Chukat 5773 – Gilayon #803

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Parshat Chukkat

That they take you a perfect red cow

That has no blemish and on which no yoke has been put.

And you shall give her to eleazar

the priest…

(Bemidbar 19:2-3)


We have already explained that

the whole intention with regard to the Sanctuary was to affect those

that came to it with a feeling of awe and of fear; as it says: Ye shall fear

My Sanctuary. Now if one is continually in contact with a venerable object,

the impression received from it in the soul diminishes and the feeling it

provokes becomes slight. The Sages, may their memory be blessed, have

already drawn attention to this notion, saying that it is not desirable that

the Sanctuary should be entered at every moment, and in support quoted

its dictum: Let thy foot be seldom in they neighbors' house, lest he be

sated with thee and hate thee. This being the intention, He, may He be

exalted, forbade the unclean to enter the Sanctuary in spite of

there being many species of uncleanness, so that one could – but for a

few exceptions – scarcely find a clean individual. For even if one were

preserved from touching a carcass of a beast, one might not be preserved

from touching one of the eight creeping animals, which often fall into

dwellings and into food and drink and upon which a man often stumbles in

walking… Thus all of this was a reason for keeping away from the Sanctuary

and for not entering it at every moment. You know already what [the Sages]

literally say: Even a clean man may not enter the Hall for the purpose of

performing divine service before having immersed himself [in water].

In consequence of such actions, fear will continue and an impression

leading to the humility that was aimed at will be produced. To the extent that

a certain kind of uncleanness was more frequent, purification from it

was more difficult and was achieved at a later moment.

Being under the same roof as dead bodies, more especially those of relatives

and neighbors, is more frequent than any other kind of uncleanness.

Accordingly one is purified from it only by means of the ashes of a [red]

heifer, though these are very rare, and after seven days.


The Guide of the Perplexed, [Pines translation], III, 47)


[This may be explained] by

homiletic exposition which appears in the commentary of Rashi z"l "That they take you a red cow" – they

shall take you of their own, just as they participated in the sin

of the calf and removed their gold rings as is written (Shemoth 12:3) "And

all the people removed the gold rings', so shall they participate in the

atonement and bring of their own. A cow – A parable may be drawn with a

maidservant who soils the hall of the king. Said the king, Let the mother come

and clean up her son's droppings, so shall the cow come and atone for the calf

incident. Red – after the sin which is called red, as is written (Isaiah 1:18), "If your sins be like crimson, they

shall become white as snow". Whole – as Israel had been whole and became blemished,

let this [heifer] come and atone for them and they will return to their

wholeness. On which no yoke has been put – as when they had removed from

themselves the yoke of the kingdom of heaven.

To Eleazar the priest – because

they had assembled against Aharon the priest to make the calf, and because

Aharon had made the calf, he was not assigned this task, because a 'prosecutor

cannot become counsel for the defense'. And he shall burn the heifer, just as

the [golden] calf was burned.

(Rabbeinu Behaye, ibid.



The copper serpent – between art and faith



In this week's

parasha we read the surprising and

extraordinary story of the copper serpent. This is a unique story of the

meeting between art of the image and the prohibition against idolatry; it is

one of rare instances in the Bible in which we can relate to the art of image

not in the direct context of the injunction against idolatry.

God instructs

Moshe, following Israel's

attack by the burning serpents:

Make for

yourself a viper ["Seraph" – lit. "a

burning-snake"] and put it on a standard and so then, whosoever is bitten

will see it and live. (Bemidbar 21:8).

We note than

in God's instructions to Moshe, the word "serpent" [nachash] is not at all mentioned. Yet we assume that

the word "seraph" is synonymous with the serpent. And what

does Moshe actually do? "And Moshe made a "nachash"

a serpent – of bronze and he placed it on a standard and it was that if a

serpent bit a man and he looked upon the serpent of bronze, he would live"

(Ibid. ibid, 9).

As we

mentioned, "nachash"

[viper] and "seraph" [burning snake] are synonymous, Yet

it is interesting to note that the material chosen by Moshe for the crafting – bronze-

is also absent from God's directive. We must ask ourselves whether or not this was

an independent artistic choice on Moshe's part. Rashi writes:

He was not

ordered to make it of bronze, but Moshe said: The Holy One, blessed be He,

calls it nachash, so I will make it of nechoshet [bronze], an alliteration [nechash


Rashi's explanation is puzzling for two reasons. If God had

used the term seraph, then there is no alliteration. But a more basic

question must be asked – what place is there for wordplay in a decision

regarding the creation of the bronze serpent and the material from which it is

made? In order to understand this, we should try to understand how the bronze serpent

worked. The famous Mishnah in Tractate Rosh Hashanah (3, 8) reads:

The same

lesson may be taught thus. [It is written], 'Make for yourself a fiery serpent

and set it up on a pole, and it shall come to pass that everyone that is

bitten, when he sees it, shall live'. Now, does the serpent kill? Does the

serpent cure? No, [what it indicates is that] when Israel turned their thoughts heavenward

and subjected their hearts to their father in heaven, they were healed, but

otherwise they pined away.

This Mishnah is difficult to comprehend. Ostensibly, there is no

connection between the serpent's mode of operation and its serpent essence.

According to this Mishnah, if indeed the heart of the matter is the looking

heavenward it would seem that Moshe could have placed on the pole a bat or a

frog. Ibn Ezra, in his commentary, reinforces the

approach which neutralizes the "serpent-ness"

of the serpent; he is careful not to attach any special powers to the snake


Yet many

erred, saying that this form can receive celestial powers. Forefend and

forefend! – the object was fashioned at God's

directive, and it is not for us to seek the reason why the serpent form was


The Ramban offers a completely different approach:

It would have

been proper that those bitten by the fiery serpents never again see a serpent nor

remember nor recall it at all. But the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded Moshe

to make for themselves the image of the serpent which had killed them. Therefore

Moshe found no other way to fulfill His command to create a serpent other than

by making a bronze serpent, for it has the image of fiery serpent […] and

when a person looks with proper intent upon the bronze serpent which is strongly

resembles the live scourge, he is informed that it is God who kills and cures.

Ramban voices an approach according to which Moshe's choice

of bronze is not at all arbitrary. His choice stems from the profound principle

that part of the cure lies in the fact that the substance which harms is the

substance which cures, and thus we express God's being both life-taker and life-giver.

This even intensifies the miracle essence of the act; God rules nature wherein

the same element both harms and restores.


2. The serpent in the days of


The next time

we encounter the bronze serpent is in the Book of II Kings, in the time of King


He abolished their

shrines and smashed the pillars and cut down the sacred post. He also broke

into pieces [Hebrew –"v'kiteit"] the

bronze serpent the Moshe had made, for until that time the Israelites had been

offering sacrifices to it; it was Nehushtan. (II Kings 18:4)

Says the

Talmud in Tractate Berachot (10b):

Our rabbis

taught: King Hezekiah did six things; of three of them they [the rabbis]

approved and of three they did not approve. Of three they approved: He hid away

the book of cures; and they approved of it; he broke into pieces the brazen

serpent, and they approved of it; and he dragged the bones of his father [to

the grave] on a bed of ropes, and they approved of it. Of three they did not approve:

he stopped up the waters of Gihon, and they did not approve of it; he cut off

[the gold] from the doors of the temple and sent it to the King of Assyria, and

they did not approve of it; and he intercalated the month of Nisan during

Nisan, and they did not approve of it. (Soncino translation)

The Talmud

quotes a beraita regarding six actions taken by King Hezekiah during his

reign, three of which the Sages viewed positively and three negatively. Exceptionally

odd is 'He hid away the book of cures', a document never even alluded to in the



is provided by a parallel beraita in the Palestinian Talmud (Sanhedrin 5b):

Hezekiah, King

of Judah, did six things; of three of them they [the rabbis] approved and of

three they did not approve. Of three they approved: he broke into pieces the

bronze serpent, and they approved of it; and he dragged the bones of his father

[to the grave] on a bed of ropes, and they approved of it He hid away the

tablet of cures; and they approved of it. Of three they did not approve: He cut

down the doors of the Sanctuary, and they did not approve; he stopped up the

waters of Gihon, and they did not approve of it; he inter-calated the month of

Nisan during Nisan, and they did not approve of it.

All of

Hezekiah's actions recorded in the Babylonian Talmud are identical with those appearing

in the Palestinian Talmud, excepting the former's replacement of "hid away

the tablet of cures" with "hid away the book of cures.

In his commentary "Iggude HaTalmud",

the researcher Moshe Benovitz suggests that the

hiding of the tablet of cures and the smashing of the bronze serpents are

actually the same act, but because of editorial considerations they were

divided into two different acts. Benovitz brings

supporting evidence for the determination that the form of the bronze serpents

was indeed like a kind of tablet.

At this point

we must ask how is the act of smashing compatible with

the act of hiding the book of cures.

A source in

the Tosefta (Avodah Zara 4, 3) deals with

this question:

Said to them

R. Yosi: But it says "He also broke into pieces the bronze serpent the

Moshe had made, for until that time the Israelites had been offering sacrifices

to it". They replied: Was this idolatry?! Did not Moshe make it! This is

to teach that Israel

mistakenly followed it until Hezekiah came and hid it."

Benowitz writes: It seems that they interpreted "kiteit" as "struck" rather

than as "smashed", as the verb is used in Hebrew and in the

Babylonian Talmud. In other words, he struck the tablet once so as to remove it

from the wall, and then hid it. Say then, that according to one tradition he

hid the Nechushtan which stood on the banner and was hung, it seems, on the

wall of the Temple,

and it is likely that this was the tablet of cures that – according to R. Levi

– Hezekiah hid, and this is "I did that which was right in your eyes".


3. Summing up the serpent

The uncommon reality of God himself commanding the creation of a

sculpted figure opens the door to many questions about the nature of this

figure's function and the manner in which it was perceived by the Jewish people,

and the attitude of Chazal, exegetes and researchers towards it. This

attitude oscillates between relating to the serpent's powers as a decree whose specific

essence is not open to inquiry, and highly graphic explanations which relate

the serpent's specific form and specific powers to natural and supernatural


It is

interesting to note that this serpent, created at God's command, could not help

but enter the circle of idolatry. It is almost inevitable that such an object –

from a Biblical perspective – should, sooner or later, become a focus of

worship. Then along came King Hezekiah and – whether by a single hammer blow,

or whether by crushing and smashing the Nechustan to fine powder – left us with

the secret of the serpent to ponder forever.


Abramson is a designer and artist who deals with

contemporary Jewish-Israeli identity. His work "Zman

Nekat" is on exhibit at the Schechter Institute

of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem..


God has no desire for human


Thus says Scripture: "The

fruit of the righteous is a tree of life; A wise man

captivates people." (Proverbs 11:30) If

one be righteouseven if he be a tzaddikbut

does not engage in Torah, he is empty handed. "The fruit of the

righteous is a tree of life" – this is Torah, for by being a ben Torah, he learns how to win over souls,

as it written, "A wise man captivates people." For if he vows

to order souls, he learns from the Torah how to do so. And if he has no Torah,

he has nothing. So you find in the case of Yiftach

the Giladi; because he was not a ben Torah, he lost his daughter. When? When

he waged war against the people of Ammon, and vowed,

as is written "And Yiftach made the following

vow to the Lord… whatever comes out… shall be the Lord's and shall be

offered by me as a burnt offering." (Judges

11:30-31) At that time, The Holy One, Blessed Be He,

was angry with him. He said: Had there come out of his house a dog or a pig or

a camel, it would sacrifice it before me? Therefore He arranged that his

daughter come out. What is the purpose of this? So that all who vow will

carefully learn the laws of vows and oaths, so that they do not err in their


"There was his daughter

coming out to meet him… on seeing her, he rent his clothes and said 'Alas,

daughter… for I have uttered a vow to the Lord and I cannot retract" (Ibid, 34-35) But Pinchas

was present!? Why did he say "I cannot retract"? But Pinchas said: I am a high priest, how can I go to a boor? Yiftach said: I am head of the judges of Israel, head of the officers – I

shall go before a commoner?! Between the two of them, the poor girl lost her

life. Both were liable for her blood. Pinchas

– the Holy Spirit left him; Yiftach – his bones were

dispersed, as is written: "and he was buried in the towns of Gilead(Ibid.


Because he wanted to sacrifice

her, she cried before him. His daughter said to him, Father, I went out to

greet you in joy, and now you slaughter me? Did The Holy One, Blessed Be He, write

in his Torah that Israel

should offer up before The Holy One, Blessed Be He, human sacrifices? Does it

not say in the Torah "When any of you presents an offering of cattle to

the Lord, he shall choose his offering from the herd" – from

the herd, not from humans. He replied: My daughter, I vowed, "Whatever

comes out of the door of my house… shall be offered by me…" Can

one who has vowed not fulfill his vow? She said to him, Our father Jacob

vowed, "From all that you will give me I will give a tenth, (Bereishet 28:22) and

The Holy One, Blessed Be He, give him twelve sons, did he offer up one?… All

these things she said to him, but he did not listen to her. When she saw that

he was not listening to her, she said, give me leave and I will go before a Bet

Din, perhaps they will find a way to release you of your vow

. . she went before them, but they found no way to nullify the vow,

because of their sin in slaughtering members of the tribe of Efrayim… for God had concealed the Halacha from them, so that they do not find a

way to release Yiftach of his vow. He went up and

slaughtered her. And the Holy Spirit screams out: Did I want to offer before me

that "which I never commanded, never decreed, and never entered my

thoughts". (Jeremiah 19:5) I did not command Avraham to slaughter his son, but I told him: "Do

not raise your hand against the boy" – to notify to all the world of

Abraham's love, who did not spare his only son from me, to perform the will of

his Creator. I did not tell Yiftach to sacrifice his


(Tanhuma, BeHukotai,



"Her paths are paths of pleasantness and all her ways are

of peace"


this is the Instruction for the slaughter offering of shalom ("Shelamim")": That which is

written "Her paths are paths of pleasantness and all her ways are of

peace" means that everything which is written in the Torah

is written for the sake of peace. And even though the Torah speaks of

wars, this too was written for the sake of peace. You find,

that The Holy One, Blessed Be He, abolished his decree because of peace. When?

When The Holy One, Blessed Be He said to Moshe "When you set siege on a

city for many days" (Devarim 20:19), and

all pertaining to that subject, The Holy One, Blessed Be He, said to him that

no spoil may be taken, as is written "You are to devote them to

destruction, yes, destruction" (Ibid.

20:17) But Moshe did not

do so; rather he said, Shall I go and smite both he who sinned and he who

sinned not? But I shall come upon them in peace, as is written, "Now I

sent messengers from the Wilderness of Kedemot

words of peace, saying, Let me cross through your land" (Ibid. 2:26-27). When he saw that he (Sichon) did not come for peace, he smote him, as is

written, "So they struck him and his sons and all his people" (Bemidbar 21:35).

Said The Holy One, Blessed Be He, I said "You are to devote them to

destruction, yes, destruction" but you did not do so! By your

life, as you spoke so will I do, as is written, "When you

approach a city to wage war against it, you shall call upon it to make peace

(Devarim 20:10).

Therefore does it say, "Her paths are paths of pleasantness and all her

ways are of peace" (Mishlei 3:17)

(Tanchuma Tsav, 3)


And from Mattanah to Nahaliel: the Torah

Requires Humility

What is the purport of the Scriptural text, And

from the wilderness to Mattanah, and from Mattanah to Nahaliel,

and from Nahaliel to Bamot, and from Bamot to

the valley (Bamidbar 21)? "If," the other replied, "a man allows

himself to be treated as the wilderness upon which everybody treads, the Torah

will be given to him as a gift [Mattanah =

"gift"]. And so soon as it is given to him as a gift, he will become

the inheritance of God as it says, and from Mattanah to Nahaliel [Nahaliel = nahalei El = "inheritance of

God"]. And as soon as he is the inheritance of God he rises to greatness,

since it says, and from Nahaliel to Bamot [Bamot =

"high places"]. But if he is haughty, the Holy One blessed be He,

humbles him, as it says, and from Bamot to

the valley. If, however, he repents, the Holy One blessed be raises him, as

it says, Every valley shall be

lifted up (Isaiah


(Eruvin 54a, Soncino translation).



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