06/29/2012 10:17 am ET Updated Aug 29, 2012

Parshat Chukat: Weekly Torah Portion Summary, Questions, Resources

Editor's note: The HuffTorah is an overview of the Torah reading of the week, which is found in the Book of Numbers 19:1-22:1, and includes links to additional resources for study and discussion. Read the full text of Parshat Chukat in interlinear Hebrew/English.

"This stuff's beyond understanding," God says to Moses. "But tell the Children of Israel anyway."

So he does. Bring a perfect red heifer, he says. One that's never worked the field. Give the cow to the priest Eleazar, who must take it outside the camps of Israel and have it slaughtered. Eleazar should sprinkle some of its blood toward the Tent of Meeting. Seven times he should sprinkle.

The cow should be burned completely in his presence, and the priest should take a piece of cedar wood, some hyssop and a bit of crimson wool and toss these into the flames.

The priest should wash his garments and his body in a ritual pool. He may re-enter the camps at sunset, when he will again be ritually pure. Whoever burns the heifer should does the same.

A different (ritually pure) person should gather the cow's ashes and divide them into three portions: one for the priests in Temple, one for priests preparing the cow outside of the camp and one for just outside the holy courtyard for the people. After dividing the ashes, this person should immerse his clothes and self in the waters.

The ashes should be added to water used for ritual purification. This is an eternal law for the Children of Israel.

Touched a human corpse? You're ritually impure for seven days. On the third day, purify yourself with the ashen waters.

Touched a corpse but didn't purify yourself and then entered the Temple courtyard? Your soul is cut off from your people.

Did you enter a tent that contained a human corpse? You're ritually impure for seven days. Any unsealed vessel in the tent becomes similarly impure.

Did you touch a human corpse or bone or grave in an open field? You're ritually impure for seven days.

Anyone who touches you in this state becomes ritually impure.

So here's what you should do: Place the ashes of the red heifer in a vessel filled with spring water. A ritually pure person should dip hyssop in the water and sprinkle it on the tent, on the contaminated vessels, on anyone who entered the tent and on anyone who touched the corpse, bone or grave. He should sprinkle it on the person on the third day of his impurity, and on the seventh day he will become pure (after he immerses himself in the ritual pool). If he or she does not do this, consider his soul cut off.

Questions: What's the point of the ritual of the red heifer? Why does preparing the ashes, which when added to water is intended to purify a person, make the preparer impure? Why is this ritual no longer performed?

When the next generation settles in the place called Kadesh, Miriam dies and is buried.

The people have no water, so they raise a mob against Moses and Aaron. They scream the same old complaint: "If only we'd died in Egypt! Why have you brought us here?"

At the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, the brothers fall on their faces. And God's glory appears to them. God tells Moses to take the staff and assemble the people. He tells Moses to speak to Miriam's rock -- the one whose well had always provided water -- to speak to it in the presence of the people. "It will produce water," God says.

The people mock Moses because they can't find the right rock. And because who talks to rocks? The red rises in Moses' face. He and Aaron speak to the rock, but nothing happens. Wrong rock, he should've said to himself and moved on. But the prophet remembers striking a rock another time in the desert. He remembers how that caused the rock to flow. So he raises his staff to strike the rock and actually hits the correct rock. A little bit of water comes out. He strikes it again. The waters bursts forth. The people and their animals drink.

"Where is your faith, Moses?" God asks. "I told you simply to speak to the stone. Moses, Moses, Moses. You may no longer enter the Land."

Moses journeys on with the people. Since Kadesh is on the edge of the land of Edom, he sends words to the king of that land, asking for safe passage. he promises that they will merely pass through without taking food for themselves or for their animals; that they will buy water from the Edomites for any price necessary.

"None shall pass!" the king blasts.

"Please?" Moses asks.

"No!" the king repeats. "And we will meet you with swords."

So Moses and his people turn away from Edom.

The next generation arrives at the double mountain, where God speaks to Moses and Aaron and informs the brothers that Aaron's time is now up. Moses is instructed to bring Aaron, along with Elazar his son, atop the double mountain, where he will give his priestly garments over to his son. Where he will die.

Moses and Eleazar descend from the mountain. The people see that Aaron has died. They mourn for 30 days.

Questions: Why is Moses punished for hitting the rock, really? The pople who mocked him are really at fault, right? Why is so little text devoted to the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, who were central characters of the Exodus and wandering?

When Aaron dies, the Clouds of Glory depart from Israel's camp.

A nearby Canaanite king hears of this and presumes the people ripe for destruction. They attack, but only one captive is taken.

Israel makes a vow to God: "Deliver us, and I will consecrate all of their cities to You."

God hears, and God delivers Israel safely through the land.

The people journey from the double mountain, doubling back toward the Reed Sea, to go around Edom, to avoid its inhospitable king.

This new generation gets sick quick of traveling. They complain their parents' complaint, cursing God and Moses alike for leading out of Egypt and into the desert.

So God sends snakes. Vicious venomous snakes. Many people are bitten. Many die.

The people cry out to Moses. They repent and ask him to pray that God should send the snakes away. So Moses talks to God and God tells him to create a snake and that a person who is bit should look upon that snake and he will live. So, thank God, Moses makes a copper snake, and the people find some relief.

So they journey once more. Oboth, Iye-abarim, the wilderness of the rising sun, Zered Brook -- from borderland to borderland they travel. They reach the Valley of Arnon. The people there plot to murder the Israelites in the narrow mountain pass, but before the Children enter the valley, the mountain fling toward each other, killing the Amorites in their caves. And the Israelites, as they walk atop the new path unscathed, see the blood running toward the well. And they peer over the murky pit and sing a song to the waters. And the song does not mention Moses. And the song arouses the heavens.

Israel sends a message to Sihon, the king of the Amorites, asking to pass through the land. But the king refuses, and confronts Israel in the desert. God's people defeat Sihon, take his cities and settle there. Poets compose songs for the victory.

Toward Bashan Moses turns. And the king there, Og, confronts Israel with his army. But God tells Moses not to fear -- that all will unfold in Israel's favor.

So it goes. And the Children travel and camp near Jericho.

Questions: Why does "Israel" make a vow to God? Shouldn't it say "we" rather than "I" if truly all the people are speaking? The chronology seems messed up here. At what point did Israel pass through the Cannanite land if right after it says they left the double mountain? Why does God continually punish and forgive the Israelites, and always deliver them from certain doom at the hands of their enemies?

Resources for further commentary, discussion and reflection: