Why did the Children of Yisrael need to bring the red heifer to Moshe and Aharon?
(19,1) “And Hashem spoke to Moshe and to Aharon, saying: This is the statute of the Torah which Hashem has commanded, saying: Speak to the children of Yisrael and have them bring to you a perfectly red cow, which has no blemish and upon which no yoke was laid. And you shall give it to Elazar the Kohen.”
The repetition of the word “saying” in this posuk seems to be superfluous, but it seems to me that it can be explained as follows:
Chazal teach that the law of the red heifer is a statute - a law whose reasoning we do not understand. But they did in fact give a reason for this law - that since it is coming to atone for the sin of the golden calf, the mother should come and clean up the mess that her son made!
Therefore it would seem that what makes this law a statute is the fact that the Kohen Gadol was displaced from performing the mitzvah of the red heifer, and it was given instead to the deputy Kohen Gadol. But we also know the reason for this -the red heifer is brought to atone for the sin of the golden calf which could not have been made without Aharon, and since it was made through him “the accuser cannot become the defender”. Therefore it had to be performed by Elazar.
However, if later generations were allowed to perform the mitzvah of the red heifer with a Kohen Gadol, it would have been very obvious that Aharon had been displaced because he had sinned with the golden calf, and his disgrace would have been very great. Therefore, in order not to shame Aharon, Hashem commanded that for all generations the mitzvah of the red heifer should be performed only by the deputy, and thereby it would not be clear that this was because of Aharon’s involvement with the golden calf. Instead, people would assume that this is what Hashem’s wisdom decreed.
Now, since Yisrael were the ones who were bringing the red heifer, they are the owners of the animal, and thus they would receive atonement through it as is the case with all atonements. But since Aharon also sinned he also needed to have a share in this animal. However, it was impossible for Aharon to also bring it together with the rest of Yisrael, because if only Aharon brought it and not Moshe, his disgrace would have been clear. And to have Moshe also bring it was also impossible because he did not need the atonement, and thus it would have resulted in someone who was irrelevant to the atonement having a portion in the sacrifice, and this would have prevented the sacrifice from atoning since it would be like a change of ownership. So how could Aharon have a share in the bringing of the red heifer?
For this reason Hashem commanded that the animal should be handed over to Aharon, so that he, with his own hand, would hand it over to Elazar, and this action would be sufficient to give him a portion in the atonement even though he was not bringing the animal. But this would not have been a sufficient solution, because Yisrael would still have sensed that Aharon had a part in the sin of the calf.
Therefore, Hashem commanded that Moshe should also join him by having Yisrael bring the heifer to Moshe, who would then hand it over to Elazar together with Aharon. This way, Moshe’s participation would not invalidate the sacrifice since he was only handing over the heifer, and Yisrael would not realize that Aharon’s involvement with the handing over was because of Aharon’s sin, since Moshe had no part in the sin of the calf and yet he was also handing it over. Therefore, they would think the whole procedure was a statute, without any reason. But the truth is that it was done so as not to embarrass Aharon.
Thus, the main reason for the red heifer was permitted to be revealed to Yisrael, but the reason why they had to bring it to Moshe who had no part in this atonement, and the reason why Moshe and Aharon had to hand it over, and the reason why it was to be given to Elazar and not to the Kohen Gadol, even though Moshe knew the reasons he was not allowed to reveal it to Yisrael, and thus the mitzvah of the red heifer is a statute. This is also the meaning of the midrash which teaches that Hashem said to Moshe: To you I am revealing the reason of the red heifer, but to others it is a statute.
This is what the meaning of our posuk: “This is the statute of the Torah which Hashem commanded, saying” - saying to others that it is a statute, even though the reason has been revealed to you. Their bringing the animal to you, and the fact that both you and Aharon have to hand it over to Elazar the Kohen, and that the mitzvah is not performed by the Kohen Gadol - all these will be a statute to them. But the main reason for the red heifer it is permissible to tell them.
Why does it say that Miriam died there?
(20,1) “And the children of Yisrael, the whole congregation, arrived at the wilderness of Tzin in the first month, and the people settled in Kadesh; and Miriam died there and was buried there.”
Rashi explained that Miriam also died by a kiss from Hashem’s mouth, rather than by the angel of death. But it is not clear why Rashi is explaining this here, or indeed from where he knows this. However, it seems to me that Rashi is coming to explain the words “and Miriam died there”, because the word 'there' would seem to be superfluous since it is obvious that she died there.
It is explained in several seforim that someone who has had death decreed upon him, even though he still continues to live here on earth, nevertheless, in the heavenly realm he is already considered dead, as the Maharil writes in his responsa. I have already written about this at length in several places. But this is only true when someone dies by the angel of death, because then an announcement about the impending death is made before the matter is handed over to the angel of death. But when someone dies by the hand of Hashem no prior announcement is made about him, and thus he is not considered dead until he actually dies.
This is what Rashi is coming to explain - “Miriam died there” and not before, and this can only be if Miriam died with a kiss from Hashem’s mouth.
Why did Yisrael quarrel only with Moshe and not with Aharon?
(20,2) “The congregation had no water and they assembled against Moshe and against Aharon. And the people quarreled with Moshe and said: If only we had died when our brothers died before Hashem.”
The Alshich points out that in the beginning it says that they assembled against both Moshe and Aharon, but then it says that they quarreled with Moshe alone!
To answer this we first need to understand what they meant when they said “if only we had died when our brothers died”. The Ohr HaChaim explains that they were complaining to Moshe for praying for them that they should not die in the plague of pestilence which occurred earlier. But if so, their complaint was very unreasonable, because how was Moshe to know that Miriam would die and that there would be no water, and so he had obviously prayed for their good!
But the reason behind their complaint was because they mistakenly thought that the water was in the merit of Moshe and Aharon, and that if these two wanted it then they would have water. Therefore, it must be that they were holding it back because they hated Yisrael and were not concerned for their welfare.
Because of this they assembled against both Moshe and Aharon to complain to them for holding back good from them, since it was within their power to give water. But they could not quarrel with them about this - because somebody holds back some good from his fellow should he quarrel with him because of it? Is he obligated to do him good?
But against Moshe they had both a quarrel and a complaint. They said: Either way you look at it - if you are not concerned for our welfare you should not have prayed for us and you should have let us die when our brothers died before Hashem, and if you are concerned about our welfare why did you bring us to this wilderness and then hold back from us water! So it seems that either way you are not concerned for our welfare. Therefore they quarreled with him. But with Aharon they did not have such an argument, and therefore they did not quarrel with him.
Another way to answer the Alshich’s question is that the word העדה (congregation) always indicates the important and respected individuals, and the word העם (people) always indicates the lower individuals, the multitude of the people.
The intelligent individuals knew that the journey that a person takes is not because of human decision but comes from Hashem, and therefore they did not quarrel with Moshe concerning their journey. Their only complaint with was why Moshe and Aharon did not give them water, since they believed that it was given in their merit and therefore they could give them water if they wanted to, as I explained above. Therefore they congregated against both of them to complain.
But the multitude of the people lacked the understanding of the first group and did not understand that their journey was determined by Hashem. Therefore they came and quarreled with Moshe since he was the leader and thus was the one who decided their journey.
Another way to answer the Alshich’s question is according to the teaching of the Yalkut Shimoni, which says that whilst Moshe and Aharon were sitting in mourning for Miriam, Moshe saw that all Yisrael were gathering around them. He asked Aharon why they were gathering there, and Aharon answered him that since they had inherited the character trait of performing acts of kindness from their forbears, it must be that they were coming to comfort them in their time of mourning. Moshe retorted that Aharon had obviously not learned the proper etiquette for such an event - if they were coming to perform an act of kindness the elders would be in the front of the gathering, but here they were all mixed up together with no order of seniority.
We see from this midrash that Aharon judged their actions favorably, but Moshe did not. According to this we can explain that Yisrael initially planned to quarrel with both Moshe and Aharon, and thus they initially gathered together against both of them. But when they heard that Aharon interpreting their actions favorably but not Moshe, they left Aharon and quarreled only with Moshe.
Why did the people prefer to have died earlier?
(20,3) “And the people quarreled with Moshe and said: If only we had died when our brothers died before Hashem. And why have you brought the assembly of Hashem to this wilderness to die there, we and our cattle?”
The Alshich asks what difference does it make if they died now or died earlier?
We can answer that the word גויעה is a superior expression of dying and is only used when discussing the death of tzaddikim, whereas the word מיתה is a more demeaning expression of death and is used also when discussing the death of animals.
Now, it is clear from the words of Chazal that being killed by the king is not like being killed by the executioner - being killed by the king himself is an honor, but being killed by the executioner is a disgrace. Similarly, גויעה which is described as dying by a kiss from Hashem and is the way that tzaddikim die, is an honor, but dying a natural death - by hunger or thirst or some other chance mishap - is comparable to the death of animals who also die in such a fashion. In addition, the Ya’aros Devash writes that punishment which is meted out with Hashem’s oversight atones for ones sins, but punishment which comes about because Hashem removes his supervision and involvement with a person does not atone for ones sins.
This is what Yisrael were saying: “If only we had died when our brothers died before Hashem” - an honorable death by Hashem’s own hand, and also since Hashem supervised the deaths it would have been an atonement for us. “Why (instead) have you brought the assembly of Hashem to this wilderness to die (למות) there” - a מיתה type of death, “we and our cattle” - a natural death like the death of our cattle due to a chance mishap (lack of water).
Why did the people complain to Moshe that he should never have brought them out of Egypt in the first place?
(20,4) “And why have you brought the assembly of Hashem to this wilderness to die there, we and our cattle? And why have you brought us up from Egypt to bring us to this evil place?”
At first glance these two arguments appear to be the same, just expressed differently. But we can explain them with a parable about a man who hired someone to take him to a certain place, and on the way they found themselves traveling along a very bad route. Now, if there are two different routes that the driver could have taken to get the man to his destination, the man could complain to the driver for taking him along the bad route instead of the other, better route. However, if the man is not familiar with the alternative route, the driver could argue that the alternative route might be worse than the current one, and thus the man would no longer have grounds for complaint.
But all this is true only if the man had an urgent need to travel, but if he had no pressing need to travel and could have just as well stayed home, then he has a valid complaint against the driver either way. Because he could say to him that if he knew that there was a better route, why did he take him along the bad route? And if he knew that both routes were bad why did he not tell him while he was still at home, because then he would never have traveled in the first place - since it was not so urgent and the routes were very bad why should he endanger himself?
This was the argument that Yisrael used against Moshe. First they argued about the place he had brought them to - why did he bring them to this bad place with no water? He should have taken them by a different route which has water! And if Moshe would answer that there was no better route, that all the routes are equally bad, why did he take them out of Egypt to this wilderness in the first place? Since the matter was not so urgent it would have been better to stay in Egypt rather than bring them into this great danger!
Why did Moshe and Aharon move away before falling on their faces in prayer?
(20,6) “And Moshe and Aharon came because of the assembly to the opening of the Tent of Meeting and fell upon their faces; and the glory of Hashem appeared to them.”
At first glance it would seem that the reason why Moshe and Aharon moved away from the assembly was because they were afraid of them, like the first time Yisrael complained about the lack of water in parshas Beshalach when Moshe said to Hashem “they are almost ready to stone me!” (Shemos 17:4). But if so, Hashem should have told them to move away, to “pass before the people”, like He said to Moshe over there.
Therefore it seems to me that the reason why they moved away was because of the teaching of Chazal in the gemora Ta’anis 14b, that an important person is not permitted to fall upon his face in prayer unless he is certain that his prayer will be answered.
Because of this Moshe and Aharon were concerned that if they fell upon their faces in front of all the assembly it would look arrogant, since it must be that they were certain that they would be answered else they would have been forbidden to fall upon their faces. Therefore it says that “Moshe and Aharon came because of the assembly to the opening of the Tent of Meeting”, not because the assembly wished to harm them, G-d foirbid, but since they wished to fall upon their faces because they knew that they would be answered - as in fact they were, as it says “and the glory of Hashem appeared to them” - they moved away so that they could do so in private and thus not appear arrogant.