OzTorah: Torah reading – Chukkat.




Parashat Chukkat tells us of the death of Aaron the high priest (Num. 20:22-29). Aaron’s career was twofold – as careful keeper of the ritual procedures of the sanctuary, and as counsellor and peace-maker for his community. According to Rashi, the whole of the people mourned him because they had all gained from his ministrations.

Moses was the public figure, the intellectual, the prophet who gave the people leadership. Aaron was the pastor who brought a spirit of joy, harmony and reconciliation to the people to such an extent, say the Talmudic sages (Rosh HaShanah 3a), that when he died the clouds of glory dissipated.

Aaron was a great man but so was Moses, and the sages tell us that the brotherly spirit that bound them together was not merely because of shared lineage but because they appreciated each other.

History records many cases of “kin’at sof’rim”, jealousy between colleagues, but Moses and Aaron were prototypes of Psalm 85:11,

“Mercy and truth have met together: righteousness and peace have kissed one another”.



Why is this sidra called “Chukkat”, “a statute”? Tradition divides the mitzvot into those which reason can and cannot elucidate. The latter are called statutes.

Rashi says the nations of the world ask Israel why they keep commandments such as the rule of the red heifer. In response, the Israelites say, “It is a Divine decree, a statute!” In other words, instead of seeking explanations for certain laws we simply say it is the word of God.

This echoes the modern problem of public relations. We have to be smart enough we know which approach to take when outsiders question us – whether to try painstaking explanations, or to choose to say,

“This is a mark of Jewish identity!”



At a time of drought, a rock in the desert had the capacity to provide water. God therefore told Moses to speak to the rock. Instead Moses – under pressure from a difficult people – lost his temper and hit the rock, and God punished him severely. Yet at an earlier juncture Moses had been told to hit the rock. So what was the sin he now committed?

The Yalkut Shim’oni compares Moses to a teacher. If a pupil needs a rebuke, it all depends, says the Yalkut, on his age and stage of development. With a young pupil who doesn’t yet know how to reason things out, the teacher is entitled to smack him; but with an older pupil, hitting is unlikely to get anywhere and the teacher should speak to him.

Moses was not punished because the rock had done anything wrong, but because as a leader he was dealing with the people in an inappropriate way. By this stage they had matured sufficiently for a verbal rebuke.



In English we often use the phrase, “face to face”. The words originate in the Bible, in D’varim chapter 34, describing God’s relationship with Moses:

“There has not arisen thereafter in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the Lord knew ‘panim el panim’ – face to face” (Deut. 34:10).

Rashi tells us that this means that Moses had access to God whenever he desired, i.e. “presence to presence”.

A different phrase is found in this week’s portion, where God says of Moses,

“With him I speak ‘peh el peh’ – mouth to mouth” (Num. 12:8).

From Rashi we derive the idea that God’s communication with Moses was direct and unclouded, a concept developed in detail when the sages and then Maimonides explain the differences between Moses and other prophets. Other prophets received messages from God more sporadically and through a veil, whilst Moses was in communication with the Almighty constantly and without anything supervening.

Though we in later generations are neither Moses nor prophets, we can learn from these discussions that the believer, whoever he or she may be, can always find the Divine Presence bursting into their life, and must always be ready to respond to God and His message.



Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.

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