Rabbi Bernie Fox





The Characterization of Parah Adumah as a Chok

This is the law of the Torah that Hashem commanded saying: Speak to Bnai Yisrael and they should take for you a completely red cow that has no blemish and has never borne a yoke.  (BeMidbar 19:2)

This pasuk introduces the laws of the Parah Adumah – the red heifer.  This animal is slaughtered and completely burned.  The ashes of the heifer, with other ingredients, are required for the purification.  Severe forms of tumah – spiritual defilement – are treated with these ashes.


The passage describes the mitzvah of Parah Adumah as a law.  There are various Hebrew words for "law'".  The term used in our pasuk is chok.  Rashi comments on the selection of this specific term.  He explains that the term chok means decree.  In other words, the mitzvah of Parah Adumah is a decree from Hashem.  It is an expression of His divine will.  It must be carefully obeyed and respected.  Rashi further explains that the use of this term seems to presuppose that the law of Parah Adumah is subject to some criticism.  The word chok is the response to this reproach.  Essentially, the response is that regardless of the questions evoked by this mitzvah it must be regarded as a decree of Hashem and observed in all its details.  What is the criticism evoked by the mitzvah of Parah Adumah?  Rashi is somewhat vague in his response to this issue.  He explains that the heathen nations can criticize the mitzvah.  They will question its reason and design.[1]


These comments are difficult to understand.  Many mitzvot are enigmatic.  A casual review of the mitzvot of the Torah will result in endless questions.  Certainly, the heathen nations will find many elements of the Torah that seem completely unintelligible!  The Torah's response to these reproaches is that a person must study Torah as one would any field of knowledge.  One cannot expect to appreciate the wisdom of the Torah through a superficial review of the mitzvot.  Why does the commandment of Parah Adumah require a special response?  According to Rashi, in this case the Torah responds, "This is a chok!  Observe the mitzvah regardless of your criticisms and scruples!"


Nachmanides responds to this question.  He explains that we must begin by more clearly understanding the reason the Torah uses there term chok.  This term is not used simply because the mitzvah of Parah Adumah is difficult to understand.  As explained above, many mitzvot seem to defy human understanding.  The reason the term chok is used in this case is because the mitzvah of Parah Adumah seems to contradict a basic tenet of the Torah.  One of the fundamental themes of the Torah is that we must abstain from heathen practices and forms of worship.  We are forbidden to worship any power other than Hashem.  We may not serve demons, spirits, forces of nature, or even angels.  In order to regulate our worship and assure that our service to Hashem is free of any heathen influence, the institution of the Bait HaMikdash was created.  All sacrifices are to be offered in the Temple where the services are carefully regulated.  Generally, we are not permitted to sacrifice outside of the Temple.


However, Parah Adumah is remarkably similar to heathen worship.  A cow is burned in an open field.  The service is performed outside of the Bait HaMikdash.  It can easily be misinterpreted as a sacrifice to the heathen deities.  The heathens can cynically argue that we are hypocrites: we decry heathen worship and practices, and then legislate a service reminiscent of the very practices we condemn!


This is the criticism to which the Torah responds.  The mitzvah is a chok.  It is an expression of the Divine will.  It may seem inconsistent with the Torah's strong disavowal of heathen practices.  But the law is Hashem's decree.  We know that Hashem cannot be inconsistent![2]



Bnai Yisrael’s Response to the Death of Miryam

And the entire congregation of Bnai Yisrael came to the wilderness of Tzin in the first month.  And the nation dwelled in Kadesh. And Miryam died there and she was buried there.  And there was no water for the congregation.  And they gathered before Moshe and Ahron.  (BeMidbar 20:1-2)

The Chumash explains that Miryam died.  Immediately thereafter, Bnai Yisrael found themselves without water.   This implies a connection between the death of Miryam and the exhaustion of the water supply.  Rashi discuses this relationship.  Our Sages explain that the forty years Bnai Yisrael traveled in the wilderness Hashem provided water.  This miracle was performed in response to the merit of Miryam.  Therefore, with Miryam’s passing, the miracle of the water ended.[3]  Don Yitzchak Abravanel explains that our Sages did not intend to indicate that a well followed Bnai Yisrael in the wilderness.  Instead, their message is that Bnai Yisrael miraculously found water in each encampment.  The people were traveling in an arid and desolate land.  Yet, incredibly they always found water.[4]


Klee Yakar offers an alternative explanation of the relationship between Miryam’s death and the exhaustion of the water supply.  He acknowledges the comments of the Sages that the water supply was a result of Miryam’s merit.  However, he does not conclude that her death should have resulted in the discontinuation of this wonder.  He explains that the suspension of this miracle was caused by Bnai Yisrael’s reaction to the loss.  The Chumash explains that Miryam died and was buried.  There is no mention of mourning.  The implication is that the nation did not mourn Miryam adequately.  She was not fully appreciated.  Her loss was not recognized as a calamity.  Hashem wished to demonstrate the righteousness of Miryam.  He discontinued the miracle that her merit had made possible.[5]


Klee Yakar’s comments raise an important question.  Why was Miryam not appreciated?  Ahron and Moshe were mourned.  Their deaths were seen as tragedies.  Why did the people not have a similar response to the loss of Miryam?


Moshe and Ahron were providers.  They had delivered the nation from bondage.  They had cared for the people during their sojourn in the wilderness.  Bnai Yisrael recognized their dependence on these two giants.  Miryam was not a visible leader.  She lived a life of righteousness.  But she did not conduct her affairs in a public forum.  The nation did not recognize a dependency upon Miryam.  Therefore, her death was not immediately recognized as a tragedy.


The nation erred in its assessment of Miryam’s significance.  A nation is the sum of its individual members.  Each member contributes to the spiritual whole of the nation.  Miryam was an individual of tremendous spiritual perfection.  With the loss of Miryam, the spiritual level of the nation was diminished.  Bnai Yisrael failed to recognize the importance of the quiet, private tzadik.  Loss of the water supply drew their attention to this error.






The Importance of Carefully-Formulated Prayer

And the Canaanite king of Arad who dwelt in the south heard that Yisrael was coming by the way of Atarim.  And he fought with Yisrael and he captured captives.   (BeMidbar 21:1)

Bnai Yisrael were traveling in the wilderness to the land of Israel.  The people were attacked by the King of Arad.  Rashi comments that these “Canaanites” were really the people of Amalake.  Amalake had previously battled Bnai Yisrael. In that conflict, the prayers of Moshe and the people had a fundamental role in Amalake’s defeat.  On this occasion, Amalake sought to protect itself from these prayers.  The king of Amalake commanded his people to speak the language of the Canaanites.  He hoped that Bnai Yisrael would believe that they were under attack from Canaanites.  Bnai Yisrael would pray for delivery from this Canaanite adversary. The prayers would be improperly describe the attackers.  These pleas would not be answered.


Bnai Yisrael encountered the enemy.  They were confused.  The attackers were speaking the language of the Canaanites.  However, their clothing indicated they were the people of Amalake.  The decision was made to formulate the prayers in a general format.  The people asked Hashem for salvation from the enemy.  They did not specify the identity of the adversary.  These prayers were answered and Bnai Yisrael were victorious.[6]


Hashem is omniscient.  He knew the true identity of the attackers.  Bnai Yisrael might pray for delivery from the Canaanites, but Hashem would know the identity of the actual adversary.  Yet, Rashi implies that had the people mistakenly pleaded for rescue from the Canaanites, their prayers would have been useless.


The implications of Rashi’s comments are very critical for properly understanding tefilah – prayer.  It is commonly believed that the essential component of the process of prayer is the sincerity of the petitioner.  It is assumed that if one prays with good intention and earnestness, the requirement of tefilah has been fulfilled.  Rashi’s comments indicate that this is not true.  There is no question that the prayers of a nation confronted with war are sincere.  Recognition of mortal danger assures earnestness.  Rashi tells us that nonetheless an inaccurate prayer would not have been answered.  Sincerity without accuracy is inadequate.  Only when these two elements are combined is the tefilah acceptable.


Maimonides explains that this idea guided our Sages in the formulation of the prayers.  Our Sages realized that every person could not be expected to design the tefilah in an accurate and appropriate manner.  Therefore, they designed the prayers for us.  Through combining this legacy from our Sages with sincerity we can fulfill the obligation of tefilah.[7]






Moshe’s Attempt to Avoid War with Sichon

And Israel sent messengers to Sichon the king of the Amorite saying: Let me pass through your land.  We will not deviate into fields or vineyards.  We will not drink water from the wells.  We will go on the road selected by the King until we pass through your boundary. (BeMidbar 21:21-22)

Bnai Yisrael approach the land of Sichon.  In order to reach the Jordan, they must first pass through the land of Sichon and his people.  Bnai Yisrael send messengers to Sichon and ask for permission to pass though his land in peace.  Sichon rejects this request and launches an attack against Bnai Yisrael.  Bnai Yisrael defeat Sichon, destroy his nation, and capture the entire territory of his nation.  This land is subsequently incorporated into the portions of land awarded to the shevatim – the tribes – of Reuven, Gad, and half of Menashe. 


It is noteworthy that Bnai Yisrael first attempted to pass through Sichon’s territory in peace.  The war that ensued was a consequence of Sichon’s rejection of Bnai Yisrael’s request.  In other words, this war was not initiated by Bnai Yisrael.  It was initiated by Sichon.


In his comments on these passages, Rashi points out that Bnai Yisrael were not specifically commanded by Hashem to offer peace.  Nonetheless, Moshe felt that this offer was appropriate.[8]  In these comments, Rashi does not explain Moshe’s reason for seeking to avoid war.  However, Moshe reviews this incident in Sefer Devarim.  There, Rashi does offer further explanation.  He explains that although Moshe was not specifically required to ask Sichon for permission to pass through his land in peace, Moshe deduced that such an offer would be appropriate.  How did Moshe come to this conclusion?


Rashi’s comments can only be appreciated, if we consider their context in Sefer Devarim.  Moshe explains that Hashem told him that He would deliver Sichon and his nation into the hands of Bnai Yisrael.  He commanded Moshe to wage war with Sichon.  Moshe sent messengers to Sichon.  Sichon rejected the offer presented by these messengers.  Moshe attributes Sichon’s rejection of the offer to Hashem’s providence.  Hashem hardened Sichon’s heart – as He did to Paroh.  Hashem repeated to Moshe that He will deliver Sichon and his land into the hands of Bani Yisrael.  Moshe ends his account by reviewing Bnai Yisrael’s remarkable conquest of Sichon and his land.[9] 


These passages present a number of problems.  Nachmanides summarizes these problems.  Let us consider two of the issues he raises.  First, Hashem told Moshe that he was to wage war against Sichon.  The sequence of events suggested by the passages indicates that after receiving this command, Moshe asked Sichon for permission to pass through his land.  How could Moshe offer peace to Sichon if Hashem had already commanded Bnai Yisrael to wage war?  Second, Moshe acknowledges that Hashem hardened Sichon’s heart.  Sichon did not really have the ability to make a choice.  Hashem deprived him of his free-will.  If Sichon did not have free will, what was the objective in offering peace? 


Based on these questions, Nachmanides suggests that the passages are not intended to relate the events in their actual sequence.  The actual sequence was that, first, Moshe attempted to pass through the land in peace.  Sichon rejected this offer.  Moshe realized that Sichon had rejected this offer because Hashem had deprived him of the free will to make a reasonable choice.  Then, Hashem commanded Moshe to wage war with Sichon and assured Moshe of Bnai Yisrael’s victory. 


This approach resolves the issues raised by Nachmandies.  At the point that Moshe sent messengers to Sichon, he had not yet been commanded to wage war.  He received this command after Sichon rejected the peace offer.  Also, Moshe was convinced by Sichon’s reaction to his peaceful offer that he had been deprived of his free will.  But when he made the offer, Moshe assumed that there was a reasonable chance that it would be accepted.[10]


We can now return to Rashi’s comments.  Of course, Rashi must respond to the same problems in the passages identified by Nachmandies.  However, his response is very different from Nachmandies’.  Rashi begins with the assumption that the passages accurately relate the sequence of events.  Hashem told Moshe to wage war with Sichon.  Nonetheless, Moshe first attempted to secure a peaceful resolution.


Rashi comments are an elaboration of his remarks on our parasha.  He begins by acknowledging that Moshe was not commanded by Hashem to propose to Sichon a peaceful resolution.  He explains that, nonetheless, Moshe concluded that the appropriate course of action – from the perspective of the Torah – was to make such an offer.  Next, Rashi offers two possible explanations of Moshe’s reasoning.


The first explanation is based upon an interesting comment of the Sages.  The Sages explain that before Hashem offered the Torah to Bnai Yisrael, He offered it to other nations.  The Sages add that Hashem knew that His offer would be rejected.  Nonetheless, He made the offer.  Moshe recognized that Hashem had commanded him to wage war against Sichon and it was a foregone conclusion that Sichon would not accept an offer of peace.  Nonetheless, using Hashem’s own behavior as a model, Moshe concluded that he should offer Sichon the option of peace.  In other words, Hashem had foreknowledge of the other nations’ reaction to the offer to receive the Torah. Nonetheless, He made the offer.  Moshe also knew that Sichon would reject his offer of peace.  Nonetheless, he made the offer.


The second explanation of Moshe’s behavior is based on a simple observation.  Hashem could have instantaneously destroyed Egypt and redeemed Bnai Yisrael.  But instead, He sent Moshe to Paroh.  He instructed Moshe to tell Paroh to release Bnai Yisrael from bondage.  The plagues that Hashem bought upon Egypt were a result of Paroh’s refusal to release Bnai Yisrael.  Moshe recognized that it would be possible to destroy Sichon without warning.  But he recognized that Hashem had provided Paroh with a warning.  Moshe concluded that Sichon should also be provided with a warning.[11]


It is interesting that Rashi proposes two possible explanations of Moshe’s reasoning.  Superficially, these two explanations seem to be very similar.  But a more careful analysis suggests that these two explanations are actually very different from one another.


Rashi’s first explanation focuses on the issue of foreknowledge.  Hashem has perfect foreknowledge of our behaviors and decisions.  Nonetheless, He provides us with options.  Moshe concluded that we are obligated to emulate Hashem.  Moshe also had perfect foreknowledge of Sichon’s response to his offer of peace.  He knew it would be rejected.  Nonetheless, he emulated Hashem and offered Sichon the option of peace.  In other words, Moshe concluded that we must act justly towards other individuals.  Our concept of the other individual’s likely—or definite— response does not excuse us from this obligation.  Our responsibility is to act with justice.  We cannot ignore this obligation because we assume— or even know— that our behavior will be ignored or not appreciated.


Rashi’s second explanation does not make reference to the issue of foreknowledge.  Instead, Rashi asserts that we are not permitted to take action against an individual without first providing notice and warning.  This notice and warning provides an explanation and rationale for our subsequent actions.  In other words, without this warning and notice it would not be possible for the observer to appreciate the rationale for attacking Sichon or for destroying Egypt.  The result would be that Hashem and Bnai Yisrael would appear to be the aggressors.  Moshe recognized that we must always present the Torah in the most positive light.  Sometimes, the Torah requires that we act with aggression, and even cause violence to, another individual.  But we must recognize that we cannot embark upon such a path without considering the perceptions that will be generated by our actions.  So, we must provide an adequate warning and notice. 


Both of these explanations are valid and both inform our relationships with others and the way we must behave.  We must treat others fairly.  This is difficult when we suspect or realize that our efforts will not be appreciated.  Everyone has been confronted with the challenge of acting with kindness or evenhandedness towards an individual that we suspect or know will not appreciate or even acknowledge our efforts.  But the message Rashi is communicating is that we must put aside our disappointment and frustration and act appropriately.


Rashi is also telling us that we must always portray the Torah in a positive light.  We must recognize the manner in which our actions will be perceived.  Doing the right thing is not enough if our behavior will be judged as unreasonably aggressive or hostile.  We must provide an adequate explanation for behaviors that others may perceive and unkind or aggressive.  Of course, we cannot control whether the observer will take notice of our explanation or accept it.  But we are expected to provide a rationale. 


[1]   Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 19:2.

[2]   Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 19:2.

[3]   Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 20:2.

[4]   Don Yitzchak Abravanel, Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 20:1.

[5]   Rabbaynu Shlomo Ephraim Lontshitz, Commentary Klee Yakar on Sefer BeMidbar 20:2.

[6]  Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 21:1.

[7]  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teffilah 1:4.

[8] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 21:22.

[9] Sefer Devarim 2:24-36.

[10] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 2:24.

[11] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 2:26.