The Temple Institute: Temple Talk: Rosh Chodesh Tammuz, 5768/July 3, 2008

"This is the ordinance of the Torah"
(Numbers 19:2)

This week's Torah reading opens with the description of the laws concerning the red heifer, referring to these laws as "chukat haTorah - the ordinance of the Torah." (Numbers 19:2) Our sages teach us that Torah refers to it as "the ordinance of the Torah" and not simply as the law of the red heifer in order to emphasize that of all Torah ordinances the red heifer most exemplifies the true essence of an ordinance. And what is its true essence? An ordinance or chok is a specific genre of Torah commandments that are part of man's service to G-d, as opposed to commandments that are societal, or civil, or moral in nature. As such, the chok defies rational explanation, but its performance is an abiding testimony to man's faith in and dedication to G-d.

Of all Torah ordinances, the red heifer is considered the most unfathomable. Even King Solomon, the wisest of men, in the book of Kohelet - Ecclesiastes - admits that the mystery of the red heifer is beyond his ken. Only Moshe rabeinu - Moses our master - was able to grasp the secret of the red heifer. His extraordinary modesty and humility freed his mind and heart of the considerations and impulses that so often hold us others back. Unencumbered by selfishness or ego, his intellect soared to regions unknown to others.

So it comes as a great surprise when later on in the Torah reading of Chukat, we read about how Moses struck not once but twice the rock that G-d instructed him to talk to. What happened? Were Moses' thoughts elsewhere when G-d was talking to him? And why does Moses further complicate his situation by lashing out at the children of Israel, referring to them as "rebels"? (Numbers 20:10) And why was G-d so harsh in dealing with Moses, denying him entry into the promised land of Israel? After all, it was only a rock.

What an unfortunate way for Moses to end a career that had lasted some eighty years. Moses first assumed the role of leader when he struck the Egyptian that struck the Hebrew slave, although it would be decades before he would realize his potential. And now eighty years later he strikes an inanimate rock, and for that he will be denied his greatest dreams and aspirations.

How unfortunate. Or not. If we can accept that Moses' understanding of the red heifer is far beyond our understanding, then it stands to reason that we are also blinded to the deep inner truth concerning the rock. There are two midrashic (homiletical) teachings that perhaps can shed light on Moses' actions. One midrash simply states that the rock bled when Moses struck it. The other midrash states that Moses was on such an exalted and perfected level of prophecy that, if he had personally led the children of Israel into the land of Israel, and had built the Holy Temple, then that Temple would have never been destroyed. If that were the case then what would G-d have done when, tens of generations later, the children of Israel backslid and rebelled? Instead of destroying the Holy Temple He would have destroyed the Jewish people - G-d forbid! In light of these two midrashim, one could draw the conclusion that Moses, foreseeing the future, understood the danger of himself personally entering into the land of Israel, and realized he must do something about it! When he calls the children of Israel "rebels" he is not referring to the generation of the desert, but to the future generations that will provoke G-d's wrath. When he strikes the stone and draws blood, he is symbolically striking the stones of the Holy Temple which in the future will bear the fury of G-d's displeasure with His people. In short, by disqualifying himself from entering the land, Moses was safeguarding the future of his beloved people.

Rather than being a study of contrasts, the red heifer representing the apotheosis of Moses, the man of G-d, and the striking of the stone his tragic denouement, it is the very same Moses whose greatness shines is both cases: his utter attachment to G-d and his complete subjugation of self for the sake of his people Israel. The mystery of the red heifer and the mystery of the stone are one: beyond our intellectual grasp, yet each an expression of G-d's blessing.

Tune in to this week's TEMPLE TALK as Rabbi Chaim Richman and Yitzchak Reuven discuss the ordinance of the red heifer, Moses' great humility, and his unusual behavior concerning the rock.

Click to hear:

Part 1