Back to This Week's Parsha

Peninim on the Torah

subscribe.gif (2332 bytes)

Previous issues

Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And they shall take to you a completely red cow, which is without blemish. (19:2)

Rashi cites his rebbe, Rabbi Moshe HaDarshan who explains that symbolically, the Red "Cow" came to atone for the sin of the Golden "Calf," as if to imply, "Let the mother come and clean up the mess left by her child." This explains why the commandment was directed to Aharon, the one who contributed to the creation of the molten calf. This explanation begs elucidation. What does making the Golden Calf have in common with the mitzvah of Parah Adumah, which serves as the paradigm of a chok, a mitzvah for which the rationale is not even remotely discernable. If so, how does the "mother" clean up for her "child?"

The commentators explain that we must first delve into the nature of the Golden Calf and Klal Yisrael's sin in creating it. Moshe ascended Har Sinai due to return in forty days. According to the people's calculations, he was late in returning. Immediately, the people conjectured that he was not coming back. Moshe was gone. They could not wait, and they proceeded to replace him with a golden calf, which they subsequently served amid frolic and debauchery. What do these unconscionable actions teach us? It tells us that during this time, machshavah, rational thought, seichel, common sense, was suddenly suspended. They did the irrational and absurd. Without thinking, they allowed their emotions, their inclinations, to take hold and guide them. Had the people stopped to think - even momentarily - they would have realized that Moshe would return. He was late, but he would return.

It is not as if they did not have other potential leadership. Aharon was available, and so was Yehoshua. Why ignore them in order to create a golden calf? Is this not ludicrous? The people were not thinking. They had lost all sense of rationality.

Hashem rewards and punishes middah k'neged middah, measure for measure. Thus, when the people acted in an irrational manner, Hashem gave them a mitzvah which is beyond human comprehension, one for which there is no sensible rationale. Hashem gave Klal Yisrael a mitzvah which they cannot question, which they have to accept with complete equanimity. It is as if Hashem is telling the Jewish People, "When you were prepared to sin with the Golden Calf, you did not think; you did not care; you just acted. I am giving you a mitzvah which you will not question; you will act in accordance with My wishes."

There are many acts in life which we perform without knowing or understanding the reason. We take medicine without knowing how it works. Yet, we take it because we trust our physician. Are mitzvos any different? This should be especially true when we place our trust in the true Physician, the One Who truly heals us all.

And the people settled in Kadeish; and Miriam died there, and was buried there. (20:1)

The Midrash Tanchuma notes the juxtaposition of the death of Miriam upon the laws of the Parah Adumah, Red Cow. They suggest that it comes to teach us that just as the ashes of the Red Cow procure atonement, so, too, does the death of the righteous bring about forgiveness. How are we to understand this relationship? Horav Mordechai Rogov, zl, offers a meaningful explanation. The Torah teaches us that "a ritually clean man (Kohen) should collect the cow's ashes…and they should be guarded for purification waters" (ibid. 19:9). Likewise, it is understood that the passing of a tzaddik, righteous person, leads to atonement only when the nation stops to "collect itself" to compose themselves and think about the impact this great individual has had on their lives and what mitzvos his life epitomized. Otherwise, there is no effect. We must take a cognitive approach to his death.

We should remember the life of an outstanding and devout person. His trials and challenges, his achievements and successes, as well as how he reacted to failure, should all be preserved in our minds. Otherwise, it is like burning an object such that all that remains are the useless ashes. The memory of such a consummate life, a life that epitomized Judaism at its zenith, should be eternally placed before the nation and forever maintain a special place in the hearts and minds of the people. In this sense, death is not considered as someone's demise, but rather as his being gathered in to the spirit and lives of the nation. In this manner, the passing of a tzaddik parallels the procedure of bringing the Red Cow, including the atonement it engenders.

We find that Chazal make two statements regarding the passing of a tzaddik, which seem to contrast each other. The Talmud in Rosh Hashanah 18b describes the death of a tzaddik to be as great a loss as the burning of the Bais Hamikdash. In contrast, we find the Midrash Eichah 1:39 asserting that when a tzaddik is "removed from the world," it is considered to be worse than the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash. Which one is accurate?

Rav Rogov explains that the difference lies in how much of the memory of the tzaddik is assimilated into our lives. When a righteous person passes from this world, but his memory is still guarded in our souls, we remember his achievements, and they serve as a source of inspiration, Chazal compare this to the burning of the Bais Hamikdash. The structure may be gone, but its influence endures. This is not true, however, when we forget a tzaddik, when his memory becomes a blur, and we relegate his many accomplishments to antiquity. This is a catastrophe of epic proportions, much like the complete loss of the Bais Hamikdash. Memories are a wonderful vehicle for preserving the past, but only if one take the time to learn from the lessons of the past and the achievements of those who preceded him. By immortalizing their lives, we give greater meaning to our own lives.

There was no water for the community…The people quarreled with Moshe… "And you shall speak to the rock in full view of the people, and it will produce water"…And he (Moshe) said to them, "Listen now, o' rebels! From this rock shall we bring forth water for you?!"… and he (Moshe) struck the rock twice with his staff…"Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me…therefore you will not bring this congregation to the Land." (20: 2,3,8,10,11,12)

The sin of Mei Merivah, the waters over which the people quarreled with Moshe, is recorded as the sin for which Moshe lost the opportunity to enter Eretz Yisrael. When we read the account of the events, we find it difficult to discern the actual sin which Moshe perpetrated. Various opinions abound among the commentators. We will focus on four of these opinions. Rashi posits that Moshe disobeyed Hashem's command to speak to the rock. He had no right to lift up his staff and strike the rock. His action diminished the sanctification of Hashem's Name, for had the people received water through an act of speech, the nation would have derived a powerful moral lesson. They would have seen one of Hashem's creations willingly responding to a command without coercion or physical force. By extrapolation, they would have applied this lesson to their personal lives. Each person would have understood his obligation to serve the Almighty with acquiescence and enthusiasm, unbidden and unforced. Moshe's act of striking the stone aborted the potential for this heightened spiritual understanding.

The Rambam takes issue with Rashi's reasoning, suggesting that the sin lay in Moshe's critical response to the people's request. The derogatory terminology used, "Listen now, o' rebels," was too strong an expression to use against the nation.

Rabbeinu Chananel focuses upon a grammatical nuance which he feels is in concert with Moshe's error: Notzi lachem mayim, "Shall we bring forth water for you?" With these words, Moshe was subtly implying that he had some sort of power through which he could bring forth water. Certainly Moshe did not mean to convey such a message, but in the mind of the trusting Jew, it might have left room for erroneous belief.

The Ramban supplements his explanation commenting that Moshe had hit the rock twice. One might not think that one time represents a human achievement, but twice leaves room for an unsuspecting person to err. In explaining this further, Horav Yosef Leib Bloch, zl, suggests that we might recognize striking the rock once as a miraculous feat. In contrast, since he struck the rock twice, it gave the impression that it was the force of hitting the rock that caused the water to flow. Thus, people might have thought that Moshe played a role in catalyzing the flow of water.

Sforno delineates three categories of miracles: The first class is a nes nistar, concealed miracle. Basically, this refers to the "laws of nature," such as rainfall, the curative powers of medications, etc. in what we refer to as natural occurrences veil the miracle. Veritably, nature is a miracle in which Hashem conceals His Divine manipulation.

The second form of miracle is clearly a supernatural occurrence, which takes place only after certain actions have been performed. These actions, such as the transformation of Moshe's staff into a serpent, serve to conceal the Divine element of this occurrence.

The third type of miracle harbors no secrets or hidden strings. It is clearly and unequivocally a miracle, with no foreshadowing action.

The fundamental distinction that seems to be discernable is the premise that a miracle that nature obscures is not usually recognized as a miracle. A miracle which needs an action as a precursor is clearly a miracle, but it can lead the innocent bystander to believe that the agent who performs the action has also contributed toward the success of this miracle. People then view the agent with awe and reverence. In the final type of miracle, the people respect only Hashem, since it is clear to all that He is the sole initiator of this extraordinary event.

This principle has great significance as it relates to Moshe and Aharon's sin. Klal Yisrael's distinguished leadership felt that the people lacked the complete worthiness to experience a miracle that was totally without restriction and human participation. The mere fact that they were dissatisfied with their journey in the desert, their complaining about a lack of water, indicated that they were not yet on the elevated spiritual rung necessary for this commitment. This is why Moshe addressed the people in such a derogatory manner. A miracle of the second type, whereby an agent participates in the miracle's initiation, would be more congruous with their present spiritual level. It was necessary to obscure subtly the intense illumination manifest by an overt miracle, creating the impression that, to a limited extent, this experience reflected human involvement. Hashem chastised Moshe for this assumption and his consequent "participation" in the miracle. Apparently, Klal Yisrael was ready for a miracle in which the fuller sanctification of Hashem's Name could be manifest.

There seems to be some overlap between the four explanations. They all apparently suggest that either Moshe minimized the sanctification of Hashem's Name or his Kiddush Hashem could have been greater had he acted differently. Horav Mordechai Miller, zl, suggests that Sforno's explanation actually encapsulates the other explanations. Rashi's view that Moshe's sin lay in striking the rock, rather than speaking to it, can now be understood with added depth. Indeed, Moshe's action transformed the entire character of the miracle. It became a second degree miracle, instead of the third degree, the overt miracle. The fundamental change was effected as a result of Moshe's lowered estimation of the nation's spiritual standing.

The Rambam focuses on the words, "Listen now, o' you rebels!" as the catalyst for Moshe's punishment. Moshe reflected his feeling that the higher degree of miracle could not be affected due to the nation's spiritual deficiency. Thus, he hit the rock reducing overtly the supernatural character of the event. He, in turn, expressed himself to the people, "You have caused this change as a result of your lack of total conviction. Otherwise, the miracle would have been even greater."

Rabbeinu Chananel's explanation adds an additional dimension to the picture. By attributing power to himself, Moshe played an active role in the miracle in a manner deemed inappropriate by the Almighty.

Last, the Ramban's interpretation, which asserts that the sin was Moshe's hitting the rock twice, leads one to believe that the actions of the agent have some bearing on the final result, thus veiling the clarity of the miracle.

All four of the interpretations are based in the words expressed by Sforno. Each, however, views the event from a different perspective. In one way or another, they each imply that Moshe's actions reduced the effect of the miracle. This is the story of life. Hashem has messengers and agents who do His bidding. We make the grievous error of attributing the positive results to the intermediary and, regrettably, when the conclusion is not positive, we attribute it to Hashem. We must learn to integrate into our minds that the intermediaries are nothing more than an illusion. Only Hashem has the power to effect and achieve results.

Rav Miller relates a humorous, yet penetrating, anecdote about a man who had been childless for many years. He approached a Chasidic Rebbe for a blessing. Not satisfied with merely one blessing, he approached a second Rebbe for his blessing. One year later, the man and his wife were blessed with a child. Upon hearing the wonderful news, the chasidim of each respective Rebbe celebrated their Rebbe's incredible powers. This, of course, led to a heated dispute between the chasidim concerning whose Rebbe was the real miracle worker. They decided that they would consult with a gadol, Torah giant, to settle their dispute. This gadol would, once and for all, tell them which Rebbe's blessing had achieved fruition. The answer they received was terse and eye opening: "The man was blessed with a child because of the Almighty's blessing. Unfortunately, the Almighty does not have any chasidim!"

The people spoke against G-d and Moshe…Hashem sent fiery serpents against the people…The people came to Moshe and said… "Pray to Hashem that He remove from us the serpent" … "Make yourself a fiery (serpent)…so that if the serpent bit a man, he would stare at the copper serpent and live." (21:5,6,7,8)

The text of the people's request is enigmatic. Upon asking Moshe to pray to Hashem to remove the serpents, they say, "that He remove from us the serpent," in the singular. Hashem sent more than one serpent against them. The Chafetz Chaim, zl, explains that the sin for which Hashem was punishing them was the sin of lashon hora, slanderous speech. It is well known that one's sinful activity creates a prosecuting counsel. This "prosecutor" does not need to articulate his criticism of the sinner. His mere presence at the "trial" before the Heavenly Tribunal is sufficient to incur a verdict of guilt. When Hashem is filled with compassion, He removes the kateigor, prosecutor, thereby allowing His boundless mercy and kindness to find the defendant innocent.

This concept applies only when the prosecuting counsel is created by any sin other than that of lashon hora. The kateigor that is created by slanderous speech has a "mouth" and a "tongue." Since it has been created through the medium of speech, it stands up and, without inhibition, declares and describes the sin to its fullest, darkest, essence. Thus, such a prosecutor cannot simply be removed. When the prosecutor just stands there quietly, he can be glossed over. Not so, when he is screaming for attention. One cannot ignore such a prosecutor. The Heavenly Tribunal must listen to his appeals and, regrettably, find the defendant guilty.

We now understand why the people asked to have the "serpent" (in the singular) removed. They were referring to the proverbial serpent created by their sin of lashon hora. When that kateigor is removed, the fiery serpents will also disappear. Hashem replied that such a prosecuting counsel cannot simply be removed. He stands there and demands that justice be done. He neither is interested in compassion nor an advocate for kindness. "Guilty! Guilty!" he screams! The only advice that can help the people at this point is to make a copper serpent which will serve as a medium for them to look upward to Hashem and subjugate their hearts to their Father in Heaven. While, indeed, they could have been healed without the copper serpent, they would have thought they had been cured through natural means. It is important that "natural" cures do not effect a cure for the sin of speaking lashon hora. It is a sin that defies the physical dimension, both in punishment and in its remedy. The power of speech distinguishes man from all of the other creatures. To defile that ability is to denigrate the spiritual gift which Hashem has given him for the purpose of expressing himself in a manner that honors his Creator.

Va'ani Tefillah

Chasdecha va'amitcha tamid yitzruni
May Your kindness and Your truth always protect me.

Chesed and emes are usually mentioned together. These are two essential attributes through which Hashem deals with us. Furthermore, since He personifies these qualities, we should see to it that they become an integral part of our spiritual persona. In this tefillah, chesed refers to the kindness that Hashem displays when He overlooks our sins and accepts our repentance. Emes, however, in this case, has a different connotation. Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, explains that emes refers to the true nature of a person's actions. For instance, the sweet pleasure generated by sinful behavior may be sweet - for a short while. In reality, in emes, it is bitter. Conversely, a mitzvah at the time of its performance might seem bitter, especially if the person has to dig deep into his pocket to give charity. Refraining from acting sinfully might momentarily be a bitter pill to swallow. In essence, however, in emes, it is really a sweet moment.

Thus, if Hashem offers a person the opportunity to repent and rehabilitate himself, this opportunity may be accompanied with pain. This pain is the actual pain of the sin that he committed under the illusion of sweetness. This pain is the emes. We implore Hashem that His chesed should protect us from punishment. If the punishment is necessary, if we must experience the emes, true essence of our sins, then we ask that this suffering arouse within us a desire to repent, and that this experience protect us in the future, sheltering us from sin.

in memory of
our dear father and grandfather
R' Yehuda ben Chaim z"l
Julius Frankfater

Irving and Rachel Frank
Dr. and Mrs. Howard Frank
Rabbi and Mrs. Daniel Frank
Mr. and Mrs. Ariel Frank
Tami Frank

Joel Frank and Pearl Weinberg

Peninim on the Torah is in its 14th year of publication. The first nine years have been published in book form.

The Ninth volume is available at your local book seller or directly from Rabbi Scheinbaum.

He can be contacted at 216-321-5838 ext. 165 or by fax at 216-321-0588

Discounts are available for bulk orders or Chinuch/Kiruv organizations.


This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Permission is granted to redistribute electronically or on paper,
provided that this notice is included intact.
For information on subscriptions, archives, and
other Shema Yisrael Classes,
send mail to
Jerusalem, Israel