My notes on Chuqat

Parashat Chuqat


19:17          And for an unclean person they shall take of the ashes of the burnt heifer of purification for sin, and running water shall be put thereto in a vessel:

Comment: Here “ashes” is literally “dust” in Hebrew, same as the word used when Gd decrees that Adam has to return to the dust due to his sin (Genesis 3). “Running water” is literally “waters of lives” in Hebrew. Therefore, there is a contrast here between death and life, between the transience of a singular living being (a red cow or a man returning to dust) and the continuity of the uncountable waters from a living stream. Man’s many pursuits on the earth return to the dust when he leaves this world, having produced only temporary and individual satisfaction. Watching a long sequence of TV shows,  or winning many electronic games, or even reading many novels, often cannot bring any long lasting benefit. However, educating children or students, in science or in faith, passes the batons down from generations to generations. An individual’s efforts can last beyond his death only when it can be incorporated in the common pursuit of many generations of people, which can be symbolized by the “running water” in this verse. (I learned this part of the interpretation from Rabbi Dr Sir Jonathan Sacks. See

In addition, the  “running water” is expressed as “waters of lives” in plural Hebrew. This reminds me that we don’t have just one life in this world, but also life in the world to come. Just like water after being used will dry up, man will die. But the vapor of the water can go into the sky, being condensed into a cloud, and rain down again, back into a living stream on the earth. Likewise, man can have a new life in the world to come. The Bible teaches that death will be conquered, and life will be eternal.


Numbers 20

20:29          And when all the congregation saw that Aaron was dead, they mourned for Aaron thirty days, even all the house of Israel.

Comment: Although the death of Aaron is a sad event, Rashi comments (on v25,v26) that Moses admires two aspects of Aaron’s death. One, Aaron died peacefully. Two, Aaron passed on his task of service of Gd to his son. I admire these two aspects too. I heard from my wife that many Christians die peacefully. Knowing that they will have eternal life of course helps, since then death is just like crossing a landmark in a continuous journey, or like going into a sound sleep before waking up again in the morning light. However, my wife said that many Christians actually died even without much pain, and often during sleep. 

Moses would be happy to know that he himself would die peacefully too (just 7 months and 6 days later). His sons didn’t succeed in his task on earth teaching Torah, but his student Joshua did. We are also descendants of Moses in this sense of studying Torah. Some of us may not be privileged to be like Aaron, to have a son succeeding his career (e.g., in teaching Bible or teaching science), but one can still strive to be like Moses, to teach good students and pass on his effort of serving Gd, whether in spiritual or in material matters.


Numbers 21

21:9          And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.

Comment: “Brass” or copper is the material of the outer altar, which is used for atonement of sin. The word “serpent” נחש has the same numerical value 358 as the word “messiah” משיח. The Messiah is the antidote of the serpent – the ancient serpent who entices mankind to sin. Whatever the harm that the serpent in Genesis 3 does, the Messiah being raised up on the cross will be able to undo. In John 3:14 in the New Testament, Jesus says “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up.” Jesus probably knows about this secret of equivalence in numerical value!

A striking contrast appears in II Kings. King Hezekiah broke this same copper snake made by Moses, and this seemingly contradictory act was approved in the Bible (II Kings 18:3-4) : “He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord as David his father had done. He had the high places taken away, and the stone pillars broken to bits, and the Asherah cut down; and the brass snake which Moses had made was crushed to powder at his order, because in those days the children of Israel had offerings burned before it, and he gave it the name Nehushtan.” This contrast is worth intensive thinking by both Christians and Jews. In terms of this contrast, Jews would say that Christians are worshiping Jesus as worshiping an idol like the Neshushtan (a piece of copper); while Christians would say that Jews should look up to Jesus as the copper snake raised up by Moses that brings healing from the Gd.  How should Christians convince Jews that they are not worshiping an idol? Can we draw some conclusion from comparison of these two places of the scriptures? It seems to me that the key is to recognize that the copper snake has no independent power without Gd. It is the same Gd of Israel who is the ultimate target of Christains’ worship. Christians worship this Gd through following Jesus, as Gd’s word in flesh. They are not worshiping the flesh and blood of Jesus per se; they are unlike the people in King Hezekiah’s time who seem to worship that piece of copper per se. They are more like the people in the wilderness who look up to the copper snake raised up by Moses.  The act of these people in the wilderness is not idol worship, but, instead, an act of following God’s instructions so as to seek healing from the Gd. This motivation of their act is obvious from the two preceding verses (Numbers 21:7,8): “Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD, and against thee; pray unto the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.”


Numbers 22

22:1          And the children of Israel set forward, and pitched in the plains of Moab on this side Jordan by Jericho.

Comment: This first verse in Chapter 22 is included as the last verse in Parashat Chuqat, which gives a positive finish to this sad portion, which records two of the three leaders’ deaths (Miriam’s and Aaron’s), and also the decree that even Moses will die before crossing the Jordan and entering the promised land. In this verse, Moses is not mentioned, but the Israelites are, who are now at the border of the promised land and will soon enter to conquer it. With this positive finish of this portion, we can now view the longtime leaders’ deaths positively, as having accomplished their missions to lead the old generation and mentor the new generation. Now they are “retiring” from this world, having successfully accompanied the new generation of people to their new starting line.