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Numbers 19:1-22:1

An entire chapter of Parashat Chukat is concerned with the ashes of the Red Heifer. As we have seen in previous volumes of the 5 Minute Torah, the Torah’s instructions about the ashes of the Red Heifer provide more questions than answers. First, this entire ritual seems illogical. Why in the world would the ashes of a cow be used for purification? Second, the process is counter-intuitive. Why do the ashes of the Red Heifer make a ritually unclean person clean and a ritually clean person unclean? But in our present commentary, we want to ask another question. Why are the laws of the Red Heifer immediately followed by the news of Miriam’s death?

From a superficial reading, sometimes the Torah can seem like a hodgepodge of information dumped together with no logical organization. As we mentioned, our present Torah portion begins with the laws governing the ashes of the red heifer and is followed by the death of Miriam. This is followed by the incident regarding the waters of Meribah, then the death of Aaron. There doesn’t seem to be a logical progression from one subject to the next. It’s a little history mixed with various laws. However, if we take a deeper look we will see the divine inspiration of the Torah’s logic.

Rashi, the eleventh-century French rabbi and preeminent Torah scholar, takes note of the specific order of details the Torah gives us in this Torah portion. Since we read about the death of Miriam immediately following the instructions regarding the red heifer, Rashi believes there is something significant about this order and that these two topics are connected. His comments may sound surprising. Rashi says that just as the ashes of the red heifer bring atonement, so too does the death of the righteous. He pulls his observation from both the Talmud and the Midrash. In the Talmud, Rabbi Ami (from the third century) poses this exact same question along with the same conclusion:

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