Note to future self: the second aliya of Chukat is kind of hard. When this comes around again in seven years, either be a better reader or duck this one. :-) (Nothing too bad, and there's a reason we have someone whose job is to check the torah reader's accuracy. But still... )
Chukat begins with the ritual of the para adamah, the red heifer, which is a mysterious process by which the subjects of the ritual become tahor (ritually pure) but those who prepare/administer it become tamei (ritually impure) in the process. It's almost as if the red heifer is a state toggle or something. It's one of those laws that people much more learned than I don't understand either.
A person becomes tamei through contact with the dead. The parsha teaches these laws and then gives us two deaths and a death sentence -- Miriam dies, Moshe is told he will die in the desert for what seems a minor transgression, and Aharon dies. (It's not a good week for that family.) We're told why Moshe dies out here, but not Aharon and Miriam. (Ok, when God tells Moshe about his fate he addresses Moshe and Aharon, but since Aharon didn't do anything I don't know what that means.) We know why the rank and file of the generation that left Egypt are going to die in the desert, but the implication until now had been that this wouldn't apply to the leaders. So what did these three do? Were their transgressione even a thousandth as bad as those of the people who spent forty years challenging their leaders and complaining about how life was so much better in Egypt?
It's human nature to hold leaders to higher standards. Things we expect to get away with ourselves, when done by those who lead us, are seen as bad. I've heard of congregations where almost no one keeps Shabbat, but the rabbi is required by contract to do so because he's the rabbi. (I guess he's the congregation's Shabbat Jew. :-) ) We've all heard of employees who call "harrassment" if a manager compliments someone on appearance, while those same employees are ogling their coworkers. And while our political leaders and the big names in the entertainment industry have undoubtedly done plenty to be chastised for, we sometimes seem to focus on the stupid little things while ignoring the big ones.
But that's not the lesson of the parsha. I said this is human nature. What we learn from the parsha is that God sometimes delivers harsher judgements to the leaders than to everyone else. That doesn't mean we're allowed to; just last week Korach made such judgements and challenges, and look where it got him.
We're not supposed to just blindly follow, of course. We should monitor and, as necessary, question our leaders, because we need to have confidence in those who represent us. But maybe we should leave the actual judgement and punishment to God and the courts, while we focus on our own behavior.