Chukkat 5778 – Roffman Goes Rogue: A Death Decree that Isn’t; A Mistake by the Sages, and More

By: Dr. Joel Roffman

Last Shabbat, I was having lunch with the Steiners right here. When I told Melsissa the title of my d’var for this week, “Roffman Goes Rogue,” she said, “Ha! Again?,” and Ron said, “Why am I not surprised?” Well, sometimes I do come at this from an unconventional direction. Many years of reading about decision-making, social psychology and medicine has served me very well in my profession, where old assumptions and dogma can lead us astray. When studying Torah, taking a fresh look can give new insights, and the wondrous way that torah is a guide for life never ceases to amaze me. So with that in mind . . .

This is a parashah about death. The story of the red heffer gives detailed purification instructions after one comes in direct contact with a dead person. Also in the parashah, Miriam dies, Moses and Aaron are condemned to death. Aaron dies. And then in the haftorah, we would have another death – this time a very senseless one – but it is omitted because of an error by our sages – we’ll get to that in a couple of minutes.

In the parashah, the feature that gets the most attention is when Moses strikes a rock, bringing forth water for his stiff-necked rebels, and Gd tells him that because of what he had done, he will soon die. As you can imagine, scholars have had a field day with this. What did Moses do to deserve such a harsh judgment? He struck the rock instead of speaking to it? Come on, Gd, don’t be so thin-skinned! Anyway, we’ll get back to that. Well, each of these four examples carries its own message, and together they add up to become what is a very important and powerful parashah.

The first death in the parashah is that of Miriam. Such an important figure in the story of our people. Ensuring that Moses will know his origins after he was cast into the river by his mother and saved by an Egyptian princess. Supporting others during their journey in the desert. Five Hebrew words – part of a single verse – was all that was written about her death. Well Miriam’s passing will not be given short shrift here at KC! After we read that Miriam has died, the very next verse tells of the subsequent lack of water for the Israelites. Remember that a midrash tells of a well of water that followed Miriam in the desert. Now, without Miriam, the Israelites missed the nourishment of the body and, perhaps, the nourishment of the soul by Miriam herself.

Rewards for good deeds are often very private affairs, such as when we perform acts of loving kindness for one another. But just as the simple description of Miriam’s death was followed by the lack of water for the entire Israelite nation, a small act of kindness that we perform can have a profound effect. Miriam was beloved by a nation and is now revered by us.

But at the time of her death, little was made of it. It doesn’t lessen her importance, which has become magnified through the years. Just as the Talmud says that one who saves a life, it is like saving an entire universe, Torah teaches that one who performs a single good deed can have a profound effect on an entire life.

The next death is that of Aaron. Torah teaches that he was also a beloved figure because of the way he brought people together. It is told that he would bring two quarreling people together by telling each privately that the other felt terrible about their rift, but was embarrassed to come forward. Of course, they would then reconcile.

He bestowed his vestments upon his son just before his death, and we read that the people mourned for 30 days – this is where our tradition of sheloshim comes – the 30 days of mourning for a close relative. This priest of the temple – maybe the equivalent of Alan! – was regarded as close kin to all the people. And in the case of our shul, maybe this applies to not just Alan, but all of us. After all, in our small kehillah – community – we’re all participants in our shul and are regarded as kin by one another.

Instance number three. In the haftorah, the previously outcast Yiftach is brought back by the Israelites to lead them in battle, to be a powerful general. He makes a Faustian bargain, telling Gd that if his battle is a success, he will offer as a burnt offering “Whatever first comes from my house upon my return from battle,” fully expecting one of his many livestock to be the first “greeter.” Does anyone remember who greets Yiftach when he returns home? Yes – his daughter. But this key element of the story is left out of the haftorah! And in Etz Chaim, the commentary about the haftorah doesn’t even mention this climax to the story. Read the commentary in Etz Chaim about the relationship of the haftorah to the parashah – I think it’s a bit contrived!

The whole parashah is about death: the red heffer sacrifice, the deaths, or at least the sentences of death of 3 great leaders of the Exodus. The haftorah ends with verse 33. In verse 34 in the Book of Judges, we read that it was Yiftach’s daughter who comes out to greet him and is subsequently and tragically put to death. The entire chapter in Judges ends with verse 40. Would it have been so difficult to include this major feature of the entire lesson? Seven more verses! This could have given a meaningful and purposeful juxtaposition between the deaths of beloved people in our history versus a death brought about by selfishness and arrogance. Clearly, this was a mistaken omission by our sages.

Anyway . . . Torah teaches that arrogance comes before the fall. Yiftach was a great warrior, brought back by the Israelites to lead them in battle. Do we remember him kindly? Do we remember him at all, except for one portion of a haftorah? He was so sure of a happy would-be ending and as a result, lost his only child.

Now on to Moshe. What did he do to merit such a harsh judgment? As you know, speculation in our tradition’s writings runs rampant. He struck the rock rather than speaking to it. He lost his temper with the Israelites. And on and on. So what was the real reason? Nothing . . . and everything. Effective leadership requires many traits – bold actions, humility, patience, foresight.

Yes, Moses lost his temper, insulted his people and said that he (not Gd) would provide water for them. Maybe he lost his leadership focus from fatigue (after all, he had been leading the Israelites for decades). Maybe he lost his focus from grief (after all, he just lost his sister, Miriam) and maybe all of this gushed out, just as the water gushed out, with this singular episode.

Anyway, for Moses, it was time. In my view, his death sentence maybe wasn’t a death sentence at all. Maybe Moses wasn’t being punished. Maybe Gd’s words were simply foretelling what was inevitable. It wasn’t that Moses committed some great sin. It was that he was human. And as for all humans, there comes a time. We can and should put off this time as long as we are able. We all carry burdens, just as Moses did. For most, the burdens only increase with age. But for those with wisdom, fortitude and equanimity, when that time does come, they are revered, as Moses was.

And so while we would just as soon forget the arrogance and selfishness of Yiftack we hold dear Miriam’s acts of loving kindness, Aaron’s gift of reconciliation, and Moses’s skills of leadership. The accounts of events in the Torah may not have actually happened, but they are truthful. The Torah has given us three great examples and lessons that even contrarians can aspire to.