Classic Questions

Why did Elazar clarify the law of purging vessels, and not Moshe? (v. 21)

Rashi: Since Moshe fell into a state of anger (v. 14), he fell into a state of error: The laws of purging vessels belonging to gentiles were concealed from him. We find a similar incident occurred on the eighth day of inauguration, as the verse states, "He became angry with Elazar and Isamar" (Vayikra 10:16)—he fell into a state of anger, so he fell into a state of error [criticizing them for burning the sin-offering (see Rashi ibid)]. Likewise [when Moshe said]: "Listen, you rebels!" (above 20:10), "he hit the rock" (ibid. 11). Through anger, he came to err.

What did Elazar tell them? (v. 22)

Rashi: Even though Moshe warned you only about the laws of ritual impurity, you must be further warned about the laws of purging... Even after their purification from the ritual impurity caused by a corpse (v. 20), you still may not use vessels until they have been purified from the [flavor of] non-kosher meat that they absorbed.

The Rebbe's Teachings

Moshe's Error (Rashi to v. 21)

In the current passage we read how the vessels that were captured by the Jewish people as plunder from the war against Midian were required to be cleansed with sprinkling water (into which ashes of the Red Heifer had been mixed), to remove the ritual impurity that had been caused by contact with a corpse. This law was taught to the Jewish people by Moshe in verse 20.

In verse 22, Elazar added another law, that the vessels needed to be purged, i.e., since these vessels had been used to cook non-kosher food, the flavor of that food had seeped into the walls of the vessels. Thus, if a person cooked kosher food in one of these vessels, the non-kosher flavor would seep out of the walls of the vessel into the food, thus rendering it non-kosher. To avoid this problem, the vessels had to be "passed through fire" (v. 23), which would purge the flavors that are in the walls of the vessel (see Rashi to v. 22).

In his commentary on verse 21, Rashi explains why this latter law was taught by Elazar, and not Moshe: "Since Moshe fell into a state of anger (v. 14), he fell into a state of error: The laws of purging vessels belonging to gentiles were concealed from him." Rashi continues to explain that this had occurred on two previous occasions: in Parshas Shemini, when Moshe had become angry that a sin-offering goat had been burned, and in Parshas Chukas, when Moshe erred in hitting the rock.

Rashi's comments prompt the following questions:

  1. Being that Moshe's anger had led him to err on these two previous occasions, why did Rashi wait until this third occasion to explain the principle that anger leads to error?
  2. What Moshe said was, in fact, correct. He had rightly instructed the people to purify the vessels from the ritual impurity of a corpse by applying sprinkling water. What Moshe had failed to do was to inform them of the additional procedure, that the vessels needed to be purged too, since he had failed to recall this detail—as Rashi writes, "The laws of purging vessels belonging to gentiles were concealed from him." Surely this is not an "error" (i.e., a misjudgment), but rather, an omission of an additional, totally unrelated law, being that ritual purification and purging are two completely different concepts?

The Explanation

The fact that non-kosher flavors absorbed in a vessel need to be removed before kosher food is cooked in it is logical, and clearly, Moshe would have been aware of this fact. Thus when "the laws of purging vessels... were concealed from him," and he failed to recall the method of removing these flavors, Moshe was nevertheless aware of the necessity to remove them. But since he could only recall one procedure that needed to be performed with these vessels (the application of sprinkling water) Moshe presumed that this single procedure would achieve both goals: It would remove the ritual impurity caused by a corpse, and it would remove the non-kosher flavors from the vessels.

Moshe's reasoning was simple: We see that a few drops of sprinkling water had an effect that was far beyond its site of application, removing ritual impurity from the entire vessel, even though the water was only applied to a small part of the vessel. So Moshe reasoned: Being that the sprinkling water is extremely powerful and has a far-reaching effect beyond the site where it is applied, it must be able to remove the flavors from the vessel too.

Of course, if Moshe had remembered the law that flavors are actually removed through purging, he would not have been led to make this assumption. But since the law was concealed from him, and he knew that the flavors had to be removed somehow, he presumed that the far-reaching effects of the sprinkling water were not limited to removing impurity, and that they could remove flavor too.

Thus, when Rashi writes that "he fell into a state of error," this does not contradict his statement that "the laws of purging vessels...were concealed from him." Because, as a result of the fact that the law of purging was concealed from Moshe, he was led to make the erroneous presumption that sprinkling water can remove flavors too.

Moshe's Prior Errors

While Moshe came to an erroneous conclusion here as a result of his anger, the previous occasions where Moshe seemed to have erred in anger were not such clear-cut mistakes. In our case, Moshe had been lacking crucial information (which was "concealed from him") that led him to make a presumption that has no basis in Torah. But on the previous occasions, it appeared that Moshe had followed a path of Torah logic:

In the case of the sin-offering that was burnt, provoking Moshe's anger in Parshas Shemini, Rashi explains (Vayikra 10:16) that Moshe and Aharon differed over an extremely subtle and intricate argument (about whether the laws of mourning concerning a temporary offering apply to a permanent offering too), and both sides appear to have had a Torah-based argument. Likewise, the reason why Moshe hit the rock had a logic within the system of Torah, as Rashi explains (above 20:11) that Moshe followed the instructions which G‑had given to him on a previous occasion, to strike the rock at Choraiv (Shemos 17:6).

In both these cases, the final conclusion of the argument was not in Moshe's favor. But if a person presents an argument which is valid according to Torah, he is not deemed to be mistaken if the final ruling does not favor him. Rather, he made a valid point, but ultimately, another view was deemed to be more appropriate. So, from these previous two cases we have no proof that anger leads to error, since it was not clear that Moshe erred.

In our case, however, where Moshe clearly made an outright mistake—when he failed to recall crucial information—we have a clear basis to conclude, "Since Moshe fell into a state of anger, he fell into a state of error."

And now, having proven that anger does indeed lead to error, we see retroactively that in the previous two cases when Moshe's argument was rejected it was probably not because Moshe had a valid point of view, but rather, it was a clouding of judgment that came as a result of anger.

(Based on Likutei Sichos vol. 8, p. 182ff.)