The Rite of the Red Cow

After the rebellion of Korach, the people remained at Ritmah for 19 years and then wandered in the desert for another 19 years,1 making 17 stops (see Figure 1).2 God did not promulgate any laws during this whole time. The next historical event that the Torah records is the death of Miriam, which took place at the end of these 38 years. But before this, the Torah inserts the laws of ritual purification from impurity caused by contact with a corpse. Although God gave these laws on the first of Nisan, 2449, they are inserted here in order to link them conceptually with Miriam’s death, teaching us that the death of the righteous purifies the living just as these rites do.3

19:1 God spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying:

2 “This is the quintessential rule of the Torah that God has commanded you to say to the people. It is a rule, without rationale, so do not expect it to make any sense to anyone. Speak to the Israelites and have them take for you, Moses, a totally red-haired, unblemished cow, upon which no yoke was ever laid.

3 And you shall give it to Eleazar, the assistant high priest, and he shall take it outside the camp of the Israelites, and a layperson shall slaughter it in his presence.

4 Eleazar the priest shall take some of its blood with his finger and, standing east of the camp, directly facing the entrances of the Tent of Meeting and the courtyard, sprinkle it toward the front of the Tent of Meeting seven times.

5Someone shall then burn the cow in his presence; he shall burn its hide, its flesh, and its blood, with its dung.

6 The priest shall take a piece of cedar wood, a piece of hyssop, and some wool dyed crimson with the extract of the tola’at worm, and cast them into the burning cow.

7By performing this rite, the priest becomes defiled. Therefore, in order to be allowed back into the Sanctuary precincts (i.e., the courtyard and the Tent of Meeting), he must immerse his garments and immerse allhis flesh in purifying water—i.e., in a mikveh or suitable natural body of water—and only then, after nightfall, may he enter the courtyard, i.e., the camp of the Divine Presence, for even after his immersion, the priest shall remain defiled until evening.

8 The one who burns it also becomes defiled. He must immerse his clothes in purifying water and immerse his body in purifying water, and after his immersion he shall remain defiled until evening.

9 A ritually clean person shall gather the cow’s ashes and place one third of them in a vial outside the Israelite camp in a ritually clean place. The priests will use these ashes to purify themselves before preparing the ashes of other red cows. Another third is to be placed in a vial outside the courtyard; the priests will use these ashes to purify anyone else. The last third will be placed in another vial outside the courtyard; rather than being used, it will remain for the congregation of the Israelites as a keepsake of these ashes, which are mixed with sprinkling water in order to be used for purification from ritual impurity, as will be explained presently. These ashes may be used only for purification purposes and nothing else.

10 The one who gathers the cow’s ashes also becomes defiled and therefore must immerse himself and his clothes in purifying water, and after his immersion he shall remain defiled until evening. The following shall be an everlasting rule for the Israelites and for the convert who resides in their midst:

11 Anyone touching the corpse of a human being shall become defiled for at least seven days.

12He may start counting these days as soon as he disengages from contact with the corpse, or on any day thereafter. On the third and seventh days of his count, he shall purify himself by being sprinkled with a solution made of ashes of the red cow, as will be described presently. After he is sprinkled on the seventh day, he must immerse and wait until nightfall,4 and then he will be pure. But if he is not sprinkled with it on the third and seventh days, he shall not become clean.

13 Whoever touches the corpse of a human being who dies or touches a revi’it of human blood and does not purify himself using the ritual ashes, and then enters the Sanctuary precincts, has defiled the Tabernacle of God, even if he has immersed. That soul shall be cut off from Israel—he will die prematurely and childless.5 For the sprinkling water was not sprinkled on him, so he remains defiled; his defilement remains upon him despite his immersion.

14 This is the law: if a man dies in a tent, anyone entering the tent and anything in the tent while the corpse is still in it shall be defiled for at least seven days.

15 Any open earthenware vessel in the room that has no seal fastened around it becomes defiled, but a properly sealed earthenware vessel does not become defiled. Metal vessels become defiled whether closed or not; stone vessels do not contract defilement.

16In contrast, in an open field or other unenclosed area, a person does not become defiled by merely being in the presence of a corpse; only anyone who touches a person slain by the sword, a corpse, a human bone, or a grave, or even the top or side boards of a coffin, shall be defiled for at least seven days.

17This is how to make the solution sprinkled on the ritually defiled person: a ritually pure person shall take for that defiled person some of the ashes of the burnt cow used for purification, and he shall put them into a vessel of spring water and mix them with the spring water in that vessel.6

Second Reading 18 A ritually pure person shall take some hyssop and dip it into the water into which some of the ashes of the red cow have been mixed and sprinkle it on the tent, on all the vessels, and on the people who were in it, and on anyone who touched the bone of a dead person, the slain person himself, the corpse of someone who died some other way, or the grave.

19 The ritually pure person shall sprinkle the solution on the defiled person on the third and seventh days of his count, and he shall thus finish purifying him with these rites on the seventh day. The person being purifiedshall afterwards immerse his clothes and immerse himself in purifying water, and then he shall become ritually pure in the evening.

20It was stated above7 that a defiled person who enters the Tabernacle defiles it. The same will be true of the Temple: If a person becomes defiled and does not purify himself before entering the Temple, the soul of that person shall be cut off from the congregation—he will die prematurely and childless—for he has defiled the Sanctuary of God. The sprinkling water was not sprinkled upon him; he is therefore still defiled.

21 This shall be for them as a perpetual rule: anyone who carries the sprinkling water—but only if he carries at least enough to sprinkle with—becomes defiled and must therefore immerse himself and his clothes, and then he becomes pure after nightfall. In contrast, one who only touches the sprinkling water also becomes defiled and must immerse himself and remains defiled until evening,8 but his clothes do not become defiled and do not require immersion.

22 Whatever the person who has been defiled by contact with a corpse touches shall become defiled, and anyone touching such a person shall become defiled, but only until evening, for by touching the person who came in contact with a corpse he has only contracted a derivative form of defilement.”

Allegorically, the ritual of the red cow atones for the sin of the Golden Calf, as follows:

  • Have them take for you: from their own money, since they offered their own jewelry to make the calf.
  • A cow: so the mother (a cow) can clean up the mess made by the child (the calf).
  • An unblemished [one]: to restore the people’s perfection marred by the calf.
  • Upon which no yoke was laid: to atone for the fact that they cast off the yoke of heaven.
  • And you shall give it to Eleazar: and not to Aaron, since Aaron played a part in the sin.
  • Someone shall then burn the cow: just as Moses burned the calf.
  • The priest shall take cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson wool: three entities to correspond to the 3000 men who were executed for sinning with the calf, and to indicate that a sinner, who is as haughty as a cedar, should lower himself like a hyssop or the worm that produces the crimson dye in order to repent.
  • He shall place them…for a keepsake: for the sin of the Golden Calf is punished whenever any other sin is punished.
  • One who touches the sprinkling water remains defiled: just as the calf defiled the people, the cow defiles all those involved with it.
  • He shall take…some of the ashes…and sprinkle…on the defiled person: just as the people were atoned for by the ashes of the calf.

Miriam's Death and its Aftermath

20:1 The Torah now resumes the historical narrative. After those who had participated in the sin of the Golden Calf finished dying off, it was possible to resume the journey toward the Land of Israel. Their first stop on this leg of their journey, their 18th stop since leaving Ritmah, was the city of Kadesh, at the border of Edom. The entire congregation of the Israelites destined to enter the Land of Israel arrived at the desert of Tzin on the first of Nisan, the first month, in the year 2487, and the people stayed in Kadesh. Miriam died there in the tranquil manner that will be described later9 as “by God’s kiss,” on the 10th day of the month,10 and was buried there.

2Now that Miriam had died, the well that had accompanied the people on their journeys in her merit disappeared. The congregation had no water, so all of them except the tribe of Levi11 assembled against Moses and Aaron.

3 The people argued with Moses, and said, “If only we had died by the plague, the way our brothers perished in Korach’s rebellion,12 when they sinned before God, for death by thirst is worse.

4 Why have you brought the congregation of God to this desert so that we and our livestock should die there?

5 Why have you taken us out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place; it is not a place that can be planted with seeds, or a place of fig trees, grapevines, or pomegranate trees, and there is no water to drink.”

6 Moses and Aaron moved away from the assembly to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they fell on their faces and prayed to God to provide the people with water. The glory of God appeared to them as before, in the cloud.

Third Reading (Second when combined) 7 God spoke to Moses, saying:

8 “Take your staff and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and speak in their presence to the rock that has provided you with water until now, so it will give forth its water in your merit. You shall bring forth water for them from the rock and give the congregation and their livestock to drink.”

9 Moses took the staff from before God, as He had commanded him.

10 Moses and Aaron miraculously assembled the whole congregation in the small area in front of the rock, but the rock from which water had flowed previously had rolled among the other rocks when it dried up, so Moses could not identify it. The people said to him, “What difference does it make from which rock you draw water for us?” Pointing to another rock at random, Moses said angrily13 to them, “Now listen, you foolish rebels, are you telling Aaron and me what to do? Do you think we can draw water for you from this rock, about which God has not commanded us?”

11To prove his point, Moses spoke to this other rock, and indeed, nothing happened. Moses and Aaron said, “Maybe we need to hit it, just as we were commanded to hit the original rock when it first gave water.”14 Moses raised his hand and, by Divine providence, struck the original rock with his staff. He struck it twice, for since God had commanded him to speak to the rock, not hit it, the rock was not prepared for this type of overture, and it only gave forth a trickle the first time. He struck it a second time, and then an abundance of water gushed forth, and the congregation and their livestock drank. Thus, the well was restored to the people. It continued to provide them with water until Moses’ death.15

12 God said to Moses and Aaron, “If you would have tried speaking to the rocks, trusting that I would lead you to the correct one, I would have led you to it. Then, the rock would have given water and the people would have learned to revere Me, thinking: ‘If this dumb, deaf, and self-sufficient rock obeys God’s will, all the more so should we, who can discern why we ought to obey His will and need His assistance.’ This would have prevented them from rebelling again.16 But since you did not have enough faith in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Israelites, I must teach them to revere Me by punishing you for not following My instructions. They will thus learn that rebelling against Me carries consequences. Therefore, I swear17 that you shall not bring this assembly to the land that I have given them. True, I told you long ago that you would not lead the people into the land,18 but you could have altered My decree through prayer. Now this is no longer possible. Thus, were it not for this sin, Moses and Aaron would likely have been privileged to lead the people into the Land of Israel.19 God promised Moses that whenever the Torah mentions his and Aaron’s death, it will note that they were forbidden to enter the Land of Israel because of this sin, so that it not be thought that they were among those who sinned with the spies.20 Although Moses had committed a graver sin by doubting God’s power at Kivrot HaTa’avah,21 he committed that sin in private, and therefore did not serve as a bad example for the people. Here, by hitting the rock, he did not follow God’s instructions in public.

13 These waters, which led to Moses’ death in the wilderness, are the waters that Pharaoh’s astrologers saw when they foresaw that the Israelites’ redeemer would meet his end through water.22They became known as “the waters of dispute” [Mei Merivah]because God drew them from the rock after the Israelites contended with Him. He was sanctified through these waters, by punishing Moses and Aaron for disobeying His instructions regarding how to draw water from the rock. In contrast, Refidim, where the Jews had earlier complained about their lack of water,23 was nicknamed “Masah and Merivah” (“Trial and Dispute”). God, at this point, also rescinded His promise to give the people the lands of the Ammonites, Moabites, and Edomites immediately when they would enter the land,24 reverting to His original plan to postpone the conquest of these lands until the messianic future.25 Nonetheless, as will be explained further on,26 He did want them to give them those portions of Ammon and Moab that had been conquered by the Amorites, so He told Moses to lead the people toward entering the land from the east, rather than from the south.

Confronting Edom

Fourth Reading 14The incident of the water behind them, the Israelites could resume their journey toward the Land of Israel. Since they were at the border of Edom and were no longer allowed to try to conquer it,27 they would have to either travel around it or negotiate passage through it (see Figure 2). Moses decided to first try the more direct option, and therefore sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom. He sent these messengers in his own name in order to frighten the Edomites into compliance, since by this time he was known worldwide as God’s personal emissary.28 He told the messengers to say, “So say the descendants of Israel, i.e., Jacob, your ancestor Esau’s brother: As Jacob’s brother, Esau should have shared the responsibility of fulfilling God’s decree that Abraham’s descendants live as foreigners in exile as a condition to inherit the Land of Israel.29 But he chose instead to make his home in a different land, in order to be free of this obligation.30 It therefore fell to us alone to fulfill the condition. You know of all the hardship that has befallen us on this account:

15 Our fathers went down to Egypt, and we sojourned in Egypt for a long time. And the Egyptians mistreated us and our forefathers as well, for the patriarchs suffer in the grave when their descendants suffer.

16 We cried out to God, because Isaac blessed our ancestor Jacob that his descendants’ prayers be answered,31 and He heard our voice. God sent an emissary, Moses, and he took us miraculously out of Egypt. As you see, God answered our prayers, so you would be ill advised to try to do us evil. Now we are in Kadesh, a city on the edge of your border.

17Since you cannot possibly object to our plan to take possession of the Land of Israel, and you owe us a favor for having fulfilled your obligation to suffer exile, please let us pass through your land. We will not pass through fields or vineyards, nor will we drink water from the well that accompanies us on our travels and is our constant source of water. Instead, we will buy food and drink from you like good guests, so you can benefit financially from our passage. We will walk along the main highway, the king’s road, and we will muzzle our animals, allowing them to turn neither to the right nor to the left to graze in your fields until we have passed through your territory.”

18The king of Edom replied to him, “You shall not pass through my country, lest I go out to greet you with the sword! Just as you pride yourself on the blessing Isaac gave to your ancestor Jacob, I pride myself on the blessing he gave to my ancestor, Esau: to live by the sword.32

19Thinking that the reason the Edomites refused them was because Moses sent them emissaries in his own name and the Edomites did not feel that Moses could assume responsibility for the entire people’s actions, the Israelites sent additional emissaries to the king of Edom.33 They said to him, “We will keep to the highway, and if either we or our cattle drink your water, we will pay its price. There is really nothing to fear; we will pass through on foot.”

20 But the king of Edomsaid, “You shall not pass through!” and Edom came out to greet them with a vast force, relying on the strong hand Isaac recognized as Esau’s advantage.34

21Thus Edom refused to allow Israel to cross through its territory, although they did sell the Israelites food.35 So, since God had instructed Moses not to wage war against them, Israel turned away from them. An alternative route northward was through Moab. Moses asked the Moabites permission to pass through their land, but they also denied them passage,36 although they, too, did sell the Israelites food.37 God told Moses that since this territory was also not part of the land He intended to give them, they must not try to conquer it either,38 although He did potentially allow them to frighten, raid, and plunder them,39 because they emulated their ancestress’ immorality.40 So, after spending three and a half months at Kadesh, they headed southward, away from the Land of Israel, along the western border of Edom.

Aaron's Death

Fifth Reading (Third when combined) 22 They traveled from Kadesh, and the entire congregation of the Israelites that was destined to enter the Land of Israelarrived at Mount Hor [“The Mountain of the Mountain”], so named because it was a small summit atop a larger one, on the 1st of Av, 2487 (See Figure 3).41

23 God said to Moses and Aaron at Mount Hor, on the southern border of Edom, saying,

24 You erred by trying to pass through Edom. You should have realized that traveling through its land would expose the people to the unhealthy influence of the Edomites’ depraved culture. To atone for this error, Aaron shall now die and be gathered to his people’s ancestors. He would have had to die soon at any rate, for he will not enter the land that I have given to the Israelites and that they are soon to enter, because you both defied My word at Kadesh, in the incident of ‘the waters of dispute.’42

25Moses, console Aaron by pointing out that he will die seeing his son Eleazar inherit his office, whereas your son will not inherit yours. Bring them up—Aaron and Eleazar—into a cave in Mount Hor.

26There will be a bed with a lit candle next to it in this cave. When you enter, clothe Aaron in the garments of the high priesthood, strip Aaron of these garments, and dress his son Eleazar in them. By this, Aaron will see the office of high priest transferred to his son. Then tell Aaron to get into the bed, stretch out his hands and feet,43 and close his mouth and eyes. Then Aaron shall be gathered in to his ancestorsand die there.” This type of serene death is known as death “by God’s kiss.”

27Although it was hard for him, Moses did exactly as God had commanded him. They ascended Mount Hor in the presence of the entire congregation.

28Inside the cave, Moses dressed Aaron in the garments of the high priesthood, stripped Aaron of these garments, and dressed his son Eleazar in them, and then had Aaron get into the bed, stretch out his hands and feet, and close his mouth and eyes. Thus Aaron died there on the top of the mountain. When Moses saw how Aaron died, he hoped he would also die the same gradual and serene way.44 Then Moses and Eleazar descended from the mountain.

29 The whole congregation saw that Aaron had perished from the fact that Moses and Eleazar returned alone. But they could not believe that the man who had stopped the Angel of Death in Korach’s rebellion45 could himself die, so Moses prayed for God to convince them. God showed them an image of Aaron lying on the bed in the cave, and then they believed. After Aaron died, they fought off an attack by the Amalekites and retreated as far as Moserot, one of their previous stops, for reasons the Torah will relate presently. While at Moserot, the entire house of Israel, men and women, wept for Aaron for 30 days,46 for he had made a point of making peace between people, particularly between spouses.

Amalek's Second Attack

21:1The Torah now continues to relate what happened while the Israelites were still at Mount Hor. Besides depriving them of Aaron, God punished the people further by emboldening Amalek to attack them yet again.47 As we have seen,48 the clouds that surrounded the Israelites on their journeys protected them from the elements and from attack, led them through the desert, and served as an “honor guard.” When Aaron died, the clouds that served the latter purpose (the “Clouds of Glory”) disappeared—for they existed solely in his merit—leaving only the protective and leading clouds. Whereas God restored the well that had existed in Miriam’s merit after her death, He did not restore the Clouds of Glory after Aaron’s death; nor did the people complain about their absence, as they had complained about the lack of water when the well disappeared. This is because the Clouds of Glory were not vital to the people’s existence as was the water that the well provided.49

The Amalekite king of Arad (who, as we shall see presently, disguised his people as Canaanites), who lived in the southern part of the Land of Israel,50 heard that the Clouds of Glory had disappeared. The Amalekites had attacked the Jews at Refidim,51 and had wanted to attack Israel again when it had come close to Amalekite territory and tried to enter the Land of Israel through Edom by the route the spies had taken,52 and even prior to this when they saw the Ark of the Covenant—which preceded the Israelites by a three-day journey’s distance53—but they were deterred by the presence of the Clouds of Glory.54 Now, however, they interpreted the removal of God’s “honor guard” to mean that He now permitted other nations to attack.55 Nonetheless, they knew the Israelites still possessed their power of prayer, so, in order to render their prayers ineffectual, the Amalekites disguised themselves as Canaanites, hoping the Israelites would pray to God to deliver them from the wrong enemies. Thus the king of Amalek waged war against Israel and indeed took a captive from them, although this was only a woman the Israelites had captured from Amalek in their earlier encounter with them56 and who thus had the status of a slave57 and was therefore outside the protective clouds.58

2 Israel saw that these enemies who were disguised as Canaanites had Amalekite features, so they made a generic vow to God, and said, “If You deliver this people into my hand, whoever they are, I shall dedicate the spoils of their cities to You.”

3 God heard Israel’s voice and delivered the “Canaanite” into their hands. The Israelites destroyed all of them, for there was no way to dedicate captives, and dedicated the spoils of their cities to God, and they called the place Chormah [“Dedication/Destruction”] (See Figure 4).59

The Snakes

4Aaron’s death and this battle with Amalek disheartened the people so much that they decided to return to Egypt. They journeyed from Mount Hor back the way they had come, by way of the Sea of Reeds. The tribe of Levi opposed this retreat and pursued the rest of the people, catching up with them seven stops back from Mount Hor, at Moserot. The Levites battled them in an effort to stop the retreat, and a sizeable number of Israelites—laymen and Levites—perished60 before the decision was made to halt the retreat and continue in the direction of the Land of Israel (See Figure 5). The people then spent a month at Moserot, mourning the death of Aaron. They then retraced their steps from Moserot to Mount Hor, after which they resumed their journey toward the Land of Israel, and continued southward through the Aravah valley61 in order to circle Edom, stopping at Tzalmonah and Punon (See Figure 6).62 While at Punon,63 the people became disheartened because of the setbacks on their journey.

5 The people spoke both against God and against Moses, mistakenly putting him on a par with God. They said, “Why have the two of you brought us up out of Egypt to die in this desert, for there is no normal bread, only the manna, and no normal water supply, only the traveling well, and we are weary of this light manna-bread, which is miraculously absorbed into our bodies, producing no waste products. We have been eating it for 38 years, and are afraid it will eventually explode in our stomachs.”

6 God said, “Let the snake, who was punished for its slander, come exact punishment from these people who slandered Me. Let the snake, to whom all things taste the same, come and exact punishment from these people who eat one thing that tastes like anything they wish.” He sent against the people the venomous snakes, and they bit the people, and many people of Israel died. Other animals started biting the people as well, and their bites also killed, although more slowly than the snakes’ bites.

7 The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against God and against you. Pray to God that He remove the snakes from us.” Even though the people had wronged him, Moses forgave them completely and even prayed on behalf of the people, asking God not only to forgive them and stop punishing them, but to strengthen them spiritually against the sins that had brought on the punishment.

8 God answered Moses’ prayer and told him how to accomplish all he had asked for. He said to Moses, “I will forgive them, as you have, for having spoken against us. However, in order to strengthen them against sinning in general, it is not enough that they repent for this particular sin; they must repent for all their sins and rededicate themselves to Me completely. Until they do this, the snakes and other animals will continue to attack them. Therefore, make yourself—i.e., using your own money, to express how fully you forgive the people and seek their betterment64—an image of a venomous snake and put it on a pole, and let whoever was bitten by a snake look at it. This will help them focus on why they are suffering and—when they look intently toward heaven—help them submit their hearts to Me and thereby repent properly. I will then cure them of the rapid effects of the snakes’ bites. Those who need to repent less were bitten by other animals; all they need to do is look fleetingly at the snake image and think about heaven; this will be enough to inspire them to repent properly so I can cure them and they, too, will live.”

9So Moses made a copper snake and put it on a pole. He made it out of copper even though God had not so stipulated because the word for “snake” (nachash) is akin to that for “copper” (nechoshet). If a snake had bitten a man and he looked intently toward the copper snake and submitted his heart to God, he was cured and lived. But if another animal had bitten him, he only had to glance at the snake and submit his heart to God in order to be cured—just as God had promised.65

Miracles at the Arnon Gorge

Sixth Reading 10At this point, they were near the southern border of Moab, but since, as we saw,66 the Moabites had denied them passage through their land, the Israelites journeyed eastward from Punon, skirting the southern border of Moab, and camped in Ovot.

11 They then journeyed further eastward from Ovot and turned northward, camping by the ruins of the two passes: the pass that leads toward Mount Nebo—which itself is the pass from the original border of Moab to the territory of the Amorites. This pass is in the desert east of Moab.

12 They journeyed northwardfrom the ruins of the pass, along the eastern border of Moab, and encamped at Divon Gad,67 in the valley of the Zered River. God told Moses at this point68 that although the people were approaching Ammon, which lay somewhat beyond the Arnon River, they should not try to conquer it either, for it was not part of the land He intended to give them.69 He also did not want them to attack the Ammonites because one of King Solomon’s wives would descend from them.70 Furthermore, whereas God had allowed the people to frighten, raid, and plunder the Moabites, He forbade them from doing this to the Ammonites, because their ancestress had been more modest than the Moabites’ ancestress and the Ammonites, emulating her behavior, were less immoral than the Moabites.71 But, God told Moses, they should wage war with the Amorites and conquer their land, for this territory was permitted to them.72

13 They journeyed further northward from there and encamped at Almon Divlataimah,73 on the north side of the Arnon River, in a strip of land controlled by the Amorites that was in the desert and extended eastward from the main Amorite border. Thus, although the Arnon River was the Moabite border, this was true only of its western part, which passed between Moab and the Amorites. The eastern part of the Arnon River marked the division between the desert through which the Israelites were traveling (east of Moab) and the territory of the Amorites, which lay north of the Arnon (See Figure 7).

14As the Arnon River empties into the Dead Sea, it passes between Moab and the territory of the Amorites, flowing through a gorge between two cliffs. On the southern, Moabite side of the river, there were caves in the cliffs; on the northern, Amorite side, there were rocky projections opposite these caves. The Amorites hid in the caves, maliciously planning to bombard the Israelites with arrows and rocks when they passed below along the river. But as the Israelites approached, the northern cliff, which would soon be possessed by the Israelites, trembled in anticipation of this, as it were, and thus the rocky projections entered the caves and killed the Amorites hidden there. When the cliff returned to its place, the blood and limbs of the Amorites fell off the projections into the ravine below. God then made the well that accompanied the Israelites on their journeys descend into this river of blood and limbs and miraculously ascend back to the Israelite camp and flow all around it, displaying the Amorites’ blood and limbs (especially their powerful, muscular arms),74 so the people could know about the miracle He had performed for them and appreciate it. Therefore, concerning this encampment, it is told whenever people recount the wars that God fought for the Jews, “Just as we relate what miracles He gave the Israelites at the Sea of Reeds, where He fought for them and they had to do nothing,75 so should we relate the miracles He performed for them at the valleys of the Arnon River, when He also fought their enemies by Himself.76

15Specifically: the spillage of Amorite blood and limbs into the valleys that resulted when the cliff movedsouthward toward the dwelling of Ar, the capital district of Moab, and leaned toward the border of Moab.

16 From there, the flow of blood and limbs ran into the well; that is the well of which God said to Moses, ‘Gather the people, and I will give them water.’ ”

17 Then, when they realized that God had performed this miracle for them, Israel sang this song: “Ascend, O well, and show what you have to show!And let us sing to it!

18 It is a well dug by Moses and Aaron, our princes, carved out by nobles of the people, through Moses the lawgiver, with their staffs, and from the desert God gave it to us as a gift. It is a well that flows into channels dug by the princes of each tribe at every stop with their staffs, in order to bring water to their respective tribes.

19 After it was given to us as a gift, it descended with us to the valleys, and from the valleys it ascended with us to the heights.

20 From the heights it will descend to the valley in the field of Moab, where Moses will die at the top of the peak of Mount Nebo, which overlooks the wastelands. There it will stop, and resurface in the Sea of Galilee, from whence it overlooks the wastelands.” Moses’ name is not mentioned in this song because he was punished for striking the rock when attempting to restore the well, and since Moses’ name is not mentioned in it, God did not allow Himself to be mentioned in it either.

The Battle with Sichon

Seventh Reading (Fourth when combined) 21In Elul 2487,77 while they were at Almon Divlataimah, the people prepared to conquer the Amorites. There were two Amorite kings: Sichon, who controlled the area between the Arnon and Yabok Rivers, and Og, who controlled the land north of the Yabok. Although God had told him to fight Sichon, Moses first sent messengers to Sichon the king of the Amorites to ask him, on behalf of all Israel, to let them pass peacefully through his land. Moses had learned from God’s example: God had sent Moses to politely ask the Egyptians to release the Jewish people before He fought the Egyptians, and had offered the Torah to the other nations before giving it to the Jewish people.78 When Moses had asked the Edomites to let the people pass through their land, he had sent the messengers in his own name.79 This time, however, he did not, since God had promised that the Israelites would be victorious and there was therefore no need to frighten Sichon.80 He told the messengers to say:

22 “Let us pass through your land. We will not venture into fields or vineyards or drink water from the well that accompanies us on our travels and is our constant source of water. Instead, we will buy food and drink from you, like good guests, so you can benefit financially for allowing us passage. We will walk along the king’s road, and we will muzzle our animals, not allowing them to graze in your fields, until we have passed through your territory.”

23Had Sichon agreed, the Israelites would not have conquered his territory and would have proceeded to cross the Jordan into Canaan. For even though God had promised this territory to Abraham and had commanded Moses to conquer it, Moses understood that it would be preferable to conquer Canaan first. That way, any land conquered afterwards—including the territories of Sichon and Og—would have the legal and spiritual status of Canaan. Indeed, if not for the sin of the spies, the people would have entered the land from the south and would have naturally conquered Canaan first.81 But God made Sichon stubborn, and he did not permit Israel to pass through his territory, for in fact, he and Og collected tribute from the Canaanite kings in exchange for protecting them from invaders. So the Israelites had no choice but to engage Sichon in battle. The Amorites were very strong, and their cities were well fortified. To spare the Israelites the trouble of combating each city individually, God inspired Sichon to gather all his people, and he went out with them to the desert toward Israel. He arrived at Yahatz and they all fought against Israel at once.82 God made the sun stand still to prolong the day for the battle.83

24 Israel smote him and his people with the sword, and thus took possession of his entire land at once, from the Arnon River northward to the Yabok River, and as far east as the Ammonites (See Figure 8). They did not battle the Ammonites, for, as was mentioned previously,84 the border of the Ammonites was protected by God’s forbiddance and was thus effectively too strong for them.

25 Israel took all these cities, killed all their inhabitants,85 and plundered them,86 and, as will be seen later,87 the Israelite tribes of Reuben and Gad dwelt in all the cities of the Amorites, including Cheshbon and all its adjacent villages.

26 For although Cheshbon was originally part of Moab, and therefore off-limits to the Israelites, it was now the city of Sichon, king of the Amorites, for he had fought against the first king of Moab, taking all his land from his possession, as far south as the Arnon River (See Figure 9).

27Sichon had been able to capture it only by hiring the non-Jewish prophet Balaam to curse it. Balaam had begun his career as a dream interpreter, and then became a sorcerer and soothsayer. Finally, God granted him prophecy,88 so the non-Jews would not be able to complain that had God given them a prophet like Moses, they, too, would have accepted the Divine mission.89 Therefore, concerning this war, Balaam and his father, Be’or (also a sorcerer and soothsayer), who speak in parables, said, “Come to Cheshbon, O Sichon, now that it has been cursed. May it be built and established as the city of Sichon.

28 For a fire has gone forth from Cheshbon now that Sichon has captured it, a flame from the city of Sichon; it has consumed Ar, the capital districtof Moab, wherein reside the masters of the altars of the Arnon River.

29 Woe to you, Moab; you are lost, people of your god, Kemosh. Moab has given his sons over as refugees and his daughters into captivity, to Sichon, king of the Amorites.

30 Their sovereignty over Cheshbon is destroyed; it has departed from Divon. We laid them waste as far as Nofach, which reaches until Medeva.”

31So Israel settled in the land of the Amorites.

32After conquering Sichon, the people traveled from Almon Divlataimah and camped at a place called “The Mountains of the Passes,” near Mount Nebo,90 which, as mentioned,91 was the passageway on the original border between Moab and the Amorites. From this camp, Moses sent men to spy out Ya’zer, an Amorite district not included in Sichon’s territory. These spies resolved not to make the mistake of the spies who were sent from Ritmah, and moreover intended to rectify their error: instead of overstepping their mission negatively, as the first spies had done, they exceeded their mission positively. Although Moses had instructed them only to spy out the district, they relied on his prayers and also captured its villages,92 driving out the Amorites who lived there (See Figure 10).

The Battle with Og

33On the 23rd of Tishrei, 2488 (after the holidays),93 the army of the Israelites turned and headed north through Sichon’s former territory toward the Bashan, the area north of the Yabok River until Mount Hermon.94 Og, the giant king of Bashan, came out toward them with all his people to wage war at Edrei (See Figure 11).

Maftir 34Moses was afraid to wage war against Og, for he thought he might be protected by the merit of having helped Abraham.95 God said to Moses, “Do not fear him, for your merit is enough to counterbalance his. Thus, I have delivered him, his people, and his land into your hand. You shall do to him as you did to Sichon, king of the Amorites, who dwelt in Cheshbon.”

35Og uprooted a mountain as wide as the entire Israelite camp, intending to drop it on them. By intending to kill the entire Jewish people, he lost all the merit he had earned by helping Abraham. Therefore, Moses no longer required his own merit to counterbalance Og’s; he approached Og as the people’s emissary, fulfilling their collective obligation to defend themselves.96 Moses smote Og as follows: God sent ants to bore a hole in the mountain Og was carrying on his head, and it sank around his neck. When he tried to pull it off, God made his teeth grow out, keeping the mountain stuck on his head. In the meantime, Moses took a huge ax, jumped into the air, and struck Og in the ankle. Miraculously, this was enough to kill him.97 The rest of the people killed Og’s sons and all his people, until there was no survivor, and they took possession of his land and plundered the cities.98

22:1After conquering Bashan, the Israelites journeyed from “The Mountains of the Passes” and encamped in the plains of Moab, across the Jordan from Jericho (See Figure 12). These plains were no longer part of Moab; they were given this name when Moab extended northward past the Arnon River, before Sichon conquered this territory.