parshat Chukat, numbers 20
Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on July 7th 2022 on Clubhouse. In a parsha dedicated to death and with much attention on the enigmatic law of the Red Heifer we also witness the death of Moses and his siblings; the primary protagonists of the Exodus. Miriam dies in two verses and Moses and Aaron are sentenced to death with Aaron quickly dispatched. Which leads to the age-old question: Who Done it and why?
Welcome to Madlik. My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition. Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. This week’s parsha is dedicated to death and with much attention on the enigmatic law of the Red Heifer. But we also witness the death of Moses and his siblings; the primary protagonists of the Exodus. Miriam dies in two verses and Moses and Aaron are sentenced to death with Aaron quickly dispatched. Which leads to the age-old question: Who Done it and why? So welcome to Murder in the Desert.
So, this year, as I’m going through the parshiot the second time, I tend to go to the second half and realize that there’s a sequence and there’s a connection, as tenuous as it sometimes is. And as I said in the intro, last year, we talked about this enigmatic law of the Red Heifer for which is used when any Israelite comes into contact with death in any aspect. And we discussed it last year. It’s fascinating. But then the very next chapter Numbers 20 Verse number 1 says, and the Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of zin on the first moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there. And then it begins with the next crisis, which is there was no water. But Rashi on that verse says, Why is this section narrating the death of Miriam placed immediately after the section treating of the red halfa? And he answers to suggest to you the following comparison, what is the purpose of the sacrifices, they affect atonement, so too does the death of the righteous effect atonement, מִיתַת צַדִּיקִים מְכַפֶּרֶת. So we’ve been spending a lot of time on sacrifices. And of course, that is the segue; the red heifer is part of the sacrificial cult, and Rashi is disturbed by why is the death of Miriam and we’ll see in a second the death of Aaron, put right next to this story of the Red Heifer. I think the question is as good as any answer you could give. The question is telling us that there is a connection, that you don’t just have a death without there being meaning to that death, you don’t have a death in terms of its placement without there being lessons to be learned. And his particular lesson is that just as when we sacrifice an animal, we are trying to somehow parlay that into acceptance of repentance. When we lose somebody very dear or in this case a Tzadik or Tzadekus, a female righteous person, that kind of bodes well for us. But what intrigues you more the question or the answer, Rabbi?
Adam Mintz 03:27
Well, the answer is very interesting that the death of the righteous somehow atone. I mean, that sounds very Christian to me. Right. So, I think we I think I think we need to, to own it, to kind of call it as it is, and say the idea the answer is really problematic, unless we say that the Jews had it first, that that’s our idea that the death of the righteous somehow atones. And the Christians took it from us. Now first of all, that would be interesting, historically. But I think religiously, we have to figure out what does that actually mean? What does it mean, the death of righteous atone? I mean, that’s a pretty harsh statement, …. there’s a big question, obviously, about why bad things happen to good people. And you know, there’s no good answer to that question. One of the bad answers to that question is that the death of the righteous atones, and because the death of the righteous atones, so therefore, you know, somehow there’s a reason for the righteous to die. So, you know, that’s, where that’s coming from. The question is whether we’re satisfied with that approach.
Geoffrey Stern 04:37
So I’m willing to discuss that I love the connection that you made with Christianity, and I would go even further and make a connection with Islam as well. In terms of the founding fathers, the seminal leadership is taken away and look at it from that perspective as well. Yes, we can talk about somehow, we’ve always accepted as a Christian notion that the death of the Savior somehow redeems all of mankind. And we talked a little bit about that, even when we discussed the Akedat Yitzchok (The Sacrifice of Isaac). Then there are those Midrashim that says he was actually sacrificed and brought back to life. We’ve had this sense of where the tribe of Israel put their hands on the Leviim וְסָמְכ֧וּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל אֶת־יְדֵיהֶ֖ם עַל־הַלְוִיִּֽם and gave them certain powers, we have that with the Sir L’Azazel, the goat that on Yom Kippur gets thrown over the rugged mountain with the sins of the Jewish people, you get this kind of sense of transference, where somehow you can transfer your liability on to something or somebody else. And that’s a very strong tradition. And I think you’re absolutely correct. That probably, or for sure, Christianity took that from us. And I would also say on the rebound, almost for sure. We sublimated it, we made that kind of concept. “Oh, that’s Christian. That’s not us.” But what I want to talk about because it kind of follows the story a little bit, is that when we get to Aaron, we’re gonna find out that Aaron and Moses did something wrong. And that’s why Aaron is told his life is at an end. In the case of Miriam, you really have to dig, you have to go back way back to the earlier Numbers. 12, where if you recall, Miriam and Aaron, are speaking against Moses and his Kushite wife. And they basically said, Has God spoken only through Moses? הֲרַ֤ק אַךְ־בְּמֹשֶׁה֙ דִּבֶּ֣ר ה. And that resonates with us a little bit from Korach’s argument last week, there seems to be two things that bother the Jewish people in the desert. One is food, or drink. And we have that in this week’s parsha. But the other thing is רַב־לָכֶם֒, you’ve taken too much upon yourself. It’s kind of like we benefit from our leaders, and then we destroy them. Do you think there’s that thread as well here?
Adam Mintz 07:38
You know, that’s interesting that we benefit from our leaders and then we destroy them. That you know, that’s a lack of gratitude. That’s a very interesting idea that we don’t appreciate what we have. Now, the Jews of the desert. This is a little a little far afield, but it’s important for the general discussion. The Jews of the desert, don’t appreciate God, and they don’t appreciate their leaders, right? They complain about God, you know, God splits the sea. And the first thing they do is they complain that we don’t have water. When we don’t have water. Obviously, if God splits the sea, he can give them water, but it doesn’t matter. They don’t appreciate what they have. And they don’t appreciate Moshe that’s the story last week of Korach, that they don’t appreciate Moshe. So, they have these leaders, they benefit from the leaders, but then they complain about the leadership. That’s an important thing. Now that’s not exactly the same thing as the fact that their death atones. Let’s take a step back. Who does the death atone for? Geoffrey, you mentioned the rabbinic statement then מִיתַת צַדִּיקִים מְכַפֶּרֶת Who exactly does it atone for? Does it atone for the person who dies? Does it atone for the people? What exactly is it? You should know that there’s some Midrash, I don’t know where it is that says that in every generation, there are 10 children, innocent children who died and that that atones for the entire generations. I mean, that’s a very hard statement to make. Because how could you say that that there should be some kind of justifications for the fact that children would die.
Geoffrey Stern 09:16
What makes the Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer such an enigma is typically said in the following phrase שתטהר הטמאים ותטמא הטהורים, it makes the impure pure, and it defiles the pure; the priest who’s in charge of doing it, he himself becomes impure. And one of the takeaways that I took from that is that somehow this sense of kapara (purification) is a zero-sum game meaning to say that it’s like the transfer of energy, of pouring water from one glass to another. You know, we love to say The reason why Torah is compared to a light; is a light you can light and you can spread it without diminishing from the flame. But the way it treats purity, in a sense almost feels like it’s zero sum that if I have it you don’t. And if I give it to you, there’s a vacuum with me and I become impure. And my read on those 10 tzadikim, the ten pure children my read on the the sacrifices that they do in the temple and my read certainly on the tzadikim who are Michaperet, is that there is this transference. And we’re going to talk a little bit about Freud later, but it is a psychoanalytic concept where you transfer what you have, you expiate somehow on to something else, and then somehow you feel pure. And I do think that’s the basis of it.
Adam Mintz 10:58
Well, of course, that’s the idea of the of the goat that sent to Azazel, that’s sent to the desert and thrown off the cliff. And then the Jewish people are relieved of their sins on Yom Kippur war? Obviously, that’s the source of this whole idea. But that’s a goat. That’s not a person.
Geoffrey Stern 11:18
Well, absolutely. So let’s tack back a little bit to this concept of killing our leaders after they give us something and you said it lacks of Hakarat Tov of recognition of the good that we’re getting. So Rashi on Numbers 20: 2 says as follows There was no water for the congregation. Since this statement follows immediately after the mention of Miriam’s death. We may learn from it that during the entire 40 years, they had the well through Miriam’s merit. הַבְּאֵר בִּזְכוּת מִרְיָם. And of course, we nowadays have many songs with Miriam, the prophetess, and the relationship that she has to song and the timbrel, but also to the water. And unlike Aaron and Moses, that have someone to take up the charge, Moses famously has Joshua. And Aaron we’ll see in a few verses, has his son; Eleazar, Miriam, as I said, in the intro she dies in two verses. That in itself is tragic. But what’s amazing is that she when she dies, there’s something missing. When Aaron dies, they mourn. When Moses dies, they mourn, but when Miriam dies, they lose water, they lose water. And I think that is kind of fascinating because the next whole narrative in our parsha deals with the ramifications of them complaining about not having water, losing the water and then we’ll see in a few verses what Moses and Aaron did that got them into such trouble.
Adam Mintz 13:08
I think all this is good. I think that that’s good. I love the transference I love I love the Freudian transference idea. I think that if we can really prove that the toe rough where the rabbis have that idea of transference I think we can we can move Freud back about 3,000 years we’ll really have accomplished something today.
Geoffrey Stern 13:26
[Laughs] Very good. I liked that. I liked that a lot. So, in Numbers 20: 7 – 13. It has another famous story. And it says And God 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. Moses took the rod from before God as He had been commanded. Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of them and said to them, Listen, you rebels. Shall we get water for you out of this rock and Moses raised his hand and struck the rock …. twice with his rod. Out came copious water in the community and they are beasts drank. But God 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 the congregation into the land that I have given them. Those are the waters of Meribah meaning that the Israelites quarreled with God, whose sanctity was affirmed through them. And this is why I put the title of this podcast as Murder on the Desert, because it’s starting to sound a lot like Agatha Christie. First Miriam dies. Now we have Aaron and Moses within seconds and associated with the same issue of water, and they are told they too will die in an untimely fashion, if you consider not going into the promised land, which was their whole mission, an untimely fashion. So that’s why it seemed to me and I was struck by the key protagonists of the Exodus from Egypt, are given a death sentence in this parsha, and within a few verses of each other, it’s like the whole leadership of the whole people in one fell swoop in one chapter is knocked out. Well, don’t forget that last week, their leadership was questioned. So, you know, when your leadership is questioned, and that’s interesting, just in terms of, you know, today, Boris Johnson resigned, you know, when your leadership is questioned, that’s often the beginning of the end, right? You read the stories about Boris Johnson, you know, it started with a controversy, and then all of a sudden, he’s not the Prime Minister anymore, you know, and Korach questions, Moshe’s leadership, and all of a sudden, the next parsha they sin and they lose their leadership. It’s not by accident, it just didn’t just happen. Now, maybe Moshe and Aaron are frustrated, because their leadership was questioned, and therefore they lose their cool in a way that they would not have lost their cool had their leadership not been questioned. That in itself is a possibility and interesting, but I think the connection between these two parshas is very, is very, you know, significant. And again, we always look at the Kodak story, thank you for bringing it up. As what was wrong with Korach, what did he say that had no merit. But here we go. We have the same argument with Miriam and Aaron, questioning Moses, leadership in the in the beginning of the book of Numbers, we have it through the mouth of Korach. And here, we have basically God questioning their leadership to the extent that for whatever reason, and we can get into the minutiae of was it that he hit it was it that he hit it twice. But ultimately, the bottom line is that Moses and Aaron, were told, you’re not going to finish this job. You know, you can, you can take so many lessons from this, you can say, You know what it says in Perkei Avot, לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה, the job is not on each one of us to finish. And I think Martin Luther King Jr. made this case the most, he says, I’ve been to the mountaintop, and I might not finish it. And that’s always been one takeaway. And you could say what I said earlier, which is somehow we kill our leaders, maybe to expiate, in the sacrificial tradition. And maybe just because we have this, I don’t know, a difficult relationship with our leaders, we respect them, but in a sense, we feel they detract from our own identity. It’s kind of all here, and I’d love to hear your comments on that. But I’m gonna go right from here into what Freud actually did say about the death of Moses in the desert. But do you agree with me that it sounds so many different levels here?
Adam Mintz 18:19
I agree with you. I think this is the time to transition into Freud. Let’s see what Freud says, let’s try to pull the whole thing together. Good.
Geoffrey Stern 18:25
Good. So, in a book that he wrote in 1956, it was the last book that he wrote, it was called Moses and Monotheism. And he made two radical statements, I would say, three radical statements in it. The first thing that he did, and we’ve touched upon this before, is in the tradition of all of Greek and Roman mythology, where Romulus and Remus are, the children of the king, or exiled, have to fight their way back like Odysseus does. And then re-claim they’re titled, he said, something doesn’t work with the Moses story because Moses is not brought up by royalty and exiled to live with the slaves. He’s raised as a slave and then exiled to live with royalty. So, I think that makes our Bible unique Freud says that you don’t break any rules of mythology. He says, number one, Moses was an Egyptian. Number two, he was an in very enlightened Egyptian, and he was the one who came up with the idea of monotheism. And he took this rabble of Israelites into the desert. And like any good leader, he taught them these rules of against idolatry and all that and all they wanted to do is to go back to Egypt and eat their watermelons. And at the end of the day, what he preached was too much and they murdered him. And I want to focus on the murdering him part. Because usually as radical as a statement as you’ll make about, our texts, you’ll normally find a tradition like that in the text itself. And you really have to scratch your head to find something along those lines. We’re jumping a little bit ahead. But in our Parsha, after Moses and Aaron are condemned to death, it actually says that they took Aaron up out Aaron gathered his kins. And he told him I can’t go into the land of Israel. I’ve disobeyed Him. And they went with his son Elazar to the top of Mount Har. And it goes on and it says, And all the congregation saw that Aaron had died. And Rashi says, when they saw Moses and Elezar decending and that Aaron was not descending with them, they said, Where then is Aaron? He replied to them, he is dead. They thereupon said, Is it possible that a man who stood up against the angel and stayed the plague should die? And that’s why it says “in front of all the congregation”, Moses at once offered prayer, and ministering angels showed him (Aaron) lying upon the bier, and they believed, so I don’t want to drive the stake too low in this. But certainly, what it shows is that there was controversy over Aaron dying, all of a sudden, there were questions that were being asked here, Moses and Aaron go up, and only Moses comes down. So, it’s not, I think, outlandish to say that questions could have been asked by those of less faith, as to why Aaron, died. And of course, we all know putting on our Agatha Christie hats again, that Moses died in an unmarked grave, there was no habeas corpus they never produced the body for Moses. So, I think what the theory is, is something that potentially you could argue on a literary level as well, if you’re writing a book, or you have a series, and all of a sudden you do away with one of the characters. Okay, so you’re not murdering them. But you’re terminating them. And I do think that we have a right, with the suggestion of Freud to look at our texts. And think in terms of why was Miriam, Aaron, and Moses terminated? And that’s how I would like to rephrase Freud’s question, if you will, or statement, if you will, saying that they were terminated.
Adam Mintz 22:45
Right. Okay, so that’s really good. I mean, what you’re really doing is you’re saying, usually, when we think about Freud, Moses and Monotheism, you kind of get caught up in the fact that he says Moses was murdered. And it Torah doesn’t say Moses was murdered. So therefore, he’s making up the story. So, who cares about Freud’s story, but what you are saying is, leave that aside, don’t get caught up in that. Let’s talk about the fact that Moses is terminated, an airman is terminated and Miriam is terminated. Why are the leaders terminated? Why is it important that they’re they don’t reach their goal, and that they’re terminated? Now, this question is more complicated, because in the book of Devarim, Moses asked God, at least twice to be led into the land, you know, Moses, who put his life on the line so many times for the Jewish people, he asked God a little favor? And the answer is, he can’t even get that favor. And if you want to even go further than that, Moses wasn’t even buried in the Land. Right? At least you would say, you know, today when somebody dies, and they want to be buried in the Land, we put them on El Al, and they’re buried in the Land. But Moses didn’t even get that there was no El Al, but they didn’t take Moses into the land. Joseph, who dies in Egypt, they take him into the land, they carry him through the desert, they take him into the land and Kever Yoseph you know, the grave of Joseph is somewhere there on the West Bank, there is a grave of Joseph so that He was buried in the Land, Why did Moses get that benefit to be buried in the Land. So, he really is terminated, if you want to use the word in a cruel kind of way.
Geoffrey Stern 24:14
So picking up on this termination from a literary sense that he was dropped from the sequel, so to speak, in our portion and now portion contains a lot but this is kind of fascinating. In the next episode, the Jews are moving on and they reach out to the king of a Edom. And they say that we’d like to pass through you. We are going to stay on the Kings Road. We’re not going to take any food or water. And in his introduction, what Moses says by way of introduction, and he says as follows in Numbers 20: 15-16, He says our ancestors went down to Egypt that we dwelt in Egypt for a long time. And then he says, and we cry to Hashem who heard our plea, sending a messenger who freed us from Egypt. And it says, וַיִּשְׁלַ֣ח מַלְאָ֔ךְ וַיֹּצִאֵ֖נוּ מִמִּצְרָ֑יִם. So, Rashi says, a messenger, this was Moses. From this, we may learn that the prophets are termed angels. Iban Ezra was said, this is to be taken literally, it’s actually a real angel. And for those of you who know the Haggadah, the Haggadah in the first fruits decoration, we say and the Lord took us out of Egypt, not through an angel, not through a Seraph and not through a messenger, but directly by the Holy One, blessed behave, it goes on, I will pass through the land of Egypt, I am not an angel. And that of course always elicits the discussion. Why is Moses not mentioned in the Haggadah? So, I am making a case rabbi, that even in the beginning of this conversation, where we start repeating to other nations and people and then to ourselves, all of a sudden, we start to lose Moses, all of a sudden, now a discussion is being made, when you say, a messenger took us out, was that angel? Was it Moses, and the Haggadah maybe the result of a response to Christianity and Islam that had charismatic leaders, and they wanted to downplay the role of Moses, but in a sense, he was terminated in history too. And I think that is absolutely fascinating.
Adam Mintz 26:43
That is absolutely fascinating. And your connection to Christianity and Islam is also fascinating that the Jewish people moved away from charisma. Charisma became a bad word. It’s interesting in today’s world, you know, charismatic leadership, people are kind of suspicious of charismatic leadership, they’re worried that you know, what’s behind charismatic leadership, but what you’re going back is to is the ancient religions, and what you’re saying is that the charismatic leadership was problematic, or at least the Christians in the and the Muslims, they picked up on charismatic leadership. So, what Judaism did was they kind of tempered it, and Moses ism becomes less important. And the fact that Moses is not in the Haggadah is fascinating. And that is an attempt by the Rabbi’s, or the editors of the Haggadah, whomever they happen to be to temporal. Moses, his leadership, because it can’t be about Moses, because if it’s about charismatic leaders, then we’re all in big trouble.
Geoffrey Stern 27:39
So, in researching Moses and Monotheism and I love that book, from the first time that I read it, I found it so stimulating, I discovered that no less than Moshe Chaim Yerushalmi he wrote a book critiquing Freud’s whole approach on every level. But there is a guy named Mark Edmondson and I found an old article from the New York Times that I stuffed in my version of the Moses and Monotheism that I have in my library. And he talks about the third point that Freud makes. And the third point is that because the message that Moses gave was just too profound, too extreme for the Jewish people that he was, he was, yes, he was terminated. But then many years later, this enabled him the strength of that message, and the contrast to all of the cultures enabled to Jews to rediscover it. And at certain points in his book towards the end, he talks about this was the beginning of the power of ideas, that not only did we not have idols, we didn’t even have these charismatic, these icons of people that were bigger than life. And in a sense, that was his takeaway. And of course, Freud himself at the end of his days was starting to feel a little bit like Moses, because he had followers who will already started to eject his theory. So, I guess this was very personal for him. autobiographical, Moses is our father-figure at the end of the day, there is this deep-seated need, whether it’s Oedipal, and we want to kill our father or we want to distance ourselves from our parents and stand on our feet. This is as basic and as primal as it gets. And it’s all here in this this parsha that is dedicated to finding out how do we purify ourselves from the pull, the threat of death.
Adam Mintz 29:58
I think that’s great; I think Murder in the Desert. I think the idea of terminating I think connecting it to Freud. There’s a lot of, there’s a lot of food for thought here. And thank you, Geoffrey for these for these topics for these ideas. I wish everybody a Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem. I look forward to being back next week in New York back to our regular scheduled time at 8pm. New York Time Eastern Daylight Time, New York time and Shabbat Shalom to everybody and thank you, Geoffrey.
Geoffrey Stern 30:25
Shabbat Shalom, Nesia Tova, enjoy!
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