The Transition From the Generation of the Wilderness to the Conquest of the Land by Way of the Para Aduma and Mei Meriva

  • Rav Yoel Bin-Nun
In loving memory of Ada Bat Avroham, Alice Stone z"l,
beloved mother and grandmother on the occasion of her Yahrzeit, 2 Tammuz
Ellen & Stanley Stone and their children and grandchildren,
Jake & Chaya, Micah & Addie, Zack & Yael, Allie & Isaac,
Ezra & Talia, Shai, Yoni & Cayley, Azi, Eliana & Moshe,
Adina & Emunah, Gabi & Talia
Dedicated in memory of Cvi ben Moishe Reinitz (Nagykallo, Hungary) -
whose yahrzeit is on 2 Tammuz, from those who remember him.
I. The Uniqueness of the Para Aduma
Our parasha opens with the laws governing the process of purifying oneself from ritual impurity contracted through contact with a corpse. This process is different from all other purification processes in the Torah. Whereas all those who are ritually impure immerse themselves in water (a spring, a mikve, a brook, or the sea) and emerge ritually pure, only impurity contracted through contact with a corpse obligates sprinkling the ashes of a heifer that it is completely red.
In order to understand this difference, we must examine man's confrontation with death. Man's natural emotions refuse to make peace with death, with eternal separation, even if the deceased has died "in a good old age" (Bereishit 25:8), and all the more so when the natural order has been reversed: "Would I had died for you, O Avshalom" (II Shemuel 19:1). To this very day we have not made peace with Moshe's ascent to Mount Nevo; all of our dances when we conclude the annual cycle of Torah reading on Simchat Torah are outbursts of our yearnings for him.
How can one purify himself of the impurity of death? One cannot purify himself in the usual manner, through immersion in water. It can only be done in an exceptional, obscure manner – like death itself.
About 35 years ago, on Motzaei Shabbat Para, I was late for Maariv, and I prayed on my own in Ofra's temporary synagogue, in the dark. While I was reciting the words, "You have graced us with intelligence to study your Torah" (Ata chonantanu), the Creator of the universe, Who gave us the Torah, granted me an insight, like a bolt of lightning, regarding the mystery of "a para aduma without a spot." One of the requirements regarding a para aduma is that it must be perfect in its redness; even if there are only two black hairs in it, it is unfit for the rite (Rashi, Bemidbar 19:2, based on Para 2:5). At that moment, I realized that the internal color of all living creatures that have blood circulating through their bodies is wholly and perfectly red.[1] A “para aduma without a spot” is also perfectly red on the outside. It is completely red both inside and out! The para aduma represents a perfect world, in which inside and outside are one, where "the taste of the tree is exactly the same as that of the fruit" (Rashi, Bereishit 1:11, based on Bereishit Rabba 5:9), a world in which there is no weathering, no destruction, and no death!
Already when the world was first created, this gap in the nature of creation was made apparent, and the earth issued forth "a tree yielding fruit." But afterwards:
Therefore, when Adam was cursed on account of his sin [and death entered the world], it [the earth] was also visited [because of its sin] and was cursed. (Rashi, Bereishit 1:11) 
The Creator of the universe and Giver of the Torah commanded us to slaughter and burn a heifer that is perfect in its redness, and specifically outside the sanctuary. This is the way to purify those who have contracted ritual impurity through contact with the dead: to bring purity into a world in which there is death and which lacks perfection, but which nevertheless houses the Shekhina and the purity of the holy that strives for perfection. The impurity is purified with the burning of a heifer that is perfect in its redness, on the inside and on the outside.
II. The Location of this Section and the Death of the Generation of the Wilderness 
Why is this section dealing with purification from the ritual impurity contracted through contact with a corpse stuck here in the middle of the wilderness, in the midst of the book of Bemidbar?
The natural place of this section would appear to be in the book of Vayikra, after the death of Nadav and Avihu in the Mishkan "on the eighth day" (Vayikra 10:1-7) and before the passage related "after the death of the two sons of Aharon, when they drew near before the Lord, and died" (Vayikra 16:1). At that point, God commanded Moshe to tell Aharon how to enter the Holy in order to atone for the living "and not die."
Indeed, there are several parallels between the purification process involving the para aduma and the atonement achieved by way of the two goats of the Yom Kippur ritual, and especially between the para aduma and the goat that is sent to Azazel. Both rites are performed outside the sanctuary, and both render impure all those who are involved in those rites.
In my opinion, the section dealing with purification from the impurity of death was moved to the book of Bemidbar in order to tell the story of the 38 years during which the generation that was taken out of Egypt died – while not actually telling the story.
The mitzvot in Parashat Shelach (chapter 15) are connected to the story of the spies. The mitzvot in Parashat Korach (chapter 17) are also clearly connected to the story of that parasha – the attempt to oust Moshe and Aharon from their positions of leadership in the rebellion of Korach, Datan, and Aviram. But the mitzva of purification from impurity of the dead (chapter 19) constitutes the story itself – how an entire generation died in the wilderness because of the decree to wander in the wilderness for forty years. 
Chaim Nachman Bialik expressed his strong protest in his poem, The Dead of the Desert, writing that the suffering of that generation and the suffering of all the generations seem to him as far outweighing any possible sin.
Among us mortals, when there are no words to express the magnitude of a trauma, words begin to flow. In the Torah, when there are no words to express the death of the generation of the wilderness – there truly are no words. Moshe receives no prophecies and there are no parashiyot in the Torah for thirty-eight years!
The first half of the book of Bemidbar describes the second year following the exodus from Egypt, the preparations and the journey from Mount Sinai to the border of the land of Israel at Kadesh-Barnea. The second half, from chapter 20 and on, describes the fortieth year and the journey to the east bank of the Jordan.
Instead of a story about 38 years of people dying in the wilderness, the Torah presents us with the process of purification from the ritual impurity that is contracted through contact with the dead. This section serves as a purifying bridge between those who left Egypt and the generation that will actually enter the Promised Land, and the fortieth year opens with the death of Miryam the prophetess. 
It is indeed puzzling and strange, but it is possible to purify oneself of the impurity contracted through contact with the dead. This can even be done by an entire generation.
III. Mei Meriva and Governance by Way of Speech
Immediately after the exodus from Egypt, in Refidim, Moshe struck a rock and caused water to issue forth. This was considered a miracle, but also a test – the contention and complaints of the people of Israel were answered at Masa U-Meriva, despite the anger with them. By virtue of Moshe's striking the rock, it was proven that "the Lord is among us" (Shemot 17:7).
In sharp contrast, at the beginning of the fortieth year, when the people begin to leave the wilderness, the Mei Meriva (waters of contention) are transformed from the sin of the people to the sin of Moshe and Aharon. The blow that had brought forth water from the rock becomes a failing, one that prevents Moshe and Aharon from entering the land of their forefathers. Why?
The midrash cited by Rashi explains that Moshe's sin was that he struck the rock, when God had told him to talk to it.[2] But in the parallel story in the book of Shemot, hitting the rock led to a miracle. How, then, does it turn here into a sin?
In order to understand the change in the attitude toward Mei Meriva and to explain the words of Chazal, let us compare the two accounts in the Torah:
Shemot 17:1-7
Bemidbar 20:1-13
And all the congregation of the children of Israel journeyed from the wilderness of Sin, by their stages, according to the commandment of the Lord,
and encamped in Refidim and there was no water for the people to drink.
Wherefore the people strove with Moshe, and said: Give us water that we may drink.
And Moshe said to them: Why strive you with me? why do you try the Lord? 
And the people thirsted there for water; and the people murmured against Moshe, and said:
Why have you brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?
And Moshe cried to the Lord, saying: What shall I do to this people? They are almost ready to stone me. 
And the Lord said to Moshe: Pass on before the people, and take with you of the elders of Israel;
and your rod, with which you smote the river, take in your hand, and go. 
Behold, I will stand before you there upon the rock in Chorev; and you shall smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink.
And Moshe did so in the sight of the elders of Israel.
And the name of the place was called Masa and Meriva, because of the striving of the children of Israel, and because they tried the Lord, saying: Is the Lord among us, or not?
And the children of Israel, even the whole congregation, came into the wilderness of Tzin in the first month;
and the people abode in Kadesh; and Miryam died there, and was buried there. 
And there was no water for the congregation; and they assembled themselves together against Moshe and against Aharon. 
And the people strove with Moshe, and spoke, saying: Would that we had perished when our brethren perished before the Lord!
And why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness, to die there, us and our cattle? 
And why have you made us to come up out of Egypt, to bring us in to this evil place?
It is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates; neither is there any water to drink. 
And Moshe and Aharon went from the presence of the assembly to the door of the tent of meeting and fell upon their faces; and the glory of the Lord appeared to them.
And the Lord spoke to Moshe, saying: 
Take the rod, and assemble the congregation, you, and Aharon your brother,
and speak you to the rock before their eyes, that it give forth its water;
and you shall bring forth to them water out of the rock; so you shall give the congregation and their cattle drink. 
And Moshe took the rod from before the Lord, as He commanded him. 
And Moshe and Aharon gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them:
“Hear now, you rebels; are we to bring you forth water out of this rock?” 
And Moshe lifted up his hand, and smote the rock with his rod twice;
and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their cattle. 
And the Lord said to Moshe and Aharon: “Because you believed not in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.” 
These are the waters of Meriva, where the children of Israel strove with the Lord, and He was sanctified in them.
The parallels between these two stories are apparent. The differences are small – and yet so significant!
Faith that is built on miracles, signs, and wonders is appropriate for an immature soul. At the time of the exodus from Egypt, the people of Israel were an infant nation: Father and mother smile at their child and he is jubilant, but the moment that they disappear, he cries. An infant nation sees miracles and sings a song, but when it is thirsty and hungry, it cries and complains. The response is immediate. Every difficulty is a crisis of faith, a miracle, and a test!
An adult, in contrast, conducts himself through the power of speech, both his own and that of those who influence him. Similarly, an adult nation has already passed from the miracles and signs of the exodus from Egypt (with and without Moshe's rod) to the Ten Commandments. Indeed, from the moment that Israel arrives at Mount Sinai, Moshe's rod and all its wonders disappear.
After an entire generation died in the wilderness, after 38 years, God did not speak to Moshe and there were no parashiyot in the Torah. Now, it once again became necessary to go out. 
Moshe once again led the exodus from the wilderness with his rod that struck the rock (and afterwards appears in the context of the bronze serpent). Moshe did not believe that at that stage the exhausted people could be brought back to the level of speech! God did, in fact, tell him, "Take the rod," but only as a remembrance and testimony. In relation to the rock He said: "And speak you to the rock before their eyes, that it give forth its water" – in other words, return the people to discipline by way of speech.
Moshe (and Aharon) were convinced that the people of Israel could not return all at once to the level of speech, and it was about this that God said to them:
Because you believed not in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel [= with the governance of speech], therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them. (Bemidbar 20:12)
The proof of this understanding, which deepens the words of Chazal and Rashi, lies clearly before our eyes in the book of Devarim: In the plains of Moav, after the victories over Sichon and Og, Moshe felt that the people of Israel had become sufficiently self-confident. Therefore, he opened with: "These are the words" (Devarim 1:1), which is based entirely on governance through speech. In the book of Devarim, there are indeed no rod, no signs, and no wonders – not even to the prophet. Only a false prophet dedicated to an alien god might succeed in offering "you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he spoke to you" (Devarim 13:2-4). This will happen "for the Lord you God puts you to proof." In contrast, the test of the true prophet in later generations by virtue of the day of the assembly in Chorev (Devarim 18:16) will relate only to the words that he speaks (Devarim 18:18-22).[3]
IV. The Journey to the East Bank of the Jordan
Three obscure verses (Bemidbar 21:1-3) explain the historical necessity of the long and difficult journey to the east bank of the Jordan: "The Canaanite, the king of Arad, who dwelt in the South"[4] prevented the people of Israel from going up from the region of Kadesh "by the way of the Atarim" to the valley of Be'er Sheva/Arad and then on to the Chevron hills. This time, in contrast to the attempts made by the Ma'apilim (Bemidbar 14:40-45), the people of Israel destroyed the "Canaanites," and erected an Israelite "Chorma" against the "Chorma" of "the Amelekites and the Canaanites.” Nevertheless, here it finally became clear to Moshe that going up to the land of their forefathers would not be possible even in the fortieth year. If so, there was no escaping the necessity for a change in strategic thinking – a surprise from the east!
The journey to the east bank of the Jordan began by encompassing "the land of Edom" from the south. In my opinion, many scholars made a mistake here in tracing the journey to the Eilat region to encompass the greater "land of Edom" of the Second Temple period. Early "Edom" was only "north Edom," from the area of "Batzra" in the Edom mountains and westward to the mountain of the South to the area of Kadesh. The people of Israel journeyed "from mount Hor to the way of [that leads to] the Sea of Suf," by way of the plains of Nachal Paran (on today's map), and camped in "Tzalmona… in Punon… in Ovot… in Iyei Avarim, in the border of Moav" (according to the list in Parashat Mas'ei, Bemidbar 31:41-44).
Most biblical place-names have not survived on the ground. But Ein al-Kadis has preserved the name of Kadesh, and Tel Pinan, with its ancient copper mines, has preserved the name of the biblical Punon. While examining a satellite map, I saw that "Wadi Dana," which goes up from Tel Pinan toward the east, is the shortest and easiest way to go up to the mountains of Edom and reach the land of Moav from the southeast.
I turned to my good friend Prof. Chaim Ben David, who is familiar with the routes of Transjordan. He agreed to a trip that would go up from Pinan to Dana (today an international nature reserve), in an attempt to reenact a portion of "the journeys of the children of Israel." We reached the area of Pinan by a jeep driven by Bedouins from the Jordanian Arava. After a short study of these verses in the Torah, we set out in the afternoon on a path that rises eastward. It was a relatively easy walk; only at the end was the path steep. That night we slept in Dana, the village of springs, which in my opinion is the biblical Ovot. In the morning, we went up (in less than an hour by bus) to the ridge of the Edom mountains and looked down from there to the west, where we saw the path that we had ascended and the Arava. We were very excited when we understood how reasonable a route this was and how relatively easy it was even for a large nation. In this way, we "saved" the people of Israel hundreds of unnecessary kilometers around "southern Edom."
Later in the trip, we saw the fords of the Arnon from the southeast, as did the Israelites, who went around the land of Moav.  The journey of the Israelites began with the fiery serpents and ended with the song of the well and the wars of Sichon and Og, "from the valley of Arnon to Mount Hermon" (Devarim 3:8). This is the great transition from a people wandering in the wilderness to a people taking possession of their land. This took place not at the ford of the Jordan under the leadership of Yehoshua, but at the fords of the Arnon under the leadership of Moshe!
Chazal compared the miracle that took place at the Arnon to the splitting of the Sea of Suf and of the Jordan River, and they established a blessing to be recited by one who sees the site:  "Blessed are You, O Lord… who performed miracles for our forefathers in this place" (Berakhot 9:1).
I was privileged to see fords of the Arnon on two occasions – once from the north, from Tel Ar'ir, which is close to the biblical Ar'ar "on the edge of the valley of Arnon" (Devarim 4:48), and a second time from the south. Twice I blessed a full blessing using the name of God, king of the universe. The sight was truly amazing – the power, the size, the depth, the width of the Arnon.
There I also understood how the army of Sichon collapsed all at once: It is impossible to cross the Arnon when a well-trained army controls the entire length of the fords from the north! Moshe sent messengers to make peace with Sichon from the wilderness of Kedemot (Devarim 2:26), but Sichon refused and relied on his army, which controlled the fords of the Arnon. He gathered his main force to "Yahatz," facing the wilderness to the east, because he was sure that the Israelites, like the peace emissaries, would try to outflank him on the east:
Wherefore it is said in the book of the Wars of the Lord: Vaheb in Sufa, and the valleys of Arnon. (Bemidbar 21:14)
A great storm [sufa] swept over the streams of Arnon and drove Sichon's forces away from the fords, from the ambushes and from the observation points. God had earlier said to Moshe: "Rise you up, take your journey, and pass over the valley of Arnon" (Devarim 2:24). The Israelite army crossed the Arnon in complete surprise and struck Sichon and his army from behind. Sichon's collapse was immediate and full; the people of Israel ruled for the first time a large expanse of the country!
"Then Israel sang this song" about this wars of God at Arnon and about the deliverance of the Israelite army, which suffered from a severe water shortage during the war. The Israelite army continued its military campaign north of the Arnon to "Nachaliel… Bamot… the valley that is in the field of Moav, by the top of Pisga, which looks down upon the desert" (Bemidbar 21:17-20). It was to these places, where the Israelite army enjoyed victory, that Balak will take Bil'am in his efforts to establish a military alliance between Moav and Midyan against Israel.
(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] I refer here to the color of blood when it comes into contact with the air – that is to say, at the time of slaughter. Inside the body, blood is blue. Thus, the entire explanation of the color red on the inside and on the outside relates to the red heifer at the moment of slaughter.
[2] See Rashi, based on Midrash Tanchuma (9); and see Ibn Ezra and the Ramban, who raise objections against this explanation and other explanations. Their lengthy objections strengthen the difficulties in our parasha, but in our opinion the understanding of Chazal and Rashi is proven correct in light of what is stated in the book of Devarim
[3] The root davar appears 14 times in the verses dealing with the prophet, perhaps corresponding to the "mighty hand" [yad = 14] by which Israel was governed until Chorev. See the words of the Rambam (Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah, chaps. 8 and 10) which fit this understanding precisely.
[4] Many years ago, when Prof. Israel Finkelstein was still excavating Israelite sites, such as Even Ha-Ezer across from Tel Afek and Tel Shilo, I asked him what bothers him about the biblical account. He answered: There are no fortified cities from Arad to Be'er Sheva from the late Canaanite period, and therefore "the Canaanite, the king of Arad," was impossible during that period! I re-examined the biblical verses, and thanks to Finkelstein's objection, I understood the words "who dwelt in the South." The verses refer to the leader of a nomadic tribe, and not of a fortified city! The Torah is precise; there is no connection between "Chorma" in the Torah and "Tzefat… Chorma" that is mentioned in Shofetim (1:17), as many scholars believe.