Torah Weekly

For the week ending 15 June 2013 / 6 Tammuz 5773

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 Last of the Kiddush Wine

"... pure red heifer" (19:2)

It’s difficult for us to imagine, but not so long ago, there were ordinary-looking people who displayed extra-ordinary powers.

There are literally hundreds of stories of Jews in the Second World War who risked and surrendered their lives, rather than transgress the smallest commandment of the Torah. One of these holy souls was Rabbi Shemuel David Ungar, the spiritual leader of Nitra. Rabbi Ungar had a reputation as a holy person and a great teacher far beyond his native Slovakia.

In early 1944, Rabbi Ungar fled to the woods around Nitrato escape deportation by the Fascists. Even though he was faced by acute hunger, he refused to make the smallest compromise in his observance of Jewish law.

As the weeks went by, he became weaker and weaker. A friend managed to find some grapes (Heaven only knows from where) and begged him to eat them. He replied, “How can I eat them now? If I use them now, I won’t have wine to make Kiddush on Friday night. Should a Jew enjoy grapes if he has no wine to sanctify the next Shabbat?”

When winter came, his health started to fail. Nevertheless, he still spent hours learning Torah at the mouth of his bunker, despite the heavy snow and the bitter cold. Suffering from starvation and exposure, Rabbi Unger passed from this world a few weeks before the fall of the Third Reich.

The Talmud relates the story of a non-Jew, Dama ben Netina, who possessed a precious jewel needed to replace a stone missing from the breastplate of the Kohen Gadol. The Sages came to him and offered him a fortune for the stone, but he would not sell it to them because the key to the safe in which the jewel was kept was under his father's sleeping head. He would not wake his father even for a king's ransom.

Because he was prepared to give up so much to honor his father, he was rewarded that a red heifer was born into his flock, and he sold that animal to the Sages for the same amount that he had forfeited.

Why was Dama ben Netina rewarded specifically by a red heifer being born into his flock?

The role of the Jewish People is to be a “nation of priests” and a “holy people”, singled out from the rest of the nations by their exemplary behavior. So, when Dama ben Netina, a non-Jew, demonstrated such self-sacrifice to honor his father, it awakened an accusation in the Heavenly courts against the Jewish People. For here was a non-Jew whose devotion to the mitzvah of honoring his father was at least equal to that of the Jews, and where was the exemplary difference of the Jewish People?

Thus, the red heifer which was bought from him by the Sages demonstrated that even though Dama ben Netina was capable of giving up a fortune for a mitzvah that logic dictates, the Jewish People are prepared to give up an equal fortune for a mitzvah that is infinitely beyond the grasp of human logic, merely because it is the Will of their Father in Heaven.

And a holy Jew, freezing in a Slovak winter, to whom logic says eat the grapes and worry about Shabbat later, has the power to ignore the gnawing pains of hunger in his stomach. All so that he will not miss the chance of sanctifying the day of Shabbat and He who created it.

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