God spoke to Moshe and to Aharon, saying: This is the statute of the
law which God has commanded, saying: “Speak to the Children of Israel, that
they bring you a red heifer … (Bamidbar 19:1-2)
This is not the place of the Parah Adumah. Historically, the Jewish people
were required to be sprinkled with the ashes of the Red Heifer before even
preparing and eating their Pesach offerings, back in Egypt. And, the Torah
didn’t push off this parshah until now because it simply had better things
to discuss. It is here because this is where it belongs, conceptually-speaking.
The first explanation offered by the Talmud is that it was placed in close
proximity to the death of the Miriam. This way we learn that just as
sacrifices atone for the sins of the generation, so too do the deaths of
righteous people atone for the generation, as they themselves were offered
before God on behalf of the nation. But, that could have been taught by
speaking of any other sacrifice here, or by speaking about it in close
proximity to the death of another righteous person instead, such as Aharon
HaKohen or even Moshe Rabbeinu himself.
So why the Red Heifer, and the death of Miriam specifically?
The Parah Adumah is the one mitzvah that best represents the idea of
chok—statute—mitzvos that defy human reason. Also, there was something about
the death of the righteous Miriam that was very chok-like. Hence, aside from
the atonement-like quality of the death of Miriam, there is another very
profound message to be learned as well, once we recall just who Miriam was,
The redemption of the Jewish people from Egypt was inevitable. Nevertheless,
Miriam played a major role in it. For some reason, she had the merit to be
the redeemer of the redeemer. For, as the Talmud cites, it was Miriam who
convinced her father, Amram, to remarry his wife, Yocheved, and take the
chance of having a baby boy born in hostile Egypt.
When the baby Moshe was born, and panic ensued, it was Miriam’s voice of
calm that prevailed, when she predicted that Amram’s new son would
eventually lead the people out of Egyptian bondage (Sotah 13a). And, even
when it looked that Moshe might be thrown into the river to drown like the
other Jewish male babies, and Amram despaired, it was Miriam who kept the
faith and knew that somehow, even against great odds, Moshe would survive
and prevail to fulfill his destiny as the redeemer of the Jewish people.
Hence, it was Miriam, at great risk, who spied on Baby Moshe as he floated
on the Nile river in a waterproof basket, waiting to see, with perfect
faith, how God would arrange his salvation and rise to greatness. That is
why she was there, at exactly the right moment when Basya found Moshe in the
reeds, something that had not been necessarily simple or wise to do while in
Egypt at that time as a Jewish slave.
But, because she was, she was able to arrange for the reunification of
mother and baby in safer circumstances, in the very palace of the enemy.
Because of Miriam’s belief in God and His promise of redemption, she merited
to become an integral part of it, and eventually, identified with the very
well of water that was miraculously keeping the Jewish nation alive in the
desert. She was a true heroine of the Jewish people.
If so, then why did she die in the desert? Being the super hero that she was
of the Jewish people, why did she not merit to enter Eretz Yisroel with the
rest of the women, including Basya, Pharaoh’s daughter who became Moshe
Rabbeinu’s surrogate mother? If anyone deserved to witness the settling of
Eretz Canaan by the Jewish people, it was Miriam.
So why didn’t she? Miriam certainly had not participated in the sin of the
golden calf, and you can be sure that when the Spies called for a return to
Egypt, Miriam was at the forefront fighting for pushing forward towards the
Promised Land. Her biggest sin seems to have been that she had been overly
concerned about Tzipporah, Moshe’s wife, and that certainly was no reason to
die in the desert instead.
The answer to the question? It’s a chok, a Divine decree. Yes, according to
human logic, Miriam should have been from those who walked and lived on the
land of our Forefathers. However, by Divine calculation, it was better for
Miriam, and the future of the Jewish people, that she die there, in the
desert, at that time, allowing her to atone for the sins of her people, just
as the deaths of all righteous people do.
In essence, it is the issue of tzaddik v’rah lo—righteous people to whom bad
things occur, the classic all-time question (until our generation, which has
now been replaced with a more pressing question, “How do you get this gadget
to work properly?). It is the question that Moshe Rabbeinu himself asked as
of God when he thought he found a favorable moment on top of Mt. Sinai
(Brochos 7a). And, of course, it is the basis of the story of Iyov—the Book
However, is such an issue really a chok? In everyday life, yes, perhaps, but
not in the realm of Sod, or Kabbalah. For example, in the work Sha’ar
HaGilgulim—the Gate of Reincarnation—it explains in many places various
difference reasons that determine the length of one’s life, depending upon
the source of one’s soul, regardless of sin or circumstance. Judgment is
always very specific, and quite precise, and there is no such thing as an
But what about tragedy? From our perspective, there certainly seems to be
something called tragedy, because, unfortunately, we use the word often.
Indeed, just last week, a young man of 23 suddenly died in his home as he
prepared to enter his second son into the Covenant of Avraham Avinu. As a
result, the Bris had to be postponed a couple of hours as the young father
was buried instead, after which the Bris took place and the name of the
father was given to the new born son.
And, that is but one of many stories that seem to be happening all around
the world. Good people suffering. Good people taken from the world with
little or no warning. Even if the medical reasons can be found and the death
physically explained, the questions remain: Why this person? Why now? Why
The Talmud says that one of the things that are denied to human beings is
the time of one’s death, for obvious reasons. So, not knowing the day of our
death, we assume that, just as most people live a relatively long life, we
will too. And, until illness hits, God forbid, we assume that we are immune,
at least to the more serious forms of sickness.
But, a man’s day of death is certainly known to God, and if everything is a
function of Hashgochah Pratis, then so is the illness that does or does not
affect him. And, a fundamental of Torah thought is that our free-will
choices, or lack of them, can certainly have an impact on both, creating
what seems to be a philosophical contradiction.
It’s like this. When times are good, spiritually-speaking, and man deserves
a close relationship with God, then we become more privy to God’s plans for
Creation. Not only that, but when people die, they do so in a way that may
not be easy for us, but at least in a way that our minds can accept. The
randomness in death seems to disappear.
However, when times are not spiritually good, and man acts towards God as if
He really isn’t involved in the affairs of men, then He will act in the
affairs of men in a way that makes it look as if He is not acting in the
affairs of men, making natural death seem untimely and random. That’s when
tragedy becomes a familiar term.
For example, it may be time for 50 people to die at or around a particular
moment. In better times when God does not hide His hand so much, each person
may die far away from each other, and their deaths will never be connected.
It will be sad, death usually is, but tolerable, because the death of a
single person in relatively normal circumstances is something our minds can
However, during times of hester panim, when God hides His providence more,
those 50 people may find themselves on a freeway, one they might not
normally travel, or not normally travel at that time, when some driver
causes a 100-car collision, God forbid, causing each of those 50 people to
die in what seems like a reckless, random, and tragic occurrence. It will
seem as if had they only not taken the freeway that day, they would have
lived another one.
Which, of course, is not true. There is no cheating death, and if a person
seems to have done so, it’s only because he was meant to come close to death
but not to die. You can be sure that when a person’s precise moment to leave
this world comes, he will not be able to circumvent it, no matter how many
fail-safe systems he has created to protect himself from doing so.
What we can affect is how we die, and therefore, perhaps, how our deaths
will affect the world around us. We want to be missed, but we do not want
people to grieve too much, nor be shocked by our passing. We are obviously
not talking about Neshikah, the Divine Kiss by which Miriam’s soul was taken
in this week’s parshah, but at least as less a tragic a death as possible,
hopefully after a long life, but at least in as logical a way as possible.
It is true, the death of 23-year old Charedi man who died suddenly before
the Bris of his new son was shocking, and seemingly tragic. But, had he died
in a car accident, God forbid, that would have been far worse. Instead,
because he died preparing for such a holy act, the grieving family could at
least see his death as a very special event, even calling him a Korban
Tzibbur—a public sacrifice brought on behalf of the community.
It has to be true. But, regardless, whatever the case may be, this week’s
parshah reminds us that death is in the hands of God, Whose calculations go
way beyond our understanding of reality and history, and that, no matter how
people are taken from this world, or when, it is never random, and always,
ultimately, for the good of the person, and the world.