. However, they were suffering from a serious problem of morale. The root of the problem – dissent was not tolerated. The leadership did not recognize others with a different voice and perspective as worthy of respect, as worthy of a hearing. How better to heal this deficiency than by telling the same story from a different perspective, but this time where the ultimate dissent and sacrifice was paid by the two highest leaders.

Eve recognized sex. Eve was not just a material projection of Adam’s body but an independent being. Adam had to learn that he was embodied, that he was not simply an instrument to continue God’s role in creation by naming and classifying things. Adam needed a heart. It is at the end of the wilderness tale that the Israelites finally come to recognize they have a heart, that their survival depends much more on their feelings towards one another than any military prowess. Further, it was Eve through procreation that ensured the continuity of human life. Yet that role in procreation was seen as punishment for she brought forth new life in pain.

Like Asclepius, Moses too would learn the art of healing, of bringing together by recognizing and listening to the other just as Asclepius acquired his medical knowledge and wisdom by observing the snake. Moses would give the Israelites his final lesson – the importance of willing sacrifice if a powerful and creative polity was to develop.

Attending to the inclusion of Marion as the foundation of the parashah, attending to the symbolic meaning of the twist of bringing water from a rock by striking it with one’s staff, allows the punishment of both Aaron and Moses for not recognizing God as the exclusive source of everything, to make real sense. Moses and Aaron effectively rebelled. They had to be punished. However, their sacrifice made all the difference in transforming the Israelites.

Hence the importance of the red unblemished cow “upon which no yoke was laid.” Its ashes must be kept as “a keepsake for the congregation of the children of Israel for sprinkling water used for cleansing,” as a perpetual statue. Dirty water as a perpetual statue!!! Further, how can dirty water be used to purify another? And why is that other made impure by contact with death and with dirty water?

Aaron and Moses lose their purity by getting their hands dirty. They take responsibility onto themselves and suffer the consequences. Just as the clothes in a washing machine are cleaned by making pure water dirty, so do Moses and Aaron become dirty in order to cleanse the Israelis and turn them into a unified polity. They remove dissension by becoming the dissidents themselves. Thus, they teach the Israelites what it really means to both recognize another as other yet deeply and truly invest in and sacrifice for that other.

This is what the process of expiation, cleansing and purification is about. That is how sins are really washed away. It is we who must sacrifice for the mess God left, for it is God, who is disembodied, who had not yet learned what it meant to be embodied and to love another, and how that reciprocal love was so very critical to creating an effective polity. Moses and Aaron serve as the scapegoats to pass along this lesson. After all, the red heifer is a female. No more blaming others. Recognize others and take responsibility for what you do. Water is the means to wash away our mindblindness even if it means that the water of purification becomes dirty in the process.

With the help of Alex Zisman


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