Torah Weekly

For the week ending 30 June 2012 / 9 Tammuz 5772

Parshat Chukat

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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The laws of the Para Aduma the red heifer are detailed. These laws are for the ritual purification of one who comes into contact with death. After nearly 40 years in the desert, Miriam dies and is buried at Kadesh. The people complain about the loss of their water supply that until now has been provided miraculously in the merit of Miriam's righteousness. Aharon and Moshe pray for the people's welfare. G-d commands them to gather the nation at Merivah and speak to a designated rock so that water will flow forth. Distressed by the people's lack of faith, Moshe hits the rock instead of speaking to it. He thus fails to produce the intended public demonstration of G-d's mastery over the world, which would have resulted had the rock produced water merely at Moshe's word. Therefore, G-d tells Moshe and Aharon that they will not bring the people into the Land.Bnei Yisrael resume their travels, but because the King of Edom, a descendant of Esav, denies them passage through his country, they do not travel the most direct route to Eretz Yisrael. When they reach Mount Hor, Aharon dies and his son Elazar is invested with his priestly garments and responsibilities. Aharon was beloved by all, and the entire nation mourns him 30 days. Sichon the Amorite attacks Bnei Yisrael when they ask to pass through his land. As a result, Bnei Yisrael conquer the lands that Sichon had previously seized from the Amonites on the east bank of the Jordan River.


The Most Infectious Disease in the World

"A completely red cow..." (19:2)

Nothing is more frightening than plague.

Plague. The invisible killer that stalks the noonday sun as it does the darkest night. A few years ago after the terrible tragedy of 9/11, much of the Western World was reduced to blind panic by the threat of plague-infected letters sent through the mail.

The most infectious disease in the world, however, is neither bubonic plague nor Anthrax. It is something with which we are all quite familiar.

In this week’s Torah Portion, we learn of the mitzvah of the Para Aduma, the Red Heifer. An essential part of the mitzvah required a red cow of at least three years old that was completely red. If more than one hair on its entire body was any other color than red, the animal was invalid. In addition, the Para Aduma was disqualified if it had ever been harnessed to a yoke. Needless to say, Parot Adumot did not turn up every day.

It once happened that, despite searching high and low, the Sanhedrin could not find a Para Aduma. Eventually they learned that a certain non-Jew indeed owned a completely red cow. A delegation was dispatched to verify and negotiate for the purchase of the animal. The owner of the cow proposed a price of 400 gold coins. The delegates accepted and informed the owner that they would return the following day with the money. In the meantime, the owner of the cow told his friends about the prospective sale. As a result of this, he discovered just how rare and valuable the heifer was. When the envoys of the Sanhedrin returned the following day, the owner told them bluntly "I’ve changed my mind. The animal is not for sale." The delegation offered him more money but he was adamant. Offers and refusals flew back and forth until finally the Sages offered him an extra one hundred gold coins (some say a thousand). To this offer he acquiesced. The Sages told him that they would return the following day with the full sum.

After they left, the owner of the cow joked with his neighbor: "You know why they offered me so much money? Their religion says that they have to have a cow that’s never been harnessed to a yoke. I think I’ll play a little trick on them."

That night, he took the Para Aduma, harnessed it and plowed with it. The following morning the delegation returned with the money. Before paying, however, they wanted to examine the animal. After a few seconds they turned to the expectant owner and said, "Keep the cow. We don’t need it." He was dumbfounded as to how the Sages knew what he had done. He said, "Blessed be He Who chose this nation." And then, broken-hearted at losing this vast fortune, he went and strangled himself.

How did the Sages know that the animal had been used for plowing?

A cow that has never been yoked has two particular hairs on its neck that are straight. After it has been yoked they are permanently bent. Also, the eyes of an unyoked animal do not blink. After it has been yoked, it squints, trying to see the yoke.

The question remains, however, why the owner of the cow jeopardized a king’s ransom for a little bit of sport. How could he risk so much to satisfy his vindictiveness? Surely it must have crossed his mind that the Sages weren’t merely going to rely on his word and might have ways of verifying his claim.

Nothing is more infectious than a bad character trait. The owner’s greed and his love of money caused him to renege on his original agreement. But it didn’t stop there. That character flaw provoked other character flaws to surface: deceit, mockery and vindictiveness.

If we don’t make the effort to improve our character in one area, necessarily we will find deficiencies festering in many other areas of our personalities.

For nothing is more infectious than a character flaw.

  • Source: Midrash

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