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June 7, 2014 – 9 Sivan 5774
God briefly explains the details for the menorah in the Mishkan (the Tabernacle), then turns attention to the Levites’ purification ceremony. These men, who are allowed to serve from ages 25-50, are responsible for assisting the priests and helping ensure the Israelites will not succumb to plagues.
The Israelites are reminded of their responsibility to offer the Passover sacrifice, and learn that those who are rendered impure because of their contact with a corpse will be allowed to observe Passover one month later.
The people finally resume their journey in the wilderness, following a protective fire-cloud that directs both their move- ment and the places and times to make camp. When a new march begins, the Israelites are called to attention by two silver trumpets, then walk in tribal groupings. They are joined by Moses’ father-in-law, Hobab, as Moses recites a stand- ard phrase each time they begin and end each leg of their journey.
The Israelites complain twice — generally at first, then specifically demanding meat. Moses asks God to kill him, but God sends the people quail instead, then strikes them with a devastating plague.
Aaron and Miriam complain to God about Moses’s marriage to a Cushite woman. God afflicts Miriam with leprosy, but Moses humbly requests that she be healed; God eventually grants the request.
Parashat Shelah Lekha
June 14, 2014 – 16 Sivan 5774
God asks Moses to send one man from each tribe to scout the Promised Land and its inhabitants. After 40 days, the spies return with luscious fruit — and two different interpretations of what they saw. Ten spies say that the people in Canaan cannot be defeated; Joshua and Caleb insist otherwise. The Israelites panic, demanding to return to Egypt. Moses talks God out of destroying every Israelite other than him, but God insists that this generation (other than Josh- ua and Caleb) would not reach the Promised Land, instead they would wander the wilderness for 40 years. The 10 nega- tive spies are killed by a plague, and the Israelites who attempt a preemptive invasion of Canaan are routed.
Several laws conclude the portion: Various offerings must be accompanied by flour, oil and/or wine. Those who break commandments accidentally can atone via sacrifice, whereas intentional transgression is punished more harshly. A man gathering wood on the Sabbath is publicly stoned to death. The Israelites are required to wear fringes in order to re- member the commandments.
June 21, 2014 – 23 Sivan 5774
Moses and Aaron’s authority is challenged twice: first by Korah, a Levite who gathers 250 Israelite nobles, and then by Dathan and Abiram, who claim that Egypt, not Canaan, is the true land of milk and honey. Moses suggests that fire- pans of incense be brought to test Korah’s claims, but God threatens the rebels’ immediate destruction. Moses and Aa- ron beg for clemency, but as predicted by Moses, the earth swallows the rebels and their possessions (Korah’s sons are spared).
God orders that the rebels’ fire pans be attached to the Tabernacle altar to remind the people of the attempted insurrec- tion. But the Israelites criticize God’s punishment, leading to a plague that kills 14,700. Next, God demands that the tribal leaders deposit a staff into the Tent of Meeting. Aaron’s staff sprouts almonds, serving as another reminder of recent events.
The Israelites now fear approaching the Tabernacle. God assures that only Levites can be punished for trespassing. To ease the Levites’ burden, God outlines the sacred gifts that they and the priests will receive.
Parashat Hukkat Shabbat Rosh Hodesh
June 28, 2014 – 30 Sivan 5774
God introduces the ritual law of the red heifer, whose ashes are used to purify those who are impure after being contami- nated by a corpse.
Miriam dies. The Israelites, bereft of water, despair that they are still in the wilderness. Even though God says water will emerge from a rock, Moses strikes the rock twice before it pours forth. Moses and Aaron are punished by not being al- lowed to enter Canaan. Aaron dies at Mount Hor, and Eleazar succeeds him as High Priest.
The Israelites are challenged by nearby peoples: the Edomites refuse them safe passage; the Canaanites unsuccessfully at- tack them; the Amorites and Bashan fall to them convincingly. But the Israelites still complain about their hardships, and some are killed by bronze snakes.
Don’t Have a (Blemished) Cow!
This is the ritual law that the Lord has commanded: Instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid. You shall give it to Eleazar the priest. It shall be taken out- side the camp and slaughtered in its presence. (Numbers 19:2-3)
The instructions regarding the red heifer are arguably the most mysterious in the entire Torah. So many of the things we do without question as Americans make no sense on the specific level, but contribute to our identification as participants in a certain part of American culture. Wearing a tie lets us know something about a man’s values, community, income, edu- cation, and work. A woman’s lipstick does the same. These things gain their value not from the particular practice, but from the context that such practices creates. So, too, with the hukkim, the unexplainable mitzvot in the Torah and in rab- binic literature. Any living culture requires distinct customs and practices to maintain its own special identity, to affirm the loyalty of its members and its continuity across generations. Judaism has those same needs.