Category Archives: Chukas

Sefer Bamidbar – סֵפֶר בְּמִדְבַּר

Bamidbar, בְּמִדְבַּר

Counting the people (‘Parsha in Our Lives’ series)

Naso, נָשֹׂא

Blessing the people (‘Parsha in Our Lives’ series)

Behaalotecha, בְּהַעֲלֹתְךָ

The meat and the manna: the art of delayed gratification

B’rich sh’mei (‘Parsha in Our Lives’ series)

Shlach, שְׁלַח-לְךָ

The mitzvah of Challah (‘Parsha in Our Lives’ series)

Korach, קֹרַח

Techeiles (‘Parsha in Our Lives’ series)

Chukat, חֻקַּת

What did Moses do wrong?

Tumah and aeroplanes (‘Parsha in Our Lives’ series)

Parah Adumah and Leaving a Cemetery (‘Parsha in Our Lives’ series)

Balak, בָּלָק

Cruelty to Animals

Cursing and swearing (‘Parsha in Our Lives’ series)

Pinchas, פִּינְחָס

To lead and be led

Rosh Chodesh Torah reading (‘Parsha in Our Lives’ series)

Matos, מַּטּוֹת

Masei, מַסְעֵי

Pots and sinners

Taking risks and preventing harm (‘Parsha in Our Lives’ series)

Tumah and aeroplanes

This is the law: if a man dies in an ohel, anyone entering the ohel and anything in the ohel shall be unclean for seven days. (Bamidbar 19:14)

The Torah forbids kohanim (priests) to become defiled from contact with a dead body (Leviticus 21:1). Maimonides (d. 1204) explains that there are three ways in which tumah (spiritual impurity) could be conveyed; touching, carrying and entering an ohel (tent or covering) with a dead body (Laws of Impurity 1:1) which includes proximity to a dead body.

A number of questions arise as a significant amount of the earth’s surface probably contains dead bodies, from ancient graveyards to former battlefields. In addition, while Maimonides ruled that a non-Jew does not impart tumah via an ohel (Laws of a Mourner 3:3 based on Yevamot 61a), according to the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law published in 1565), even non-Jewish cemeteries should be avoided (Yoreh Deah 372:2). This would make it impossible for a kohen to go anywhere.

Yet the Talmud rules that in a case of indeterminate or unspecified tumah in a public area, we may rule that the area is tahor (pure) and a kohen may enter (Nazir 57a).

Maimonides adds that tumah defiles a person who is directly above a grave regardless of their distance (Laws of Impurity 1:10). This implies that it is forbidden for a kohen fly on an aeroplane over a Jewish cemetery unless there is some chazizah (barrier) blocking the tumah. The chazizah must be something which cannot become defiled itself.

Nonetheless, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (d. 1986) held that only the metals listed in the Torah (Numbers 31:23) are subject to tumah. Since aeroplanes are made from aluminium and titanium, the plane’s fuselage is enough to prevent tumah from defiling the kohen on board (Iggerot Moshe Yoreh Deah II 164).

While it appears that this leniency may be relied on, some who wish to be stringent resort to temporarily wrapping themselves in plastic (which being manmade is not affected by tumah) on aroplanes which fly over the Holon cemetery. This may cause some embarrassment to others, but perhaps we should admire someone who is willing to risk derision and mockery for the sake of upholding their convictions and principles.

Parah Adumah and Leaving a Cemetery

The beginning of this week’s Torah portion details the laws relating to the parah adumah (Red Heifer), the ashes of which were included in a mixture required to remove the tumah (spiritual impurity) received through contact with or proximity to the dead. Unlike other forms of spiritual impurity which can be removed through immersion in a mikveh (ritual bath), the impurity brought about from death required the Red Heifer.

Since the destruction of the Temple it has not been possible to prepare the ashes of the Red Heifer. Nevertheless, even in modern times we have retained some customs which remind us of the nature of death and its association with spiritual impurity.

The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 4:18) cites that it is necessary to wash one’s hands (without making a blessing) three times from a vessel, alternating between the right and left hands after leaving a cemetery or being in the same room as a dead body. The 13th century Jewish legal work attributed to Rabbi Aharon ben Yaakov HaKohen of Narbonne, writes that we wash our hands on exiting the cemetery as a direct remembrance to the process of purification with the Red Heifer (Kol Bo chapter 114)

While this tradition cannot offer the same spiritual purification of the Red Heifer, it demonstrates that while it is a great mitzvah to accompany the dead to their final resting place, the mere association with death leaves a negative mark on us quite separate from the pain of bereavement itself.

We are advised to consider our mortality. Death is an inevitable feature of life and there is no greater reminder of how transient our lives are than being present at a funeral. Yet allowing these thoughts to consistently permeate our consciousness would bring us to despair.

We wash our hands at the gates of the cemetery to help us re-enter the world of the living. We must be mindful of our mortality without obsessing over it, but us it to spur ourselves to focus on life and how we can live it to the best of our abilities.

What did Moses do wrong?

After the death of Miriam, the Jewish people find that they are without water after the well provided in her merit dried up. The people complain again to Moses exclaiming that they will die without water. G-d commanded Moses to take his staff, gather the people together and (unlike a similar episode almost forty years earlier) speak to the rock.

Moses takes his staff and gathers the people together as instructed. He rebukes them saying (Bamidbar 20:10) ‘Hear now, you rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock?’ He hits the rock twice and water comes gushing forth. G-d tells Moses and Aharon that since they did not sanctify Him before the people, they would not be able to enter the Land of Israel.

One aspect of this troubling story which is hotly debated is what exactly Moses did wrong. Rashi (Bamidbar 20:12) states that his mistake was to strike the rock rather than speak to it as G-d had commanded. Nevertheless, Nahmanides (Bamidbar 20:10) implies that the error was that Moses rebuked the people by calling them מורים – rebels, thereby emphasising that their faith in G-d was deficient.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1809) explains in his Chassidic masterpiece, Kedushat Levi that in reality the two explanations of Rashi and Nahmanides are part of the same sin. He says that were two ways which Moses could have rebuked the Jewish people for their lack of trust in G-d. Moses could have spoken of the greatness of the Jewish people; their uniqueness, their righteousness and extraordinary relationship with G-d. By doing so, he would have shown them that their behaviour was not befitting for such an elevated nation. This would have persuaded the people to turn their hearts towards G-d and encouraged growth in their faith. Moses however, chose the alternative mode of rebuke which was to speak harshly, highlighting the nation’s rebellious nature to embarrass the people and compel them to do G-d’s will.

Kedushat Levi explains that once Moses had chosen more acerbic words, it was no longer possible for the rock to release its water by him speaking to it. His caustic attack changed the nature of the rock itself. Now there was no alternative, Moses was compelled to strike the rock because of the language he used.

It is sometimes necessary for us to rebuke others, whether in a parental role or in positions of professional leadership and responsibility. If rebuke is given in a way that emphasises the qualities of others, rather than their failures, it not only elevates them, but it elevates their environment too, whether at home or at work, and promotes confidence and a drive for real growth. Criticism devoid of praise leads to resentment and bitterness which only serve to inhibit the ability of others to learn from their mistakes.

 

A version of this article first appeared in Daf Hashavah