In Parashat Chukat, we encounter an end of an era, the ends of three of the leaders of Israel: Moses, Aharon and Miriam.
The Parsha opens with the laws of פרה אדמה (the Red Heifer), a special and rare kind of animal that is described as a perfect red cow without any blemish and upon which never came a yoke: G-d instructs Moses and Aaron,
דבר אל בני ישראל ויקחו אליך פרה אדמה תמימה אשר אין בה מום אשר לא עלה עליה על
Speak to the Children of Israel, that they bring you a red heifer without defect or blemish, upon which never came a yoke(19:2).
After the red heifer is slaughtered outside the camp before Elazar the priest, the skin of the cow, her flesh, and her blood, is burned. Her ashes are used to purify a person who has been made impure by contact with a dead body. What is interesting about this ritual is that the same way that the ashes of the red heifer can purify the impure it can also make the pure impure, as in the case of he that gathers the ashes. Of whom it written,
And he that gathereth the ashes of the heifer shall wash his clothes, and be unclean until the evening (19:10).
After forty years of wandering in the desert, the Children of Israel arrive at the wilderness of Zin. Miriam, the older sister of Moses and Aaron, dies in a place called Kadesh.
Rashi comments that Miriams death comes immediately after the portion of the Red Heifer in order to teach us that the same way the sacrifices can bring כפרה (atonement) so too, the deaths of the righteous can bring atonement.
Soon after the death of Miriam, the Children of Israel encounter a lack of water and, once again, they quarrel with Moses, saying:
ולמה הבאתם את קהל ה אל המדברהזה למות שם אנחנו ובעירנו
Why did you bring the congregation of G-d into this desert to die with our livestock? (20:4)
The מפרשים or commentators notice that the name מרים (Miriam) contains the word מים or water. Rashi explains that because of Miriams merit, during the forty years in the desert, the Children of Israel had a well that provided water for them. After Miriams death, however, the well was removed.
To address the lack of water, G-d instructs Moses to speak to the rock that will give forth its water, as it is written:
ודברתם אל הסלע לעיניהם ונתן מימיו והוצאת להם מים מן הסלע והשקית את העדה ואת בעירם
And speak to the rock before their eyes to bring forth its water; so you shall bring water out of the rock for them and you shall give drink to the congregation and their cattle (20:8).
Moses then becomes angry with the Children of Israel and calls them rebels, as it written:
שמעו נא המרים המן הסלע הזה נוציא לכם מים
Listen you rebels! Can we extract water from this rock for you? (20:10)
Instead of speaking to the rock Moses famously strikes the rock, twice, causing water to gush out in full force.
Moses and Aaron are then told that neither of them will enter The Promised Land:
יען אשר לא האמנתם בי להקדישני לעיני בני ישראל
Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the children of Israels eyes(20:12)
Aaron dies on Mount Hor and the children of Israel mourn him for thirty days. Moses and the children of Israel conquer the lands of Sichon, king of the Amorites and Og, the king of Bashan, after the two nations denied the Children of Israel to to pass through their land.
וידבר ה אל משה ואהרן לאמר
G-d spoke to Moses and Aaron saying...(19:1)
In this Parsha, we see the power of speech and of words. The Parsha opens with G-d speaking to Moses and Aaron and in the next verse, G-d commands Moses to speak to the Children of Israel. In chapter 20, verse 7, G-d speaks to Moses again:
וידבר ה אל משה
G-d spoke to Moses
In 20:8, G-d tells Moses and Aharon to speak to the rock, as it is written:
ודברתם אל הסלע
In 21:5, the people speak out against G-d and Moses:
וידבר העם באלהים ובמשה
And the people spoke against God, and against Moses.
Moses was punished with a rather harsh punishment for striking the rock instead of speaking to it. His punishment, however, provides an important lesson in leadership. A leader must know when to use his staff (force) and when his staff should remain mute and he should try to communicate and negotiate with words.
Moses seems to have had difficulty with speech since we first met him in the book of Exodus when he tells G-d that he can not be a leader for,
לא איש דברים אנכי גם מתמול גם משלשם כי כבד פה וכבד לשון אנכי
I am not a man of words not since yesterday, not since the day before; for I have a heavy mouth and a heavy tongue(Exodus, 4:10).