How We Relate to the Dead

Dear Rabbi:
Maybe you are anticipating that I will devote most of my comments to the major drama concerning this week’s parshah Chukkat, to wit, the striking of the rock as opposed to speaking to it, but other than a passing reference, I choose to write about what happens in the First and Fifth Aliyahs.
In my opinion, the red heifer and the fashioning of the copper snake cause me great concern. I have a great deal of trouble when physical manifestations are needed for G-d to make His point.
Starting with the red heifer in the First Aliyah, I believe that there have been less than ten of these animals known to exist since the beginning of time, thus the animal takes on an almost holy  presence. We are taught not to worship idols, but this and the serpent seem to defy this commandment.
And what is the purpose of killing and burning the red heifer? It is supposed to be used cleanse a person that comes in contact with a corpse. What is G-d’s obsession with the uncleanliness of a corpse. Everyone at some point dies. Moses and Aaron are told later on in this parshah that their days are numbered. We are taught to honor our loved ones by visiting them in cemeteries. We sit for a period of time in something known as a shiva  when a loved one dies, and we pay tribute to our deceased loved ones at least once a year by gathering with at least ten other Jews on anniversary of the loved one’s death to pray in what is known as their yahrzeit. What is it about touching the corpse that makes one “unclean”?
The Fifth Aliyah and what it instructs is even more mystifying. The Israelites again bemoan their fate and G-d gets disgusted and sends venomous snakes to kill the complainers. They soon realize their mistake and beg Moses to intervene yet again, and he is told by the Almighty in Numbers 21:8 to do the following:
“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Make yourself a serpent and put it on a pole and, let whoever is bitten look at it and live.”
Moses does as he is told by making a snake out of copper and putting it on a pole and the people then live. Aren’t those that were eyewitnesses to this event thinking that it was the physical copper snake that had saved them and not the Lord? If that is not worshipping an idol, I do not know what is.
I will leave you with the following questions as it pertains to Moses pronounced demise for hitting the rock. In the Third Parshah, Moses is told by G-d to take a staff and go to the people and speak to the rock so that they can have water for themselves and their livestock to drink. In Numbers 20:10 the following takes place:
“Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock, and he said to them ‘Now listen you rebels, can we draw water for you from this rock?”
First off, why does G-d give Moses the staff? Second, why does Moses go back and immediately  seem to get angry and call the Israelites “rebels”? They had complained many times before and Moses was usually slow to anger. As I read paragraphs 10 and 11 in Numbers 20, there is no reference to Moses even attempting to talk to the rock before striking it with the staff provided to him by G-d. Was this all a set up to give the excuse for Moses to give up command before the Israelites were allowed to enter the Holy Land.  


Dear Mordecai,

I will certainly miss your take on why Moses did not enter the Promised Land. 

The red heifer and the copper snake are also of concern to me. The issue is not so much the red heifer, as the ritual surrounding it. As for the copper snake, this is a reference to Kings 1 18:4.

Is the red heifer a kind of idolatry? Given the golden calf incident, one might think so. Nonetheless, the rarity seems to militate against idolatry. An idol must be present to you at all times. Hard to worship that which is so infrequent, like a red heifer. 

Interesting that you should mention your astonishment about the emphasis Torah puts on the uncleanliness of a corpse. One might imagine societies in which people use the skin and bones of their ancestors to ornament themselves or their households. Clearly calling a dead body unclean is one way of keeping people from such practices. You shift from here to a discussion of mortality. You seem to think the dead body has become something of a taboo. The examples you bring about honoring the deceased all point to honoring the memory of the deceased, not the body of the deceased. Surely, this is one way we detach ourselves from the dead. 

The scene you describe (21:8) is so blatantly idolatrous that one has to wonder whether the Torah is trying to make a counterpoint of some kind. In no way should we think that the Torah is condoning idolatry. 

Is your question, Why does G-d give Moses the staff if He knows the staff will be his undoing? THis is like giving a jealous husband a knife. Why did Moses break at this particular moment? He was slow to anger. I once thought that this event was concocted simply to find a way to dispose of the protagonist before the story's conclusion so that people don't worship Moses instead of G-d. 

I don't know why Moses lost his patience and got angry at that particular moment. I do think that having Aaron by his side played a role.