This parashah starts with the regulations about the Red Heifer ashes being used to cleanse people defiled by contact with a dead body. We then find ourselves in the 40th year of the desert travels, with Miriam dying, leaving Israel with no water (we will come back to this soon.) Aaron and Moses are told by God to strike the rock to give water, but in his anger Moses strikes it twice, and claims that he and Aaron are the ones giving them water (Numbers 20:10):
He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?
This statement made God angry because they did not give the proper credit to God and make Him holy in the sight of the people, and their punishment was severe- Moses and Aaron were prohibited from entering the land of Canaan.
The rest of this parashah tells us of the death of Aaron, describes the sin of rebellion that caused God to send snakes against the people, and the successful military battles of the people against Arad (this battle is out of place, chronologically, as it had preceded the battle referred to in Numbers 14:40-45), ending with their conquering Og, the King of Bashan and Sichon, the king of Heshbon and taking all their lands (which later were the lands in which Reuben, Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh settled.)
As I have complained about so many times…where do I start? There is just so much in this one parashah to talk about. But I did promise to come back to the point about there being no more water after Miriam died, so let’s start there.
Miriam is considered to be one of the three good leaders of Israel and Jewish legend says that due to her merit, the rock which brought forth water accompanied Israel as long as she lived. Reference to this rock is made by Shaul in 1 Corinthians, 10:3-4:
They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was the Messiah.
This is confusing: Jewish legend has it that Miriam was the Rock that produced the water, and here a well-trained, knowledgeable Pharisee is saying that it wasn’t Miriam, but Yeshua who was the Rock travelling with Israel through the desert. The bible isn’t supposed to contradict itself, so what do we make of this seeming contradiction? I looked this up in the Jewish New Testament Commentary, by Dr, Daniel Stern: he related many of the different ways the term “Rock” has been used to describe God and Messiah, both in scripture and in songs, but in the end he confessed he didn’t know why Shaul (Paul) used it this way in his letter. Maybe we will never know what was in Shaul’s mind at the time, just like I don’t think we will ever know what he meant when he wrote about the “Israel of God” at the end of Galatians, either.
But we can say that this is not a biblical contradiction because Miriam being the Rock is not specifically stated in Torah- it is just a legend. And Shaul referring to the Rock as Messiah is nothing more than a descriptive analogy which doesn’t contradict any specific event in Torah.
This issue does present us with a midrash from today’s parashah: do we always need to understand what we read in the bible? The commentary in the Chumash states that the ordinance regarding the Red Heifer is so mysterious that even King Solomon was unable to fathom it’s meaning. In Jewish history, Johanan ben Zakkai told his students, “…but the law concerning the Red Heifer is a decree of the All-holy, Whose reasons for issuing that decree it behoves not mortals to question.” In other words, God said it is to be that way and that’s all we mere mortals need to know.
And that is, in my opinion, the main reason people reject God and create their own religions: we want to know why. We HAVE to know why! It is a compulsion, and I believe that it is based on the desire for power. As they say, knowledge is power, and people want to be more powerful than the next guy, so if I understand God better than you I am above you, more powerful than you, and deserve to lead you. Selfish, self-centered, egotistical behavior…all innately human. The good news is that this need to know why drives us to scientific investigation and, thereby, is the root cause of the discovery of useful and wonderful inventions, as well as all the medical and technological advancements we have made over the centuries.
On the other hand, that alone may be reason to question if needing to know the “why” of everything is actually a good thing. Technology has taken us over, medical advancements have cured diseases but the cost of discovery is so high no one can afford the cure! We know how to read the human genome, and how to use stem cell technology, but the more we learn about our genetic make-up, the closer we come to thinking we are like God because we are able to heal, and even create life. That is NOT a good attitude to have.
Maybe we should try to be more humble, less inquisitive and more accepting of God’s omniscience so we can be more obedient? Isn’t it time to redirect our footsteps from the path of discovery to the ways of worship?
I think we should, but I don’t see it ever happening. Human nature is inquisitive, curious, and we all want to be self-determining. We want to be in charge, we want to know what it is all about, and we want to have control over our lives. It is the reason we were thrown out of Eden; it is the reason we sinned with the Golden Calf; it is what killed Dathan, Abiram and Korach; it has been the bane of humanity and the foundation of sin since humanity was created. And I don’t think it is going to end until humanity ends in the Acharit HaYamim (End Days.) Once we are no longer shackled with this mantle of sinful flesh and are resurrected into our eternal, spiritual bodies will we be able to enjoy and find peace in being humble and obedient to God, constantly worshiping Him. Humility and obedience is just not part of our DNA, and no amount of Recombinant DNA, cloning, stem cell technology or biological research will ever put it there.
We need to work at being humble and accepting what God said to do as simply something we should do. To paraphrase from the great poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson:
Ours not to reason why; ours but to do and live!
So do what God says (that’s the stuff in the Torah, in case you weren’t sure) and do so without asking why, without kvetching about it, and without trying to figure out what it all means. Really- understanding what God means won’t get you any more “saved” than the next person, and a Gnostic search for meaning just might end up pulling you further from your salvation than bringing you closer to it.