More Room to Fit Than We Realize

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Priestly Clothing We Can Wash

The Torah at the beginning of Hukkat says the person who burns the heifer (to create ashes to be mixed with water, used as part of removing tum’at met, the ritual purity incurred by contact with the deceased) will wash his clothes in water, Bamidbar 19;8. Meshech Hochmah notices the uniqueness of the phrase: the Torah several times requires a person to wash his clothes without telling us in what, often pairing it with washing his body in water. This is the sole time it tells someone to wash his clothes in water.

He adds the fact we usually do not launder priestly garments, we just throw them out or use them for other purposes, an example of ein aniyyut bimkom ashirut, we do not act frugally in a place of wealth. [The idea appears in Zevahim 88a, and fascinates me, first because I have a complicated relationship with money.

Leaving me out of it to the extent I can, the Gemara elsewhere says ha-Torah hasah al mamonan shel Yisrael, the Torah has compassion for the money of the Jewish people, also in the Beit Ha-Mikdash. It was a balancing act.]

Here, he says the Torah was telling us we could wash and reuse these garments; to see why that would be true, we have to join him in a digression.

Some Priestly Activities are Less Exalted

Yoma 23b said the taking out of the deshen, the ashes ceremonially sampled from on top of the altar every morning, had to be done in lesser quality clothing than the ordinary service (some thought the sampling itself was also done in those lesser garments). To explain, the Gemara says: clothing one wore to cook a dish for one’s Master is not the clothing in which to serve the dish to the Master.

Burning of the Parah Adumah seems more like cooking than serving. It should be less than that, Meshech Hochmah says, because acts of burning leftover sacrifices may be performed by a zar, a non-kohen. The burning of the Parah cannot be done by a zar because it requires priestly clothing, but Meshech Hochmah says it at least means the priestly clothing need not be of high quality.

Coming back to washing them, since we do not care as much as usual about their quality, here we can wash and use them to burn another Parah Adumah, should need arise. However, the stress on ba-mayim, in water, limits the washing to water; if they need detergent, that’s too much.

Kohanim with a Mum

Beyond the clothes issue, Meshech Hochmah suggests a ba’al mum could do this service, wearing the garments. We tell ourselves kohanim with mumin, physical differences the Torah defined, were not part of the service at all. Already an exaggeration—the Gemara tells us of several jobs they were given, to let them have a share in the process—a single word in the Parah Adumah ceremony leads Meshech Hochmah to insert them here, too. He infers this, partially, from the Torah referring specifically to a kohen only when discussing the person before whom the slaughter and burning of the animal takes place. He reminds us they can inspect nega’im, possible tzara’at lesions, to determine if the person is ritually impure. He concedes it is more surprising here, because the ceremony does require priestly garments, not ordinarily a part of ba’alei mumin’s role.

He urges us to think carefully about the matter.

Quantity of Blessing Is a Less Good Sign Than You Think

After Moshe hits the rock twice, lots of water flows out, Bamidbar 20;11 says, sufficing for the people and their flocks. Meshech Hochmah starts us off with the idea God’s truest blessings focus on quality over quantity. For example, Vayikra 26;5 said we would eat our bread la-sova, traditionally read to mean a small amount of bread would fully satisfy our appetites and nutritional needs. Giving outsized impact to something small is a greater sign of blessing than just giving us a lot of it.

Food that nurtures physically and spiritually affects each of us at our level, as Yoma 75a says about the man, based on the verbs used about its gathering in Bamidbar 11. It fell at the door of the righteous, middle level people had to walk a bit to gather it, and evildoers had to hike around to find it. Similarly, the Gemara says it fell in the form of bread for the righteous, cakes for the beinonim, the mid-level people, and evildoers had to grind it to bake it into whatever they wanted.

[We need not take the Gemara literally or historically; however, it points out how even the man could leave room for doubt about its source or meaning. Would the evildoers in the camp accept it was their fault they had to work harder to gather their man and turn it into food? Would the mid-level people see the value and importance of improving and work at it? If not, I imagine they would turn this into a natural event with unknown mechanisms, and lose some of the lessons the man was supposed to teach.]

Water for People, Water for Animals

Back to our miracle, Moshe getting water from the rock. Had there been only some water, but the people found themselves needing no more, their experience would have separated them from their animals, who are not spiritually attuned enough to stop when full. It is why God told Moshe to produce water, not “much water,” from the rock, and why God referred to giving the water to them and to their animals, the extra word to distinguish the people’s hoped-for experience from the animals’.

Only because the miracle went wrong did they get a lot of water, all partaking the same way, losing that lesson.

Moshe’s Sin, a Desecration of God’s Name?

Jewish tradition has a cottage industry of ideas about what in Moshe’s mishandling deserved the punishment he received. R. Yosef Albo suggested (Sefer Ha-Ikkarim IV;22) Moshe could have made clear God responds to certain righteous people’s calls for miracles (by hitting the rock, he left room to think this was natural).

Meshech Hochmah questions the premise, because we do not see Moshe call for miracles. Yehoshu’a ordered the sun to stop in the sky, Eliyahu called fire down from heaven, but not Moshe. Meshech Hochmah suggests it was too dangerous for him, because of his level of prophecy—he heard from God while awake, speaking like one person to another. If he also did miracles before God told him, people might think he was an independent power, not just a faithful servant.

The Korach incident changed that. First, the people accused Moshe of being less exalted than he was, relieving us of the worry they would mistake him for a rival of God’s, God forbid. It left him room to come up with the idea of an earthquake swallowing Korah, Datan, and Aviram, an idea God then acted on, because it would only show the people he was at the level of other prophets who invoked miracles.

After that, were he not to summon a miracle to get the people water, it would look like he paid more attention to bolstering his political position than attending to their needs. A hillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s Name, to see a great leader care about his honor in ways he did not care about other people.

Moshe Fails to Open the People’s Eyes

For his own perspective, Meshech Hochmah harkens back to the Giving of the Torah, where the Jews are described as seeing the sounds of God’s Voice, as it were. Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah 1;13 describes an angel taking each Pronouncement of the Aseret Ha-Dibberot and bringing them to the people, like a physical object. They saw God’s Word.

Much of that spiritual level dissipated with the sin of the Golden Calf, and the rock was a chance to renew it. If the people paid the right kind of attention, saw God fulfill Moshe’s word, they could rejuvenate their connection to God as it had been at Sinai.

In his anger, Moshe called for them to listen to what he was about to do, did not invoke the sense of sight God had wanted. And at Moshe’s level—really the rub in every idea about what he did wrong, that it’s always at his level— it was a deep sin, a failure to bring about the faith burst he could have, how Meshech Hochmah reads Bamidbar 20;2, ve-lo he’emantem bi, you did not lead them to have faith in me.

Two more reasons to add to our list about why the rock incident stopped Moshe from entering the Land: because he showed more concern with his honor than the people’s needs, or because he failed to focus them in the way that would have restored them to the level of Sinai.

Where Moshe Can Forego His Honor

In the next chapter, 21;6, we are told the people tire of the journey, complain about ever having been taken out of Egypt. When they cannot bear the snakes God sends to punish them, they apologize to Moshe for having spoken against him and God, and ask him to pray for them.

Meshech Hochmah thinks they were justifying their request, were pointing out he had no reason not to pray for them. Last time, we saw them thinking of him as largely one of them, his prophecy and power all a function of God’s relationship with the Jewish people. When that was what they were thinking, he was not allowed to forego the slight to his honor, because it would mistreat his position.

A Torah scholar, however, may decide to ignore insults, because his honor extrudes from the Torah he studied, giving him more rights over it. Here, the people had lumped Moshe with God (a problem, but not the same problem), so he could overlook the insult, and pray on their behalf.

Finding our proper place (or not) is the lesson Meshech Hochmah has shown us in Hukkat. The kohen with a mum was shown one more service he could perform, Moshe’s sin lay in not bringing the people to the spiritual place he could have, and then the people showed him room to pray for them, examples of the niches we occupy and discover as we make our way through the Torah and through life.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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