Parshas Chukas is known mostly for the halachos of the Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer, which was used to remove the status of Tumas Meis from an individual. It is also a transitional parsha for the Bnei Yisrael as two of their major leaders, Miriam and Aharon, Moshe’s siblings, passed away in this parsha. Since the slavery in Mitzrayim, Miriam and Aharon had always been there for the nation; Miriam as a midwife, saving Jewish babies from death, Aharon acting as peacekeeper between spouses and extended family as well. Their passing left a huge hole in the nation.
When discussing Miriam’s death, Rashi quotes a gemarah in Moed Katan (28a) that asks, what is the significance of writing the death of Miriam directly after the laws of the Parah Adumah? The Gemarah answers just like the Parah atones for the tumah of Bnei Yisrael, so does the death of tzaddikim atone for the nation. The Kli Yakar says that there are four instances where the medrash connects the death of a tzaddik to the topic written next to it in the Torah. They are: the death of Nadav and Avihu and the halachos of Yom Kippur, the death of Miriam and Parah Adumah, the death of Aharon in this week’s parsha and the clothing of the Kohen Gadol, and the death of Aharon (rehashed in Sefer Devarim) and the breaking of the Luchos. The Kli Yakar goes on to explain that these four topics represent what a tzaddik does for us in this world, which explains why they are written next to each other.
There is a gemarah in Brachos (17b) that says the sustenance for the entire world is provided in the merit of tzaddikim. There is also a medrash by Parah Adumah which explains that the reason why a Parah is used to remove tumas meis is because since the Bnei Yisrael sinned with a calf (by the Golden Calf), it is only right that the mother of the calf should come and clean up their mess! This is obviously a metaphor, but it shows a connection between Parah Adumah and Miriam. We are taught that the well in the desert was provided only in the merit of Miriam; together with the fact that as a righteous person, she also helped provide food for Bnei Yisrael, she is the mother of the nation, providing them with everything they needed to survive.
Perhaps the most important function of a tzaddik is to show us the proper path to avodas Hashem and how to do the mitzvos. Losing that is an actual loss of Torah, similar to the breaking of the Luchos. Additionally, the merit of a tzaddik acts as a shield, protecting and masking the nation from all harm; similarly, clothing protects and masks the body. In fact, we are taught that the protective cloud surrounding the camp came in the merit of Aharon, and immediately after his passing, Bnei Yisrael were attacked as that protection was gone. This is the connection between the death of a tzaddik and the clothing of the Kohen Gadol, which also had the function of acting as atonement for the nation in certain cases.
Lastly, since his removal from this world affects the wellbeing, safety, and educational and spiritual growth of the nation, a tzaddik’s death itself is an atonement! Even with nothing else attached to it! Similarly, the day of Yom Kippur is an opportunity for us to seek atonement without us having to do anything beforehand. Regardless of the circumstances, Yom Kippur will come and provide us with an opportunity to makes things right.
While Aharon and Miriam were two of the greatest people who ever lived, the same merit they provided for us in their time exists for us nowadays with our tzaddikim. Hopefully we can understand and take advantage of the great people we have with us, and fully appreciate what they provide us with.
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