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Summary of the text: This parsha (torah portion) is one of the stranger ones of the Torah. Chapter 19 gives a discussion of the ritual of the Red Heifer, which involves the ritual killing of a purely red cow that is then burned, with the ashes being used afterwards for a variety of purification rituals, most notably the cleansing rituals one must perform after having come in contact with a corpse.

Chapter 20 moves back into the narrative with an account of the people grumbling, Moshe (Moses) striking the rock, and then God punishing Moshe and Aaron for speaking in a way that did not affirm God’s “sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people.” The punishment was severe: Moshe and Aaron would not be allowed to enter the promised land with their people.

The chapter then continues to a discussion of interactions between the Hebrew wanderers and their distant kin the Edomites (in short the Edomites do not show their kin hospitality), and then to the death of Aaron at Mount Hor.

Chapter 21 continues the narrative in telling of a set of battles between the Hebrews and the Canaanite king of Arad. The Hebrews were victorious but the people were becoming restless. Before long God sent “seraph serpents” into the camp to bite and kill the people until Moshe prays to the LORD, who then instructs Moshe to lift up a copper seraph snake on a pole, which magically would heal any of the snakebit dying people who looked upon the snake. (yes, this part is getting really weird).

The people of Israel continued in their wanderings and engaged with more battles against their neighbors, until finally they made their way (in 22:1) to camp on the “steppes of Moab, across the Jordan from Jericho.”

My reflections: This passage is strange and to me reflects some of the early pre-Jewish roots of Judaism, which includes the use of a copper serpent (which suspiciously like a kind of idol to me) to bring healing and the strange rituals involving the ashes of the red heifer (more discussion on some of the archetypal origins of the Red Heifer story can be found on the Velveteen Rabbi commentary on this parsha).

The question might be asked, what do the ancient stories mean to us today? Surely we are not supposed to kill red heifers to use for healing rituals (since that ritual is tied to the “tent of meeting” and later the temple), but I wonder if maybe there is a place for some kind of physical representation of cleansing.

We all have moments when we encounter death. Most of us don’t encounter corpses very often (with the exception of combat veterans and those who have survived terrible traumas — and of course doctors and morticians), but we all do encounter points of seeing death and decay, either literally or figuratively. Frankly every time we watch the evening news, every time we step outside of our comfort zone and go to comfort those experiencing trauma, we touch a little bit of death. And so maybe we need a bit of that “water of lustration” (talked about in this parsha) to cleanse our hearts and souls too. I’m not sure what the answer is (and I really am not advocating that we make copper serpents to gaze at or start killing red heifers), but I do think that our physical human bodies often need tangible experiences to remind us of the inner healing that God can bring.

Another key theme in this passage is the issue of hospitality. Israel encountered several of its neighbors in this passage (and even some kinfolks), but none of these neighbors let the Israelites pass peacably through their lands. Later on these old stories were used as justification by later generations for genocidal acts by the Israelites against these people, but at this moment in time these stories speak of the tragedy of hospitality that is not extended.

And finally there is the death of Aaron (and the prophesied death of Moshe to come). On the surface of it, God’s punishment of Aaron and Moses seems supremely harsh (after all these heroes led the people to liberation), but on further thought I wonder if these stories were in fact not the whole story? Maybe Aaron died of old age, and then Moses in turn died. Both died too soon, before they entered the land as a free people. And so maybe these stories sprung up to explain away the shame of these two great liberators not reaching the promised land.

Or maybe the story is true, and like Dr. Martin Luther King did in his final sermon (“I’ve been to the Mountaintop”), Aaron Moshe knew that their deaths were coming but that the mission of liberation would continue. Who knows really? The possibilities are so interesting to think about though.

For myself, I find comfort in knowing that even great leaders are human, that they die just like all of us do. We all might be a little bit divine (after all, we are made in the image of God), we all all will die. Even Aaron and Moshe died and so will we. We can remember and honor our heroes but we shouldn’t worship them either. And we need to remember that the struggle for justice can go on without them.