You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Chukat.
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
and the Red Heifer
Chukat – Balak 5780
The command of the parah adumah, the Red Heifer, with which our parsha begins, is known as the hardest of the mitzvot to understand. The opening words, zot chukat ha-Torah, are taken to mean, this is the supreme example of a chok in the Torah, that is, a law whose logic is obscure, perhaps unfathomable.
It was a ritual for the purification of those who had been in contact with, or in, certain forms of proximity to a dead body. A dead body is the primary source of impurity, and the defilement it caused to the living meant that the person so affected could not enter the precincts of the Tabernacle or Temple until cleansed, in a process that lasted seven days.
A key element of the purification process involved a Priest sprinkling the person so affected, on the third and seventh day, with a specially prepared liquid known as “the water of cleansing.” First a Red Heifer had to be found, without a blemish, and which had never been used to perform work: a yoke had never been placed on it. This was ritually killed and burned outside the camp. Cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet wool were added to the fire, and the ashes placed in a vessel containing “living” i.e. fresh water. It was this that was sprinkled on those who had become impure by contact with death. One of the more paradoxical features of the rite is that though it cleansed the impure, it rendered impure those who were involved with the preparation of the water of cleansing.
Though the ritual has not been practised since the days of the Temple, it nonetheless remains significant, in itself and for an understanding of what a chok, usually translated as “statute,” actually is. Other instances include the prohibition against eating meat and milk together, wearing clothes of mixed wool and linen (shatnez) and sowing a field with two kinds of grain (kilayim). There have been several very different explanations of chukim.
The most famous is that a chok is a law whose logic we cannot understand. It makes sense to God, but it makes no sense to us. We cannot aspire to the kind of cosmic wisdom that would allow us to see its point and purpose. Or perhaps, as Rav Saadia Gaon put it, it is a command issued for no other reason than to reward us for obeying it.
The Sages recognised that whereas Gentiles might understand Jewish laws based on social justice (mishpatim) or historical memory (edot), commands such as the prohibition of eating meat and milk together seemed irrational and superstitious. The chukim were laws of which “Satan and the nations of the world made fun.”
Maimonides had a quite different view. He believed that no Divine command was irrational. To suppose otherwise was to think God inferior to human beings. The chukim only appear to be inexplicable because we have forgotten the original context in which they were ordained. Each of them was a rejection of, and education against, some idolatrous practice. For the most part, however, such practises have died out, which is why we now find the commands hard to understand.
A third view, adopted by Nahmanides in the thirteenth century and further articulated by Samson Raphael Hirsch in the nineteenth, is that the chukim were laws designed to teach the integrity of nature. Nature has its own laws, domains and boundaries, to cross which is to dishonour the divinely created order, and to threaten nature itself. So we do not combine animal (wool) and vegetable (linen) textiles, or mix animal life (milk) and animal death (meat). As for the Red Heifer, Hirsch says that the ritual is to cleanse humans from depression brought about by reminders of human mortality.
My own view is that chukim are commands deliberately intended to bypass the rational brain, the pre-frontal cortex. The root from which the word chok comes is h-k-k, meaning, “to engrave.” Writing is on the surface; engraving cuts much deeper than the surface. Rituals go deep below the surface of the mind, and for an important reason. We are not fully rational animals, and we can make momentous mistakes if we think we are. We have a limbic system, an emotional brain. We also have an extremely powerful set of reactions to potential danger, located in the amygdala, that lead us to flee, freeze or fight. A moral system, to be adequate to the human condition, must recognise the nature of the human condition. It must speak to our fears.
The most profound fear most of us have is of death. As La Rochefoucauld said, “Neither the sun nor death can be looked on with a steady eye.” Few have explored death and the tragic shadow it casts over life more profoundly than the author of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes):
“The fate of man is the fate of cattle; the same fate awaits them both, the death of one is like the death of the other, their spirits are the same, and the pre-eminence of man over beast is nothing, for it is all shallow breath. All end in the same place; all emerge from dust and all go back to dust” (Eccl. 3:19-20).
The knowledge that he will die robs Kohelet of any sense of the meaningfulness of life. We have no idea what will happen, after our death, to what we have achieved in life. Death makes mockery of virtue: the hero may die young while the coward lives to old age. And bereavement is tragic in a different way. To lose those we love is to have the fabric of our life torn, perhaps irreparably. Death defiles in the simplest, starkest sense: mortality opens an abyss between us and God’s eternity.
It is this fear, existential and elemental, to which the rite of the Heifer is addressed. The animal itself is the starkest symbol of pure, animal life, untamed, undomesticated. The red, like the scarlet of the wool, is the colour of blood, the essence of life. The cedar, tallest of trees, represents vegetative life. The hyssop symbolises purity. All these were reduced to ash in the fire, a powerful drama of mortality. The ash itself was then dissolved in water, symbolising continuity, the flow of life, and the potential of rebirth. The body dies but the spirit flows on. A generation dies but another is born. Lives may end but life does not. Those who live after us continue what we began, and we live on in them. Life is a never-ending stream, and a trace of us is carried onward to the future.
The person in modern times who most deeply experienced and expressed what Kohelet felt was Tolstoy, who told the story in his essay, A Confession. By the time he wrote it, in his early fifties, he had already published two of the greatest novels ever written, War and Peace and Anna Karenina. His literary legacy was secure. His greatness was universally recognised. He was married, with children. He had a large estate. His health was good. Yet he was overcome with a sense of the meaninglessness of life in the face of the knowledge that we will all die. He quoted Kohelet at length. He contemplated suicide. The question that haunted him was: “Is there any meaning in my life that will not be annihilated by the inevitability of death which awaits me?”
He searched for an answer in science, but all it told him was that “in the infinity of space and the infinity of time infinitely small particles mutate with infinite complexity.” Science deals in causes and effects, not purpose and meaning. In the end, he concluded that only religious faith rescues life from meaninglessness. “Rational knowledge, as presented by the learned and wise, negates the meaning of life.” What is needed is something other than rational knowledge. “Faith is the force of life. If a man lives, then he must believe in something … If he does understand the illusion of the finite, he is bound to believe in the infinite. Without faith it is impossible to live.”
That is why, to defeat the defilement of contact with death, there must be a ritual that bypasses rational knowledge. Hence the rite of the Red Heifer, in which death is dissolved in the waters of life, and those on whom it is sprinkled are made pure again so that they can enter the precincts of the Shechinah and re-establish contact with eternity.
We no longer have the Red Heifer and its seven-day purification ritual, but we do have the shiva, the seven days of mourning during which we are comforted by others and thus reconnected with life. Our grief is gradually dissolved by the contact with friends and family, as the ashes of the Heifer were dissolved in the “living water.” We emerge, still bereaved, but in some measure cleansed, purified, able again to face life.
I believe that we can emerge from the shadow of death if we allow ourselves to be healed by the God of life. To do so, though, we need the help of others. “A prisoner cannot release himself from prison,” says the Talmud. It took a Kohen to sprinkle the waters of cleansing. It takes comforters to lift our grief. But faith – faith from the world of chok, deeper than the rational mind – can help cure our deepest fears.
 Saadia Gaon, Beliefs and Opinions, Book III.
 Yoma 67b.
 The Guide for the Perplexed, III:31.
 Commentary to Leviticus 19:19.
 Leo Tolstoy, A Confession and Other Religious Writings, Penguin Classics, 1987.
 Ibid., 35.
 Ibid., 50.
 Ibid., 54.
 Brachot 5b.
From My Jewish Learning
The Lost Years
The meaning, relationships and transformations that individuals and a nation make in-between milestones.
BY CHANNA LOCKSHIN BOB
At first glance, the story of the Israelites wandering in the desert seems action-packed: It’s full of power struggles, sin and punishment, anger and awe. But in fact, all that drama may actually have been the exception to the rule.
Parashat Chukat tells us that the Israelite people arrived at the wilderness of Zin in the first month. The verse doesn’t say which year it is, but the 12-century Spanish commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra fills in the details of the timing.
In the first month – of the 40th year. In the Torah there is not any narrative or prophecy other than in the first year and in the 40th year.
In the blink of an eye, 38 years have passed. Everything we have read up to this point in the Book of Numbers happened in the first year of the wandering in the desert. But from this point on, it’s the 40th year. In between: 38 years of radio silence.
What could it have been like to live through 38 years of nothing? Was it mind-numbingly boring to wander through a monotonous desert with no word from God? Was it painfully sad to simply wait as the older generation died out and the ordained time passed?
Many of us have experienced time periods in our lives in which we felt that we were in a holding pattern, simply waiting for our real lives to begin. At one such time, I read and identified with Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” who returns from epic adventures and to enjoy his domestic life. But Tennyson imagines that he just feels stuck:
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use,
As though to breathe were life!
In the end, Ulysses resolves to continue wandering and adventuring – to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. So too, perhaps the Israelites spent 38 years, dull and rusted in the desert sands, simply waiting to get out.
But even a period that is boring and empty at the time may look very different in hindsight. These 38 years, glossed over in real time, are imagined by later texts in glowing terms. Jeremiah 2:2 recalls these desert days in this way:
I accounted to your favor the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown.
This doesn’t sound like the complaint-filled stories we know from this section of the Torah. Rather, it sounds like a reminiscence of years spent quietly walking together, the people following God through the wilderness, filled with trust and love. Perhaps the Torah draws the curtain on those years because they were too personal, too intimate to share.
While the Torah doesn’t narrate any incident or prophecies from these years, later in the Book of Numbers it lists the places where the Israelites traveled. And Rashi cites a Midrash in which that list also becomes a nostalgic reminiscence:
This can be compared to a king whose son was sick, and he took him to a distant place to heal him. On the way back, his father listed the travels: here we slept, here we bathed, here your head hurt.
Some of my children’s most vivid memories, the stories they love to tell and retell, are about the times they suffered minor injuries or illnesses. Of course, it was stressful and probably tearful at the time. But after everything turned out all right it made a great story. And there is a special intimacy in those moments, remembering how your parent tried to distract you during your stitches or slept next to you while you coughed at night. Long after the memory of the pain fades, the memory of the closeness and love remains.
This Midrash casts the journey of the Israelites in the desert as a healing journey. And indeed, when they come out on the other end, they are stronger as a nation. They are ready to face the enemies about to attack them and emerge triumphant. And they are ready to merit the blessings that will soon come from the prophet Bilaam.
Sometimes during the down times in our lives, when nothing exciting seems to be happening, we are actually doing the most important work—strengthening our relationships, growing and healing. And sometimes the meaning we give events as they happen is not the only true meaning; we may see it all more clearly in hindsight.
The Waters of Lustration: Tears and Tzedakah
Jewish sources suggest tears and tzedakah [charity] as two modern replacements for the Red Heifer.
BY JEFFREY DEKRO
The Torah portion this week, Chukat, begins with an instruction that even the sages of Israel found cryptic beyond understanding. A person made “unclean” through contact with a corpse is to be sprinkled with “water of lustration” made from the ashes of a sacrificed “red cow without blemish.” The ritual is elaborated for five full verses and described as “a law for all time.”
In the medieval Midrash Tanhuma, Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai is described explaining the “water of lustration” to a non-Jew as a ritual of exorcism, but to his own disciples he declares: “. . . the corpse does not defile, nor does the water cleanse. The truth is that the rite of the Red Heifer is [simply] a decree of the King who is King of Kings. . . [and] you are not permitted to transgress . . .” (translation by Bialik and Ravnitzky in Sefer Ha-Aggadah).
This biblical sense of defilement contained in these verses–the state of tum’ah, often translated as impurity, that is temporarily fostered by sex, childbirth, death and other natural bodily functions–is often seen as offensive and misogynistic by modern people.
Nineteenth century Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, however, noted an etymological relationship between tum’ah and timtum, “confusion”–a connection which suggests that the intensity of physical experience, rather than its innate yuckiness, is what renders a person “impure” by virtue of his or her being emotionally overwhelmed.
According to Rabbi Joseph Grunblatt of Touro College, the Talmud ic sages described the nature of tum’ah as “she-metamtem es halev–it blocks . . . it petrifies the heart.” Reflecting on the birthing experience, Phyllis O. Berman, director of the summer program at Elat Chayyim, writes that tum’ah comes “when the focus is narrow and we can see only that immediate thing that’s right at hand for us.”
These interpretations of tum’ah as a function of consciousness can be used to establish contemporary meaning for the opening verses of Hukkat. Ever since the mass slaughter of World War II and the grotesque genocide of the Holocaust, we have all lived surrounded by corpses: growing up with the threat of nuclear annihilation and ecocide; witnessing cruel, genocidal warfare in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia, Kosovo, Vietnam, Chechnya, East Timor, Angola; inuring ourselves to the starvation and mortality-by-diarrhea that wrack the underdeveloped world; suffering senseless violence on our own streets and playgrounds; numbing ourselves with a steady stream of “entertainment” killings on television and movie screens.
Steadily, our sense of humanity has been overwhelmed; our perception of human beings as made b’tselem elohim (in God’s image) instead of as corpses has been confused; our hearts have become “petrified.”
How can we be made “pure” rather than suffer being permanently “cut off from Israel” (Numbers 19:13)? What might we use instead of the arcane and obscure Red Heifer to create a cleansing “water of lustration?” Jewish sources suggest two possible ingredients: tears and tzedakah (charity).
In this week’s parasha, both Miriam and Aaron die and are buried. In Miriam’s case, mourning is usurped by a sudden lack of water in the wilderness community of the Israelites–as though the stemming of tears and the stemming of blessing were interconnected. In Aaron’s case, “All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron thirty days” (Numbers 20:29). Once again, tears become the well waters of the human soul and the currency of our relationship with God: “When we shed tears for a virtuous human being,” says the Talmud (in Tractate Shabbat 105b), “the Holy One counts them and lays them up in [God’s] treasury.”
By Jewish standards, however, every human death is equivalent to the loss of an entire universe. Perhaps, then, were we capable of weeping for every one of the senselessly slaughtered of our world, we could, as the Midrash expresses it, “cool hell with our tears.”
Yet tears alone do not bring cleansing from our contact with death. Our “water of lustration” must also contain the ashes of the Red Heifer, the ashes of sacrifice: tzedakah . Over and over, the Jewish tradition describes the centrality of tzedakah in Judaism’s cosmology, including that it “saves from death” (Proverbs 10:2 and Bava Batra 10a).
The rabbis took this quite literally, recounting, in a Talmudic catalogue of “synchronicity” events, how deeds of tzedakah saved one or another of their comrades from drowning, from snakebite, from mortal injury. Less literally but no less significantly, tzedakah is the spiritual love potion of Judaism–awakening our souls to the humanity of others, to the binding ties of community, and to the reality of our renewable partnership with Creation.
Combined, tears and tzedakah create a cleansing “water of lustration.” It is dashed on us each time we give tzedakah, as the tradition bids us, to mark the death or yahrzeit (the anniversary of a death) of someone we mourn or honor, and in connection with those holidays on which Yizkor (the memorial prayer which mentions giving tzedakah) is recited. It is also dashed on us when we prepare to enter each Shabbat, as we fill our tzedakah boxes, sometimes weep over the candle flames, and gain our neshamah yeterah, our “extra Shabbat soul,” in a process of cleansing and rebirth.
The following article is reprinted with permission from SocialAction.com.
From Rabbi David Kasher
EIGHTEEN ANSWERS – Parshat Chukat
It’s a big week in parshanut.
Now of course, the whole enterprise of parshanut – Torah commentary – is founded on asking questions about the Biblical text. But there are certain questions that are legendary in the genre – questions that have plagued scholars for centuries. This week we run into one of the classics:
“What did Moses do that was so wrong?”
The story goes like this: The people are – once again – complaining. They are hungry, and thirsty, and wishing they’d never left Egypt. In fact, they actually say they wish they’d rather have died back there.
So Moses and Aaron nervously take the matter to God, Who instructs them to raise their staff to convene the people, and then order a rock to produce water, which – God says – it will then miraculously do.
But when everyone had gathered together, Moses suddenly loses his temper and says, “Listen you rebels, shall we get water for you from this rock?!” and then strikes the rock with the staff, twice. And it works! Water starts flowing out of the rock, enough for all the people and their animals to drink.
But there seems to be a big problem. Because now God is angry, and proceeds to deliver Moses and Aaron a devastating punishment:
Because you did not believe in Me enough to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this congregation into the land that I have given them. (Numbers 20:12)
יַעַן לֹא-הֶאֱמַנְתֶּם בִּי, לְהַקְדִּישֵׁנִי לְעֵינֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל–לָכֵן, לֹא תָבִיאוּ אֶת-הַקָּהָל הַזֶּה, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַתִּי לָהֶם.
That’s right. Moses – God’s trusted servant, the greatest prophet who ever lived, the hero of the Torah, who led the people out of Egypt and watched over them for forty years in the desert, defending them tirelessly as they gave him nothing but grief – is now denied entry into the promised land. He will take the people all the way there, but never make it in himself. Instead, he will die on the border, and get left behind, all alone.
It seems so unfair. So cruel. So wildly out of proportion with what Moses did.
But then, that’s the question. What did Moses do, exactly? How did he not “sanctify” God?
What in the world is going on here?
That is the question. And out of it springs a whole universe of parshanut. Now, most weeks, I bring you a selection of some of the major answers to whatever question we are looking at, and then focus in on one or two particularly rich commentaries. But this week, I want to do something different. Because I want you see what can happen when the commentators come upon a real doozy of a question. I want you to get a sense of just how vast the catalog of attempts to reckon with one problem in the Torah can be.
So, without further ado, let’s take a look at – as the saying goes – “how much ink has been spilled” trying to solve this problem. Here then, is a brief history – chronologically arranged – of (just some of) the answers to the question, “What did Moses do to deserve it?”
1. Rashi (France, 1040-1105) – We always start with Rashi, the Father of the Commentators. And his answer is simply that Moses hit the rock instead of speaking to it as God had commanded. So he disobeyed the order.
2. Ibn Ezra (Spain, 1089-1167) – The problem wasn’t the striking of the rock per se, but the fact that Moses hit it twice. The first time he hit it out of anger, so it did not produce water. So then he had to hit it again to fulfill God’s wishes, and at that point it worked. But that repetition made it look like God was less powerful, and could not produce the water in one try.
3. Maimonides (Spain 1135 – Egypt 1204) – The problem was not with the rock and the water at all, but in the fact that Moses lost his temper. That was a sin in and of itself, but especially so when he was acting as God’s representative, because he made God look angry and unmerciful.
4. Nachmanides (Spain, 1194-1270) – Borrowing from the 10th-century Rabeinu Chananel, he says that Moses made the mistake of saying “Shall we get water for you from this rock,” instead of “Shall God get water for you,” making it look like he was actually performing the miracle instead of God.
5. Bechor Shor (France, 12th-century) – Moses just didn’t explain properly to the people what was happening.
6. Rabbeinu Bachya (Spain, 1255-1340) – Earlier (in Exodus 17), they had produced water from a rock by hitting it once. Now, by hitting it twice, Moses made it look like God’s power had weakened since those days.
7. Rabbi Joseph Albo (Spain, 1380-1444) – Moses should have believed enough in God that he didn’t even have to ask, but simply called out for a miracle himself, and known that God would deliver.
8. Don Isaac Abravanel (Portugal, 1437-1508) – They aren’t actually being punished for this, but for previous sins (Moses for sending the spies, Aaron for making the golden calf). But God uses this event as a pretext to finally address those crimes without having to shame Moses and Aaron by bringing up the past.
9. Seforno (Italy, 1475-1550) – Moses and Aaron deliberately lessened the miracle from something totally supernatural (speech producing water) to something that seemed semi-natural (somehow they were able to strike the rock in such a way that it released water), because they didn’t think the people were worthy of a full-blown miracle.
10. Maharal (Prague, 1520-1609) – The fact that they displayed anger simply showed that they lacked faith. If they had faith, they would have performed the miracle with joy.
11. Or HaChaim (Morocco, 1696-1743) – When they said “Shall we get water for you from this rock,” they made it sound like water could only come from that particular rock, as if it were a magic rock, instead of making it clear that God could produce water from any rock.
12. HaKetav V’HaKabbalah (Germany, 1785-1865) – Their job was to teach the people theology. They should have explained carefully the nature of God’s power to create something from nothing, instead of just performing the act itself.
13. Kedushat Levi (Poland, 1740-1809) – In calling the people “rebels,” Moses humiliated them, and in doing so, missed the opportunity to bring them into a higher spiritual consciousness, a greater awareness of the kindness of God.
14. Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 1808-1888) – When Moses heard God ask him to take his staff and raise it up, he assumed that he needed the staff as proof of his credibility (as he did 40 years before when he first led the people out of Egypt) and he was hurt because he assumed the people still did not trust him. So instead of just raising the staff, he bitterly smashed it against the rock.
15. HaEmek Davar (Lithuania, 1816-1893) – They should have led the people in prayer before they performed the miracle, to show that God was answering their prayers.
16. Meshech Chochmah (Latvia, 1843-1926) – Because Moses made it appear that he had performed the miracle himself, God was worried that the people would come to worship Moses in the land of Israel as a deity.
17. Sefat Emet (Poland,1847-1905) – This was not a punishment at all, but a proof that the people were unable to deal with Moses’ harsher style of leadership. Because Moses saw the divine vision clearly, he felt no need to explain it to people, to “speak” things out to them as he was supposed to speak to the rock. His hitting the rock instead represented his more rigid kind of leadership, which God now realized the people would not be able to handle in the land of Israel.
18. ParshaNut (United States, 1976 – present) To all of these answers, perhaps we can add one of our own. Maybe the sin had nothing to do with the incident at the rock at all. Maybe God was upset that when the people complained, Moses and Aaron had immediately come to God looking for a quick solution. Instead, they should have taken the opportunity to assure the people that God would take care of them somehow, as God had all these years. They should have encouraged faith, and thus “sanctified” God in the eyes of the people. Instead they went begging for a miracle.
Eighteen is a good Jewish number, so we’ll stop here, though we could surely go on and on.
So how do we choose among them? Which is the right answer?
Well, maybe one of the above answers seems better to you than all the others. Or maybe you can come up with a different solution to the problem. But there is a more important point here about how we read parshanut. Whenever we are confronted with a case like this in the Torah, which seems to have prompted every commentator in history to come up with a new answer to an old question, one thing is clear: The question is better than the answers.
And in this case, the underlying question is one of the most difficult theological problems of all: Why do the righteous suffer?
Why do good people receive greater punishment than they seem to deserve? Why does God seem so merciless? Why is there no order to the world of pain and pleasure, reward and punishment?
Why is Moses left outside to die?
There are a million answers. But really, there are no good answers.
I like to think, however, that somehow Moses is comforted by all of our efforts to make sense of his death. Wherever he lies, perhaps the words of all the commentaries throughout the centuries have reached him, and wrapped around him, holding him like a shroud of woven letters.
I hope he knows that we have never forgotten him, and that we are still trying to figure this all out.
THE GENESIS OF JEWISH CULTURE – Parshat Chukat
What causes a renaissance? Why do certain periods in history seem to be erupting with cultural productivity, while others are relatively quiet? Where does a golden age begin?
In Chapter 21 of the Book of Numbers, after forty years of desert wandering, we suddenly detect the stirrings of a cultural awakening. We are only given snippets, just the slightest clues of what might be going on, and none of them are easy to decipher. Yet we can identify, in this one chapter, the birth of at least three distinct forms of literary expression.
First, there is a new book. The Torah has referred to itself as a ‘book,’ of course, already in its fifth chapter (“This is the book of the generations of humanity..”, Gen 5:1) But this appears to be something else. After mentioning that the Israelites’ passage through a region called the ‘Arnon’ took them between the territories of two of their enemies, the Torah states:
That is why the Book of the Wars of the Lord speaks of, “Waheb in Suphah, and the wadis of the Arnon.” (Numbers 21:14)
עַל־כֵּן֙ יֵֽאָמַ֔ר בְּסֵ֖פֶר מִלְחֲמֹ֣ת ה אֶת־וָהֵ֣ב בְּסוּפָ֔ה וְאֶת־הַנְּחָלִ֖ים אַרְנֽוֹן
What is this Book of the Wars of the Lord? No one really knows, but the Ibn Ezra tells us that it was a book “distinct from the Torah.” Nachmanides imagines it belonging to a particular genre of writing, characteristic of the time:
In those generations, wise men would write stories of the great battles.
שהיו בדורות ההם אנשים חכמים כותבים סיפור המלחמות הגדולות
So we presume that the book is some record of military history. Its exact purpose is unknown, and we only hear a fragment of its content (which the commentators struggle mightily to make some sense of). But one way or another, we see that books are being produced. Writing is now not only the province of Moses, and not only used to record the word of God. The people have taken up the quill and begun to document their lives.
The second medium we hear about in this chapter is song. In language that rings quite familiar, we read a few lines further down:
Then Israel sang this song… (Numbers 21:17)
אָ֚ז יָשִׁ֣יר יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֖ה הַזֹּ֑את
This wording is clearly meant to evoke the beginning of the great Song at the Sea, back in Exodus:
Then Moses and the Children of Israel sang this song to the Lord…(Exodus 15:1)
אָ֣ז יָשִֽׁיר־מֹשֶׁה֩ וּבְנֵ֨י יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֤ה הַזֹּאת֙ לַֽה
But whereas that song was lead by Moses, the one in our chapter is sung by Israel alone – and they are no longer “children.” And whereas that song was a lofty tribute “to the Lord,” the topic of this latter song is far more prosaic:
Spring up, O well – sing to it. עֲלִ֥י בְאֵ֖ר עֱנוּ־לָֽהּ
The well that the princes dug. בְּאֵ֞ר חֲפָר֣וּהָ שָׂרִ֗ים
Which the noblemen of the people began כָּר֙וּהָ֙ נְדִיבֵ֣י הָעָ֔ם
With their scepters and their staffs. (Numbers 21:17-18) בִּמְחֹקֵ֖ק בְּמִשְׁעֲנֹתָ֑ם
A simple song about a well – the tale of how it was first dug, and a call for it to give water again. The basic concerns of everyday life, recorded in what appears to be a folk song. As the French medieval commentator, the Bechor Shor describes the very practical message of this song as follows:
Israel sang the song… – Out of happiness that they had been taken from death to life, for they had feared they would die of thirst, they and their cattle.
ישיר ישראל. מחמת שמחה כי נהפכו ממות לחיים כי היו יראים למות בצמא הם ומקניהם.
Nothing too surprising about the themes here: thirst in the desert; the struggle to survive; a careful accounting of people, and even livestock. What is surprising is that the people are beginning to compose poems and songs to chronicle their life experiences, and even, perhaps, to entertain themselves along the way. Music, like writing, is no longer confined to the realm of the sacred, nor solely composed by the priests and prophets. We are beginning to hear the voice of the people in song.
The third genre of communication named in this section is more difficult to categorize precisely. It is called, in Hebrew, the mashal (משל). We read towards the end of the chapter that:
The composers of mashal would recite: עַל־כֵּ֛ן יֹאמְר֥וּ הַמֹּשְׁלִ֖ים
Come to Heshbon, firmly built בֹּ֣אוּ חֶשְׁבּ֑וֹן תִּבָּנֶ֥ה
And well-founded is Sihon’s city. וְתִכּוֹנֵ֖ן עִ֥יר סִיחֽוֹן
For fire went forth from Heshbon, כִּי־אֵשׁ֙ יָֽצְאָ֣ה מֵֽחֶשְׁבּ֔וֹן
Flame from Sihon’s city… (Numbers 21:27-28) לֶהָבָ֖ה מִקִּרְיַ֣ת סִיחֹ֑ן
Like the book, the mashal will take written record of Israel’s history, including – in this case – its epic battles and conquests. Like the song, it will use the techniques of verse and rhyme. But the mashal is a unique form of expression, meant to convey more profundity than prose, and more wisdom than poetry. We often translate mashal as “proverb” – and indeed this is the word that titles King Solomon’s book of wisdom sayings: ‘Mishlei.’ But mashal can also mean, “parable,” “metaphor,” or “example.” It calls upon our capacity for abstract thinking and inference. It uses nuance and symbolism to make its points. It is famous for ethical instruction and existential reflection. The composers of mashal are not only recording their lives; they are processing, analyzing, and drawing lessons from their experiences. The mashal, in other words, is the beginning of philosophy.
So: History; Poetry; Philosophy. Or: Writing; Singing; Thinking. Or: Literature; Art; Theory. However we might categorize these new forms of expression, it is clear that something is bubbling up in this civilization. Wellsprings of thought and feeling are finding new outlets, through voices and words, among the people of Israel. In Exodus we saw the birth of a nation. Now, in Numbers, we are seeing the birth of a culture.
What is causing this sudden vitality? What has called forth the creative energies of a people who have so far just been surviving?
Who knows? Perhaps it is the recent deaths of Miriam and Aaron, and the aging of Moses. These giants of spirit have long served as the mouthpieces for a people who did not yet know how to speak. Now that they are passing on, they will leave behind them a great void of silence that beckons new voices to fill it. The next generation of leaders must arise.
Perhaps it is the flurry of war that is summoning a response. It seems no coincidence that the three new forms of “media” of Chapter 21 emerge in the midst of three major battles that frame the chapter. History shows that times of great conflict and violence are often accompanied by rich artistic productivity. Whether in protest, critique, or just the distraction of entertainment, art is often the release valve for the pressures of war.
Or perhaps it is simply that this is the fortieth and final year of the desert journey. One generation has almost died out, and a new one is emerging. The people are preparing to close one chapter of their history and cross over the Jordan to begin the next chapter. That epoch will be recorded in the majestic books of the Prophets. And then the kings of Israel will rise and fall, and along the way, their reigns, too, will give birth to new literary forms – the later writings of the Hebrew Bible: Psalms, Megilot, Chronicles. Then, one day, that society will fall and be replaced by the culture of the rabbis – with their own masterpieces of literature, the Talmuds and Midrashim. And after them, the medieval rabbis, with their codes, and responsa, and great tomes of philosophy. And then the poetry and mysticism of the next generations. And then the polemics and commentaries of the ones after that. And then the scientists, the novelists, and the political agitators of the modern period. The screenwriters and comedians of our own generation. And on and on. The genius of Judaism continues, and changes form. In every generation, this culture is both extended and reborn.
And maybe, just maybe, the earliest roots of this grand tradition first took hold in Parshat Chukat, in Chapter 21 of the Book of Numbers.
From Brian Yosef Schacter-Brooks
The Mystery of Music- Parshat Hukat
V’yik’khu eilekha fara aduma t’mimah-
And they should take to you a cow that is red, completely…
In Parshat Hukat, it says, Zot hukat haTorah- This is the hok- the decree of the Torah- v’yik’khu eilekha fara aduma t’mimah- and they should take to you a cow that is red, completely.
The red cow is then burned up, and the ashes are mixed with water to make a special potion for purifying anyone who touches a corpse. The premise behind this is that if you touch a corpse, you become tamei, which means ritually unfit or impure, so that you wouldn’t be able to engage in certain rituals without first doing a purification process. So what’s this all about?
The Hassidic master, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef, known as The Ishbitzer, taught that “death” represents the past, because the past is over already; it’s dead. The tuma, teaches the Ishbitzer, is really anger or resentment about something from the past. That’s because feelings of negativity and judgment about something that’s already happened keep you stuck- you’re holding on to something that you really need to let go of- and that’s the tuma- the spiritual “contamination” so to speak.
Now the red cow is itself the very embodiment of death. Why? Because it’s a living creature that’s completely burned up. It’s also completely red, the color of the blood that bleeds out of a slaughtered animal, as well as the fire that destroys the form of the animal.
So why does this symbol of death cure someone from the contamination of death? Because the contamination, the tuma, comes from resisting death- from being angry at something in the past- from not letting go. To be cured from your resistance, you have to accept whatever you’re resisting; you have to embrace it. So paradoxically, it’s in embracing the past that you let go of the past, because being stuck means that you were holding on to an idea of how it should have been. Now that you accept what has been, you get soaked with the ashes of the red cow, so to speak, and you can let go of it. Then you’re tahor- purified from that clinging, that holding on, so that you can fully come into the present, into the sacred dimension of simply Being.
So how do you do that? How do you accept whatever you’re resisting, and let go of it? In other words, what are the “red cow ashes” we can use today?
There’s a Hebrew cipher known as Atbash in which you connect every Hebrew letter with another Hebrew letter, so that the first letter, alef, gets connected with the last letter, tav. The second letter, bet, gets connected with the second to last letter, shin, and so on. In this way, you can substitute letters in words to come up with new words. According to kabbalah, words that are connected through Atbash have a connection in meaning as well.
Now the word for being spiritually whole and pure is tahor. Through atbash we can substitute a nun for the tet, making nahor. Rearrange the letters, and you have rinah- song. And that’s exactly the power of song and music in general- to transform negativity and resistance not necessarily by turning away from it, but by turning into it.
Why? Because music makes it feel good to feel bad- hence the blues, as well as a lot of mournful Jewish liturgy, the krekh of the clarinet in Klezmer music, and a thousand other examples.
That’s the miracle of music- it makes it feel good to feel bad- it transforms negativity without negating it, allowing you to accept and even embrace whatever it is you’re resisting. And out of that letting go grows the realization that there’s only One Reality- there’s not me, on one hand, and that thing I’m judging, on the other, there’s just What Is- there’s just Hashem- Reality, Being, God. As Rebbe Nachman said, “The most direct means for attaching yourself to God is through music and song. Even if you can’t sing well, sing. Sing to yourself. Sing in the privacy of your home, but sing.”
But why? How does music work anyway? That’s the great hok, the great mystery of music itself, and its power to bring us deeply into the depths of our present experience and open us to the wholeness that we are.
So on this Shabbat Hukat- the Sabbath of the Mystery- I bless you to use your voice in prayer and song. “Even if you can’t sing well, sing. Sing to yourself. Sing in the privacy of your home, but sing.”
From Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
Wars of the Lord
There it is, slipped so casually into the Biblical narrative: Thus it was said in the Book of the Wars of the Lord (Numbers 21:14). Aren’t you curious about that famous book, and why you’ve never read it?
So were our classical commentators. Yonatan Ben Uzziel, (Babylonia, c. 3rd century) decided: it’s another name for the Torah. Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (Spain, 11th century) decided: It’s a freestanding book, dating from the days of Abraham, but lost to us moderns. Rashi (France 11th century) said: It’s an idiomatic expression referring to stories of God’s miracles.
I’m curious about that famous book, too. And not just because obscure Biblical references are fun puzzles. But because Wars of the Lord is a topic of great contemporary interest. People of many different religious traditions claim to be fighting them, right now. Their more peaceful co-religionists denounce their militarist spirit, and secularists run from the horrors of religion altogether. Who is right? And can the Book of the Wars of the Lord help us decide?
Diverse views of religious war existed in Biblical times, too. The prophet Samuel thought marching under the banner of God is a good national project. Samuel would not support a king who disagreed. The book of Deuteronomy also affirms such a project — as long as ethical rules of warfare are followed. The book of Judges, however, describes multiple tragedies caused by religious fervor in war.
The book of Numbers points us towards a fourth perspective, I think. When it speaks of Wars of the Lord, it does not refer to acts of human armies. Instead, it hints at wars that God conducts in the heavenly realm. Think about it – it’s perfectly consistent with the narrative of Numbers.
All the books of the Torah recount miracles, but Numbers stands out for its use of magical realism. Just before Wars of the Lord, we read about an irrational ritual for healing grief; water flowing from a rock at God’s word; and a copper snake neutralizing snake venom. Shortly after Wars, the Israelites defeat the giant King Og and the semi-divine King Sichon, descendent of the Nephilim. No human army could have subdued these mythical monsters. Israelite victories reflect Wars of the Lord, waged in a heavenly realm.
According to visions of the Prophet Zechariah, Wars of the Lord belong only in the heavenly realm. Our human role is to support God by building a just society on earth. Zechariah’s first night vision features horses reporting that the world is at peace. But the report upsets Zechariah’s angelic companion, who cries out to God to set the world aright by waging war. Three more visions reveal the role assigned to humans in God’s campaign. We must de-politicize religion, stop cheating our most vulnerable social classes, and get serious about banishing evil from our land. Only then will God deploy the heavenly horse-drawn chariots in battle — a battle that will not advantage one nation over another, but bring all to the same fate.
Maybe these heavenly wars actually happen – and maybe they don’t. All metaphysical theories about the true reality that drives our world are speculations. But, for sure, important traditions in our Torah tell us NOT to solve problems by marching to war under God’s banner. Instead, they teach, we should focus our efforts on justice, for that is the role assigned to human soldiers in God’s cosmic battle for this good planet earth.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Healing the Trauma of Loss
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
The smith speaks
I had work for a while.
The women donated mirrors
and I made the basin for the place
where God’s presence dwells.
Since then I’ve tended goats.
What else is there
for a coppersmith to do
in this unsettled wilderness?
I missed the tasks of forging
but no one becomes free
without some sacrifice.
Still, others grumble.
They say Moshe dragged us here
to feed his ego. They bitch
if Moshe and God really cared
we would never have left Egypt.
In response God sent snakes.
Wailing spread across the camp
as limbs blackened and puffed up,
as puncture wounds putrefied.
The families of the bitten
begged Moshe to seek God’s help.
As though they hadn’t slandered him
to anyone who would listen.
As though their attributions
wouldn’t wound him, wouldn’t
bruise his human heart.
I don’t know how he set that aside
but this morning he instructed me
to go to the men for their bracelets.
I crafted a curling snake
as copper-red as tongues of fire.
Moshe said “mount it on a miracle.”
A flagpole was the best I could do.
When the snakebit looked upon it
their wounds disappeared.
How did the snake I myself made
channel healing from the One?
Remembering now, my hands shake.
I want to return to my goats.
“Death and Mourning”
By Rabbi Cheryl Weiner, PhD, BCC, ‘07
Chukat presents a provocative narrative that illuminates aspects of death, grief and mourning. We discover the roots of some of our rituals: sitting Shivah (for seven days), mourning through Shloshim (for thirty days), and washing our hands after leaving a cemetery. While the import of the ritual of the Red Heifer remains somewhat of a mystery, the power of its legacy remains with us in our rites of spiritual passage from one state of being to another through death, and also in our understanding of sex and birth being linked to mortality.
When we have been in contact with death, God tells us how to cleanse ourselves with the waters of niddah, which combine mei chayyim (living waters) with the ashes of an unblemished red heifer that has been ritually slaughtered and cremated. After contact with death, we remain unclean for seven days and we are purified through the ritual of washing with the waters of niddah, corresponding to the seven days of Shivah and the ritual of washing our hands upon leaving a cemetery and a house of mourning. (Using flowing water as a purification rite also leads to the mikvah/ ritual bath that is used as a purification method when we move from one state of being to another.)
We begin with the waters of niddah as the antidote for contact with death. Then, Miriam dies. Then, Aaron dies. And we know that Moses will die as well. The generation that brought the Israelites through the desert is deserting them. However, through God’s Grace, the Israelites are given lessons that teach them how to deal with death.
Biblical Midrashic stories reiterated through feminist commentary, contrast the deaths of Miriam and Aaron. When Miriam dies, the people become angry and upset. There has been no succession and Miriam’s Well that provided water disappears with her. Clearly, Moses is distraught at her death and the disturbance it has raised. God tells Moses and Aaron to speak to a rock, to access water, and Moses instead hits the rock. God is so angered by this that God informs both that neither will enter the Promised Land. This is huge failure of succession. Thus, when Aaron is about to die, God makes sure that the succession is clarified. Moses deliberately passes the high priesthood from Aaron to his son. When Aaron dies, the Israelites grieve for thirty days, corresponding to Shloshim the ritual second stage of mourning rituals.
Through this set of ritual and rites of passage, the Torah gives us the foundation for establishing our roadmap through death, loss, and grief. We deeply mourn for seven days, understanding that we are in a period of “tomei” of impurity. We have passed from one stage of life to another and are in a liminal state of separation. It is fascinating that the Hebrew word ‘niddah’ means separation as does ‘kaddesh’, the root of the word sanctification and the prayer for the dead (and the name of the place where Miryam is buried). It is interesting to ponder the nature of those separations. They don’t signify isolation and they don’t imply exclusion. They merely indicate that when people are in the state of mourning, they need to be separated from the normality of their lives.
Symbolically, one has to separate from death through the waters of niddah, through a ritual that breaks through the pattern of deep grief into mourning. In the period of shloshim, we mourn, but we go about our life, with a new consciousness. Our lives shift. Our relationships change. We are taught to prepare for these shifts, through succession and through knowing where our wells are, both physically and spiritually, lest we allow anger to cloud our judgment of how to behave.
With our mourning rituals, we can relate back to this enigmatic parashah that discusses death and its aftermath and gives us the mayyim chayim, the living waters, and the mai niddah, the water of separation, and the curious sacrifice of the red heifer. We are given a way to transition from ritual impurity to purity and whatever meaning we attribute to the transformation from one state of being to the other.
From Reb Mimi Feigelson
Dying a Good Death, and Getting ‘There’ (Parshat Hukkat, Number 19:1-22:1)
Dedicated to Rami Wernik z”l, cherished Jewish educator
How do you want to die, and what are you doing to get there?
In the world of real estate, the message is: “Location, location, location.” Somehow, it also seems an appropriate message when reading so many biblical stories, including (in Parshat Hukkat) that of Miriam’s death. The children of Israel, the whole congregation of Israel, arrive in the Zin desert, “and Miriam dies there and is buried there” (Numbers 20:1). The repetition of the word “there” suggests that the Torah may be speaking not only of a physical “there,” but also an emotional, mental, intellectual and spiritual “there.” The verse hints that the state-of-mind version of “there” may be more about the question of “with whom?” than “where?” as not only “the children of Israel” are mentioned, but specifically “the whole congregation.” Miriam was, it would seem, surrounded and accompanied by the entire people.
The question of what characterizes a “good death” is as old as death itself. Early rabbinic sources speak of a person’s age at the time of their death, and how long they suffered at the end, as a measure of their righteousness or need for atonement. The Talmud is rich with stories of sages on their death beds and accounts of their parting acts and words.
The first time I really thought about what constitutes a “good death” — and how important accompaniment is in defining it — was when I heard my teacher, Reb Shlomo Carlebach, ask this question: “Why did Adam eat from the tree of knowledge?” I remember at first rolling my internal eyes when hearing the question, being sure I would hear an answer that would roll off of me as if it had never touched me. Instead, he said something that has never left me, and has guided much of how I walk in the world. He said: “After Eve ate from the tree of knowledge, she started to die. She told Adam that she was afraid to die alone, and Adam said to her: ‘You don’t have to die alone, I will die with you!’ It is for this reason that he too ate from the tree of knowledge, so that they would die together!”
My eyes tear up and my heart skips a beat every time I think of this answer. I heard a similar story in the name of the Hasidic master Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, that he told a woman on her death bed (who was afraid to die alone) that he was willing to die with her so she would be able to cross over in peace.
Who are the people in your life who, if you were to hear that they were afraid to die alone, you would rush to their side — even to imagine dying with them? Who are the people in your life who, if you shared that you were afraid to die alone, would rush to your side — even up to imagining dying with you? And is the fear of dying alone much different than the fear of living alone?
I’ve always wondered how Adam knew to answer Eve the way he did, where this intuition and wisdom came from. Perhaps he was echoing God, who says, “It is not good for the man to be alone…” (Genesis 2: 18). God doesn’t say it is hard to be alone, there is too much work to do alone, or it is boring to be alone, but that being alone is not good. But how would God what it even means to be “alone” if it weren’t that God was sharing, as it were, from the depths of the Divine heart, the Divine experience of aloneness?
We learn from the world of rabbinic midrash that God created a world with which to be in relationship; God’s very self knew aloneness, and responded by creating a human companion — and then, a companion for the first human. Adam tapped into Divine wisdom and experience, and understood the profundity of the related fears of living alone and dying alone — and the capacity of human beings to assure that people don’t live or die alone.
The Zen Roshi, anthropologist, and hospice caregiver Dr. Joan Halifax, in her book Being with Dying, suggests three questions. She asks that we take three minutes — not less, and definitely not more — to describe in as much detail as possible what would be the most horrific death we could imagine for ourselves. She asks for feelings, emotions, location, timing, as rich of a description that we are capable of. Then we are asked to do the same regarding what we could imagine to be the best death we could ask for ourselves — again, in as much detail as possible. She then poses a third question: How are you living to bring yourself to that best death?
I live much of the time between these questions with which my teachers have challenged me –who would I die with, who in my life would die with me, and how I am leading my life to bring me closer to my “best death”. I have a vision of sitting with my students, and we are laughing together, and all of a sudden one of them notices that I am no longer laughing.
Returning to Miriam –“And Miriam dies there and is buried there” — Parker Palmer (an educator and activist who focuses on issues of community and spirituality) offers the following that we might read as another response to the question of what “there” is. In a recent interview, he says: “So, showing up with everything I’ve got — my darkness as well as my light — is, I think, part of ultimately dying a good death. Dying with the ability to say, ‘To the best of my ability, I showed up in the world with everything I’ve got.’ ”
The sages of the Talmud (in Tractate Moed Katan, 28a) tell us that Miriam died “the kiss of death”, the ultimate way of dying in their eyes: It was God that kissed her, and in this kiss inhaled her last breath, and is still holding it. We might say that for Miriam, “there” was about the closest presence of God and human beings. Bringing in Palmer’s perspective, we might imagine that her “there” also included the presence of her own full humanity, embracing her darkness as well as her light.
I share these questions for contemplation: What is for each of us a good death, and how will we each get “there”?
From Rabbi David Seidenberg
The Red Heifer Denudata — An Anthropological Exploration
June 26, 2014
(This essay is based on material from my book, Kabbalah & Ecology, coming out next fall/winter.)
Most people think it’s impossible to explain the ritual of the red heifer. But it makes a lot of sense, if we apply some basic anthropology to it.
Here’s the anthropological problem we need to focus on: Every society that eats meat needs to demonstrate to itself that animal bodies are different from human bodies, in order to explain why we can eat (other) animals and not people.
You may think that the reasons are obvious, and that the problem is absurd — but the truth is that we only think that because of cultural assumptions we have been brought up to believe. In modern Western civilization, people have mostly denied that animals have souls, rights, or even feelings. However, if you think that animals do suffer, and that they have intrinsic needs that can take precedence over our needs — or if, like the Torah, you think that animals have what we call souls — then eating meat becomes a much more complicated problem, a moral problem.
If you think animals have moral standing, then you can’t rely on the Cartesian argument that animals are machines without feelings to justify your meat-eating. If you think animals have needs that take precedence over what we want to do to them, then you can’t be fooled by the fact that society hides their suffering behind the industrial “meat production” system, which abuses animals from their birth until their death. If you think that way, you might also think you should be vegetarian.
But the Torah does accept that animals have moral standing, souls, feelings. (See my article, “Animal Rights in the Jewish Tradition”, at https://www.academia.edu/1063285 .) Yet the Torah permits eating certain animals. That means Torah, and ancient Hebrew culture, needed to find a different way to distinguish between humans and animals than by ignoring animals’ needs and subjectivities. So, how does Torah make sense of why we can eat animals that are similar to us in so many ways?
A hint is found in the rabbinic term for the Temple, Beit Hamikdash, literally “the house that makes holiness”. This term reflects the way in which the Temple overcame the tension between the intrinsic value of an animal’s life, and its use-value for us. The sacrificial process harvested, as it were, the intrinsic value of the animal for the sake of God — in other words, for a purpose greater than human needs or desires, something we might term its “holiness-value”. Most specifically, the sacrifice harvested the animal’s soul, its nefesh, which according to Torah is the blood. Otherwise, people were entirely prohibited from using the blood.
In this way, the Torah taught us to find holiness in animals through sacrifices, while still affirming the intrinsic value and moral worth of animals.
But it wasn’t just the sacrificial system that accomplished this. The Torah didn’t just apply a certain set of rituals to the animal’s body; it also applied completely different set of rituals to human bodies.
That is to say, ancient Hebrew culture found holiness in different ways in animal bodies and human bodies. The sacrificial system of the korbanot (animal offerings) that was applied to animals’ bodies found holiness in an animal’s body by dividing up that body into sanctified parts, offered up to God in specific order upon the altar, whether in the Temple or the mishkan (the portable Temple in the desert). The purification system of tum’ah (cultic impurity) and taharah (cultic purity) that was applied to the human body found holiness in the body’s wholeness, which continually needed to be restored to the human body (or reinscribed onto it) through immersion in the waters of the mikveh and through related rituals that were performed whenever one came in contact with the sources of impurity. Those sources of impurity included substances thought of as disrupting the wholeness of the body, like semen and menstrual blood, as well as dead animals not properly slaughtered, and other sources.
The Temple existed as the ground and center where these two symbolic systems and ritual regimes interacted. At its center was the altar, where the priest or kohen, who was ritually perfect, would sacrifice animals who were ritually perfect. Like everyone entering the Temple, the priest’s body had to be purified in the mikveh. But the perfection of the priest was measured not only in terms of the system of taharah, but also in terms of the sacrificial system — because, unlike everyone else, but exactly like the animals being sacrificed, the priest’s body had to be completely intact, without missing parts (or even being bald, i.e., missing hair).
This framework can be used to understand the ritual of the red heifer described in Numbers 19, which we read about in this week’s Torah portion, called Chukat.
That’s because the Temple altar was not the only place or time when these two systems of ritual “rightness” — of sacrifice and purity — overlapped. They also overlapped in the ritual of the red heifer.
In fact, the secret of the red heifer ritual may be hidden in the need to connect these two systems of the korbanot and taharah. A truly red cow was extremely rare, and its ashes were necessary in order to purify anyone who had come in contact with a grave or a human bone or dead body. The red heifer or cow, in Hebrew, “parah adumah”, had to be wholly red/adumah (i.e., earth-colored), like Adam/human and adamah/soil, and like dam/blood. If a cow even had two hairs that were not red, it could not be used for the ritual. In the red heifer ritual, the redness of blood was externalized, so that the body of the heifer was whole in its color, in ways that reflected both the sacrificial system and the taharah system – combining elements of the taharah system and the korbanot.
Like the priest who performed a sacrifice, the red heifer was also kept whole, again in ways that reflect both the sacrificial system and the taharah system — whole in its parts but also whole as a unified body. The heifer was slaughtered in a ritual that incorporated other wholly red items: red hyssop, cedar wood, and crimson (perhaps crimson-dyed thread). And then everything used in the ritual, along with the entire heifer, was wholly burnt. Even in the case of the olah offering in the Temple, where a bull was completely burned and none of it was eaten, the animal was still divided up precisely into parts which were placed in specific order on the altar. But the parah adumah had to be burned whole, without being divided.
After the burning, the ashes from the red heifer were meant to be used to restore the wholeness of the human body in the case of its most extreme breach, which according to the Torah was contact with a human corpse. (Note that a corpse is called “nefesh” — the same word which we translate as soul, and the same word used by the Torah to describe the animal’s blood — “ki nafsho b’damo hu”. (Leviticus 17))
Both the sacrifice of the heifer and the ritual of purification that used its ashes happened outside the Temple and the camp. The red heifer ritual thus formed the second pole of a circuit, whose opposite pole was the mishkan or Temple altar, where perfect whole humans offered the blood and parts of perfect animals. But the connection to the Temple was clear. Not only were the ashes of the parah adumah necessary for purifying someone who had contacted death before they could go to the Temple, but in the ritual itself, the priest would sprinkle blood from the heifer seven times in the direction of the Temple.
(The way that the red heifer ritual inverts or turns inside out the rituals of the Temple is also the reason why the person who handles the ashes that are used for purification becomes impure or tam’ei. Think of it in terms of an analogy with multiplying negative numbers: if you multiply two negatives numbers you get a positive number, but if you multiply a positive and a negative, the result is negative. Note also that the severity of the impurity coming from a human body is the reason why kohanim — descendants of the priests — are traditionally not permitted to go into a cemetery, except for the sake of burying their immediate relatives: they have to avoid the tum’ah or impurity that comes from contact with a human corpse.)
So, in conclusion, the Torah mandated a vast symbolic ritual system for treating human and animal bodies differently from each other. Yet at the same time, the Torah describes the parah adumah ritual, which connects the systems and completes the circle, so that at its heart, the Torah still acknowledges that the bodies and souls of the animals that people eat are not so different from our own.
The parah adumah is famously given as the paradigmatic example of a Torah law that has no rational explanation. Yet it is rational, if one sees in it a kind of symbolic language. This way of explaining ritual systems is called “structuralism” in anthropology — seeing how meaning is created by the way different symbols interact with each other to create categories that make sense of the world. But it is also a “functionalist” explanation, in that the symbolic systems we are talking about meet a very real and necessary need that wasn’t just internal to the culture, even though it was expressed through culture. It solved a specific, real problem that almost every society has to solve. (The exceptions being societies that are cannibalistic, or societies that mandate strict vegetarianism, neither of hich need to differentiate human from animal bodies.)
These rituals of taharah and of korbanot explained to people, in a way that was not intellectual but was instead acted out through rituals, how they could see animals as living, feeling beings with moral standing, and yet could kill and eat them. And the altar, at the heart and meeting place of these systems, and the red heifer ritual at society’s edge, where the systems also met, defined, as it were, the body of society, as it existed in relation to the more-than-human world, upon which all societies depend.
Water From the Rock
From the Maqam Project
Waters of Change (5773/2013)
At the beginning of creation, Torah says, God’s spirit hovers over the water. When Yaakov is overcome with fear of meeting his estranged brother, he crosses the Yabbok stream. On its far bank, he wrestles with a stranger, and receives a new identity. When the Israelites leave Egypt, they cross the Sea of Reeds.
After popular leaders Miriam and Aharon die, the people confront Moshe, fearing he has deliberately led them to the wilderness to die of thirst. After snakes bite them into awareness, they apologize to Moshe and to God. Torah then reports: They camped along the Zered brook, and on the other side of the Arnon river. From there, to the well. Then Israel sang this song, “Rise up, O well, respond to this song!” (Bamidbar-Numbers 21:12-17)
Traditional commentators wonder: Why does Torah break to describe their travels – the same travels that are listed elsewhere? Why do they travel along water? What is the significance of the song?
Or Hachayyim says, For the first time, they travel on their own, no longer led by the Divine cloud that used to rest on the sanctuary while Aharon was alive. Ramban says: The travels are listed specifically to emphasize the water theme. Ba’al Haturim says: From this point on, they travel along water the whole way. Kli Yakar says: This song of gratitude is not led by Moshe; it comes from the Israelites’ own heart.
Water: The Torah’s symbol of rebirth and new beginnings. At the edge of the water, 40 years of wandering end, and a new independent, healthy, optimistic, grateful nation is born.
Exactly one year ago, our family found some renewal in a simple household flood.
Where in your life do you find waters of renewal?
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach – Eulogy for Lubavitcher Rebbe
Reb Shlomo’s eulogy for the Lubavitcher Rebbe at his shloshim in August 1994. The Rebbe had passed away on the 3rd of Tammuz, in the week of Chukat. Reb Shlomo at that time was near the end of his own life, and passed away in October.
From Rabbi Jill Hammer
Chukat: The Shaman in all of Us
From Rav DovBer Pinson
Week’s Energy for Parshas Chukas
Rav DovBer Pinson
In this week’s Torah reading, Miriam and Aaron, sister and brother of Moshe, pass on. The Torah then speaks of the Tuma/impurity of death and the ritual purification of the Parah Adumah/ Red Heifer for those who have come in contact with death.
The Torah reading opens with the words; “Hashem spoke to Moshe… take a perfectly red unblemished heifer… slaughter it… The heifer shall then be burned…Anyone who touches a human corpse shall become impure…(if) he does not purify himself, he has defiled the Temple…Take for that impure person from the ashes of the burnt offering (the red heifer) and it shall be placed in a vessel with spring water…take the hyssop and dip it into the water and sprinkle it on him…”(19:1-18)
This, in short, is the ritual of purifying a person who has become impure through contact with a corpse. There is a sprinkling with a solution of the red heifer ashes and spring water on specific days, followed by immersion in a ritual pool of water.
Tahara/ Purity and Tuma /impurity are intrinsically related to the life/death cycle, and are clearly unrelated to personal hygiene or disease. Tuma is connected to all forms of “death” and the mortality of life, both literally and figuratively. Conversely, Tahara is connected to “life,” both literally and figuratively, and immortal forces of life, such as the Temple and spring water.
Life is movement and possibility. Death is an ‘end’, a state of stagnation.
In death, at least in the physical realm, there is a stopping, a ceasing of hope, a cessation of movement and possibility. To be impure implies a connection with a ‘hopelessness’ consciousness. Purity, on the other hand, is all that is related with life, fluidity and newness, and all that stems from a place of possibility and hope.
The Beis HaMikdash/ Temple functioned as a place of Hischadshus/Renewal. It served as a space in which one could recapture a sense of awe in creation and the Creator. To enter the Temple, one had to be ritually pure, vested with life and possibility.
Every moment in creation is brand new, freshly born, from Ayin/pure potential, no-thing-ness to Yesh/existence.
Each breath, a new Divine enlivening force enters, and is exhaled into creation.
The Temple, being the epicenter of all space, is the place in which this renewal spirit is realized. As a demonstration of this reality, the Showbreads never grew stale, the bread in the temple always tasted completely fresh even if baked a week before.(Chagigah 26b). Everything of the Temple was fresh and new.
The Temple in Jerusalem was built upon the site on which Yaakov/Jacob once slept and dreamed of the ladder and angels. (Bereishis. 28:12-18). When he awoke from this dream, he proclaimed, “Surely Hashem is in this place; and I knew it not.” If Yaakov had been aware of the holiness and purity of the place on which he stood, he would not have been able to sleep. Sleep is a minor form of death, static, stagnant – Yaakov was troubled that he had not tapped into the renewal spirit of the place and was able to go into a space of ‘death.’
Though the ultimate mystery and paradoxical nature of the Red Heifer is beyond our comprehension (Midrash Rabba, 19:3) the specific symbolism is very pronounced. Ashes and water are mixed and sprinkled. When ashes and water mix it creates a form of soap, a cleansing, but there is something deeper occurring. Water is fluidity and life, pure and renewed.
Water is the primordial state of creation, when creation exists in the cosmic womb as pure potential. Ashes represent the end of an old and the potential of a new, the dust returns to dust and thus a new cycle of life begins.
There is Afar/earth and there is Eifar/ dust or ash. (Bereishis, 18:27) Earth represents the Ayin/ no-thing-ness of the Yesh/ existence, as the earth contains the potential of vegetation, yet, Eifer/ash is the deeper Ayin, the Ayin that is relatively beyond Yesh, pure potential. The ritual sprinkling of ash and water reconnects us with the cycle of life and potential of the new.
With all this symbolism and ritual though, it is imperative that we remember, in the words of our Sages “The corpse does not defile, nor does the water purify, rather it is a Mitzvah of the King of Kings.”
Ultimately, it is our connection to Hashem, the source of all Reality, of all Life, the One who brings death to the living and brings the dead to life that offers us renewal, hope and thus Tahara, a fresh breath of life.
The Energy of the Week:
To live in this world is to be touched continuously by both life and death.
All people experience some form of death within their lifetimes, unfortunately it is often tragic and heartbreaking.
Sometimes it is a symbolic death, an ending.
In either sense, death can seem a hopeless ending, a place that is cut off from all possibility of growth.
The energy of the Torah reading this week is the infusion of openness and newness into a place of hopelessness.
Just as ashes return to the earth and begin a life cycle anew, the ashes of the red heifer mix with the water to create a state of purity and life, allowing those who have been in contact with death to find new breath and life in their future.
To move forward from a place of Tuma, we must first immerse in water – fully enveloping ourselves in our primordial state, and reconnecting with the unity of Hashem, source of all – both life and death. From this place of oneness we can find our innate breath and source of life and move forward into life and hope.
This week become aware of how a death, real or symbolic, may be holding you back from life.
This can even be a holding on to a perception, or a way of being, that can be preventing you from growth and forward movement.
Be open to newness of ideas, and new ways of approaching the old ideas.
Come back to your life with an open mind, an open heart and the constant possibility of forward movement.
From Rabbis Arthur Waskow and Phyllis Berman 2001
Red Cow, Red Blood, Red Dye:
Staring Death & Life in the Face
By Rabbi Arthur Waskow and Rabbi Phyllis Berman
The Torah-portion Hukkat (Num. 19 through 21) calls our attention to what looks at first like paradox.
Literally “looks,” for the paradoxes appear before the eyes.
First we are told that in order to restore to the community those who have become tamei by contact with death, a red heifer is slaughtered and burned in red fire with red wood and red dye in a great cloud of red smoke for / before the eyes of the priest (Num. 19: 5).
What is “tumah?” Not impurity, as it is usually translated, but a spiritual state of laser-beam inward focus (quite different from experiencing holiness in community). Tumah might well result from giving birth, touching death, menstruating, having sex. For people so touched to move back into community, they had to go through one or another ritual. For death-contact, the red cow was the relevant ritual.
The burning cow becomes a spectacle, literally, of redness for the priest to stare at hard. Look hard at all this red, then quickly shut your eyes: You will see a flash of green, a field of green. Green grass, green growth, green Tree of Life, green Garden.
If you look intently upon the color of death — and then, but not till then, you release yourself from that gaze by blinking — you will live.
Then the ashes of the burnt heifer are mixed with water, to sprinkle over anyone who has touched the dead body of any human being. This sprinkling takes away the tumah of that touch, and it must be done before such a person can enter the Temple area – the site of communal holiness.
But the priest who kills the heifer and the one who burns her body and even the one who gathers up her ashes are all made tamei by the process. They must be ritually released from their narrow focus.
Gazing on death opens up the spirit from its laser-beam focus on death, but the process of this opening itself narrows the focus of the practitioner. Is this a paradox? Only if we are puzzled by the flow of life/death/ life. Today many physicians and psychotherapists who heal the wounded may themselves take on the woundedness; would that we shaped a ritual to heal these healers!
Later in the portion (Num. 20: 8), when the people are athirst God tells Moses to speak to a rock so that, for/ before the eyes of the people, it will turn to water. If they stare hard at hardness, dryness, deadliness, unchangeableness, it will turn to flow, to giving life.
And finally (Num. 21: 4-9) , God tells Moses to cure the people of a plague of fiery snakes. How? By raising before them a nahash n’hoshet for them to stare at. What does this Hebrew phrase mean? According to the dictionary, a brass or copper serpent. But if we listen to the sound of the words, we might hear “a copper copperhead,” “a serpenty serpent, a “super-serpent.” (Everett Fox’s brilliant translation of the Torah says, “copper viper.”)
What cures us from serpents? The cure is a serpent that we call forth for ourselves , even more deeply “serpenty” in its essence than the deadly living snakes.
And what do you do with these super-serpents? Look hard into their faces. Stare hard at death, the face of fear, and you will be freed to life.
Stare hard at death — and blink. Shut your eyes tight. Stare, and stop staring. Once you have seen clearly, open your eyes anew by first closing them for just an instant. — Open them! — to a different possibility. Then the colors of life will appear.
And for us, we who still shudder from our brush with death in Auschwitz, our brush with death in the H-Bomb doomsday system, our continuing brush with death in the scorching of the earth we are bringing on ourselves, our brushes with death in the cancers of our friends and lovers, what does this mean?
For us who choke on the dryness of our lives, us who fear the burning serpents that writhe their way into our very souls, what does this mean?
Stare these dangers in the face before we blink. Look — and do not be addicted to the looking. Without looking, no gift of life. But to be mesmerized by the looking is also to reject the gift of life.
From Rabbi Avram Davis
Do you Hear the Angels? Parshas Chukat
From Melissa Carpenter
Chukkat: Blood and Ash
June 24, 2011
The Torah portion that Jews begin reading this Saturday afternoon is Chukkat, “Decree”. The portion opens with God’s decree about using the ashes of a perfect red cow (or red heifer) after being exposed to death. For centuries, rabbis have used this decree as the prime example of a law given by God that humans cannot understand, but must merely accept.
Nevertheless, some parts of the decree of the red cow make sense in terms of human psychology.
Speak to the children of Israel, and they shall take to you a completely blood-red cow that has no blemish in her, that never had a yoke put upon her. (Numbers/ Bemidbar 19:2)
The Torah continues with instructions for slaughtering the cow outside the camp but within view of the sanctuary entrance, and then burning it down to ashes, along with cedar, hyssop, and red yarn. This ash must be preserved in a safe place outside the camp. When someone needs spiritual decontamination after being in the presence of a corpse, some of the ash is mixed with “living water” and sprinkled on the affected person. Only after being sprinkled can that person engage in religious life again.
Anyone who touches a corpse, anyone with a human soul who is destined to die, who does not clear himself of guilt, will contaminate the dwelling-place of God. And that soul will be cut off from Israel, because if the water of exclusion was not sprinkled upon him, he will be contaminated; his contamination will always be with him. (Numbers 19:13)
nefesh = soul (the soul that animates a body); throat, appetite
tamei = contaminated, ritually unclean or impure, unacceptable for public worship
The Torah adds that this rule applies not only to touching a corpse, but also to touching a human bone or a grave, or merely entering a tent where someone has just died.
A few days ago, I was “touched” by a moving story my friend told about her stillborn grandson. Then I walked into a Torah study class, without any ritual in between. Usually I approach any Torah text as an exciting challenge, and I look forward to wrestling meaning out of it. This time, the Torah seemed dull and lifeless to me. It took a while for my mind to recover so I could engage with the Torah.
Witnessing a death, or touching a corpse, is far more “contaminating” than hearing a story about it. Actual contact with death requires a far greater shift in consciousness to return to the activities of life. The Torah classifies entering “the dwelling-place of God” as an activity of life.
Over and over again, the Torah insists that the god of the Israelites can only be worshiped when one is tahor (uncontaminated, ritually pure; the opposite of tamei). That means we cannot approach the divine when we are still in touch with death. The contrast with ancient Egyptian religion’s focus on death is probably intentional.
(I’ve read that some Christians who meditate on an image of Jesus on the cross find God by focusing first on death, and then on its miraculous transformation. That would be a third kind of relationship between religion and death. I’m often amazed by the different deeply-held human beliefs about both God and death.)
Let’s return to the Torah portion. How would the unique ritual of the ashes of the red cow help someone to make the shift in consciousness from death to life?
On one level, it is significant that the cow is completely red— and the word used for red here is adumah, related to adam, “human”, adamah, “earth”, and dam, “blood”. The other ingredients the priest throws into the fire when the cow is burned are also reminders of blood: red cedar-wood, hyssop branches (used in other rituals for sprinkling with blood), and red yarn. All these things are part of the ash. When it’s time to sprinkle someone, a little of the ash is mixed with “living water”, water from a source such as a spring, rather than a well.
The next book of the Torah, Deuteronomy/ Devarim, says “the blood is the nefesh”, the soul which makes a body alive. To me, the ritual of the red cow seems to move from life (represented by blood) to death (represented by ashes). Then death is mixed back into life (represented by living water), and the mixture is sprinkled on a living person who was contaminated by contact with death.
Traditional commentary sees the red cow as representing a human being’s animal nature, which inevitably dies. But, the rabbis say, humans are a mixture of animal and divine natures, so we must not let an awareness of physical death make us believe we are no more than animals.
The 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that sacrificing the red cow means renouncing our selfish egocentrism, so we can serve God with a pure soul. Brooding on death gives someone a divided heart; we cannot embrace our moral freedom and sense of eternity when we focus too much on our animal life, which ends in death. Being sprinkled with a mixture of ashes and living water reminds the person touched by death that life still runs through all human experience, in this world and the world to come.
We don’t have ashes from a perfectly red cow anymore (although there is a literal-minded orthodox group in Israel that’s working on getting some). So what can we do now to return to life and God after being touched by death? I suspect that in our highly individualistic culture, we each need to find our own way to return. For me, a return might begin with a very long walk, with all my senses open to receive, gradually, the wonder of creation. For you, it might begin another way. If the contact with death is the passing of someone you love, or news of your own final illness, it might take a long time to finish shifting your consciousness.
But I believe that somehow, we all need to find a way to return—so that we can truly live for as long as we are alive.
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
We were discussing the mystery rule of Torah
the mystery mitzvah as it were if it were understood
we might understand
it all –
The chok of the little red cow –
how what purifies can corrupt
what corrupts might purify.
We came to rest in a place none of us imagined before
we began with a sense of redemption through learning
through guidebook Torah in a way suggested by
the Sefas Emes that applied to us more
than to the text itself.
Every soul has a portion
in the Torah
or a point
At that moment we had become a letter of the guidebook
a dot a vowel a dia-critical a mark on the page
we became a letter of the text
we arrived at a-symmetry.
We came to the death of Miryam
how she died –
by the kiss of God
God inhaled her soul so to speak
Moses and Miryam both
with a kiss.
They died sensually
inhaled into God’s breath through the Divine kiss
from God’s perspective they were taken by the heart like
What can we make now of the frustrations of their lives
or our lives for that matter?
How frustrating at the end to have been
loved into death this way –
God breathed life into Adam [Gen.2:7]
God inhaled Miryam’s soul.
What’s not integrated, what’s left undone in the story now
from God’s perspective
how could they have passed with more intimacy and gentleness
than with this holy kiss
through which they returned to one being with God?
With the death of Miryam following on the heels
of the mystery rule of the guidebook
the mystery paradox of the ritual of purification
the very preparation defiles
followed by the death of Miryam
the removal of the well that followed us
forty years Wilderness wandering
with the death of Miryam as she was inhaled into the mouth of God
do we mourn the absence of sustenance now?
The water that followed us the well that accompanied us
And the Wilderness the Wilderness?
The well gone
we are moving over the threshold without sustenance
the a-symmetry of the various stories that settled
not into harmony, not logical these stories
not entirely mysteries either
a-symmetrical, they do not converge
we will not figure them
they will not unlock the secrets of the guidebook for us.
The category of recoverable wisdom
gone for a moment
undeciphered for now
but known in night vision
at night you understand them you do
at night you know what it is
not to penetrate this secret
it will not unravel
not entirely mysterious either.
We are always waiting
for that recoverable wisdom
the elders all of them
may return to us someday
to carry the sacred load throughout our lives
so we remember them
the bearers of recoverable wisdom –
Sustaining like Miryam’s well of water
Like the water
Like Miryam herself.
O holy Shabbes Chukkat
D [1/2] E flat  F  G
Every portion has a musical figure,
Arabic cognate to maqom
From Rabbi Jill Hammer
I love this teaching about the death of Miriam and about Miriam’s well from Rabbi Jill Hammer in her book, The Jewish Book of Days.
“… In the Torah, just after Miriam dies, the people complain they have no water to drink. Rabbinic interpreters conclude the well dried up when Miriam died.(Song of Songs Rabbah 4:14). Only after Moses goes into the wilderness to search for it does the well reappear.
But the well is not gone. The Babylonian Talmud ( Shabbat 35a) tells us the well can be found to this day in the waters of the Sea of Galilee. The Shulchan Arukh ( Orach Cayyim 299:10) teaches that every Saturday night Miriam’s well moves through all the waters of the world, bringing healing to those who are ill and suffering.In modern times, some place a cup of fresh water on the seder table in honor of Miriam.”
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
WATER FROM THE ROCK (CHUKKAT) 2009
When Miriam died there was no water
the wadis dried up the springs didn’t flow
as though the desert were mourning her passing
her living waters blocked by stone
we thirsted for wisdom we drank salt tears
we ripped our robes and wailed for the Black Land
all Moshe could imagine was striking the rock
the water he called forth was chalky and tasteless
not like Miriam’s melodies not like her dance
when our feet wove grapevines and our hearts were bells
Rabbi Miles Krassen
Parshat Chukat is a very important parsha as it has one of the deepest teachings in the entire Torah. In fact, it begins “va-yedabber HaVaYaH el Moshe ve-el Aharon leimor,” “the Divine Guidance spoke to Moses and Aaron and said, Chukat ha-Torah. This is basically the way the Torah works, this is the almost incomprehensible law of the Torah.” And then the Torah tells us that basically Moshe received this teaching, that is to say, he received the Divine Command to deliver this teaching. And what is the teaching? It’s a teaching of the red heifer, the parah adumah. And what Moshe is supposed to tell us is that we should work with this parah adumah, a red heifer that is temimah, it is absolutely perfect, it’s immaculate. The rest of the verse tells us it doesn’t have any flaw in it, because it was never used for anything, it never bore any burden, it was never under the yoke.
The Kozhenitzer maggid, a great hasidic rebbe, has a teaching wherein he reads the verse and divides it into two. First of all, he says that there are two things here, one is the parah adumah, itself, which is perfect. And the other is asher ayn bo mum, meaning anyone who says they don’t have any flaws has never borne the yoke of Torah. In other words, anyone who thinks this way hasn’t even begun spiritual work. So, what’s the connection between the two? Moshe is instructed to tell us that we should take and make use of this “sacred cow,” this red heifer that is absolutely perfect, but also warns us that any person who would see themselves as lacking any flaw has never done any spiritual work at all.
The basic principle of our cosmology is that everything is in a process of being fixed. So, what’s implied here is that the basic condition of the world is full of flaws that need to be perfected and the red heifer represents something that’s immaculate which we need in order to fix something. And so the question is, “what does that which is flawless fix?” And, the answer is that it fixes the damage of the golden calf.
The parah, the heifer, is the mother cow, and the eglah, the calf, is the immature offspring that goes astray. The result of the golden calf is the breaking of the first tablets. Because Moshe Rabbeinu comes down with the first tablets, the first version—which is actually the higher Torah—and sees that the people don’t—can’t—handle the higher Torah because their level of understanding of reality isn’t high enough so they can’t really get what Moshe Rabbeinu is in touch with. So, they turn to this unevolved representation, which is the golden calf, something they can relate to, and as a result Moshe Rabbeinu feels this sort of righteous anger as an example that there can be a sort of anger that is righteous. He winds up breaking the first tablets, and the result is that we then get the second tablets. Basically, we have here the teaching about two levels of Torah. One is, so to speak, about the original and future Torah, which is beyond our grasp. It is beyond our level, the level of present consciousness. The other is the Torah that fits our present level of consciousness. But even though we (only) have before us a Torah that fits our present level of consciousness, we have the experience and memory of a Torah that is higher, and that is actually the Torah that we’re meant to get. It’s that ‘higher Torah’ G-D really gave Moshe Rabbeinu to bring down, but we couldn’t handle it. So, we need something to fix the fact that we can’t handle the higher Torah, which we can understand as the Torah of the future.
So the Torah that is broken by Moshe Rabbeinu, because we didn’t have the vessels to receive it is nevertheless the Torah we talk about when we talk about the light of the future, which is already here but we still don’t have the chops for it, the kelim or the vessels to really hold it. So the fix that we need to make is represented by this red heifer, which is flawless.
Now, what is the red heifer which is flawless? It’s the level of consciousness which gets ayn od milvado, there is really nothing but G-D. That consciousness actually fixes the level of the flaw that comes from the golden calf. Since we couldn’t get that higher level, we needed a lesser representation. The attitude, or consciousness, that was flawed at the time of the golden calf was something like, ‘well, G-D must be like this, or G-D must be like that, but it’s not this and it’s not that!’ As if “It” were something limited: limited, specific, and limiting! So the fix is the consciousness of the red heifer, which is perfect without any qualification. It has and is absolutely everything. This ‘perfection,’ is the consciousness that recognizes that everything is G-D.
But the specific teaching that we have relating to the red heifer is a paradox. The paradox is that it purifies anything that is impure and it makes impure anything that is pure. So, what is the meaning of this? The meaning is, if a person tries to make the fix of the red heifer, to fix the problem of the golden calf, then they reach the level of the consciousness that everything is G-D. Now that’s the level of red heifer! But, paradoxically, that consciousness that recognizes that everything is G-D can either make the impure pure or it can make the pure impure. In other words, if we are aware of the limitations of our ordinary “golden calf” consciousness, the “red heifer consciousness” fixes us. But, on the other hand, when we get an insight into the level where everything is G-D, the risk is we’ll say, ‘therefore we have nothing to do because everything is G-D and the world is just happening and doesn’t need our efforts to evolve.’ If we draw the conclusion that everything is perfect and we have nothing to do, then that’s like what the Kozhenitzer maggid says, “if you’re saying I have no mum, I have no flaw, then you haven’t done any spiritual work at all.” Then the red heifer fixes you in a different way. It throws you down to the fact that you still need to do something to further evolve. So, the only way the red heifer can really fix us is if, when we reach the consciousness where everything is G-D, we paradoxically recognize as well that we still have plenty of work to do.
So, the fix of the parah adumah, the red heifer, is that when we encounter the consciousness that is ayn od milvado, that there is nothing else but G-D, it stirs in us this great longing inside to reach higher levels in terms of what’s possible for us to attain within our own levels of spiritual work.
UNIVERSAL TORAH: CHUKAS
By Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum
Torah Reading: CHUKAS, Numbers 19:1-22:1. Haftara: Judges 11:1-33.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
Now that we have passed the summer solstice, the days are still long but
imperceptibly they are starting to get shorter, as we move inexorably closer to
the end of the year and the coming New Year and Days of Awe. The Hebrew letters
of the present month, Tammuz, are the initial letters of the phrase Z-MAN
T-ESHUVAH M-MASHMESH U-VA, “the Time of Teshuvah is getting closer”. The letters
of next month, AV, are the initial letters of ELUL BA – “Elul (month of
repentance) is on the way”. After the month of Av comes Elul itself, and soon
afterwards, Rosh HaShanah, Simchas Torah and the conclusion of the annual
reading of the Torah.
In the previous parshah, KORACH, we passed the mid-point of the book of Numbers
(Numbers 17:20). Korach’s conspiracy is not explicitly dated in the Torah
narrative, but is considered to have taken place early on during the wanderings
of the Children of Israel in the wilderness. The Torah passes over the 38 years
of wandering after the sin of the Spies in almost complete silence — except for
a list given later on of the stopping points on the journey, Numbers ch. 33,
parshas MAS’EI. In our present parshah of CHUKAS, we move almost imperceptibly
from the initial period in the wilderness following the Exodus and the Giving of
the Torah, right to the end of the 40 years of wandering and the first stages of
the conquest of the Land of Israel.
Parshas CHUKAS begins with the commandment of burning the Red Heiffer and using
its ashes for purification from defilement from the dead. This commandment was
among the first given to the Children of Israel directly after the Exodus and
the Crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 15:25, see Rashi there). The section about
the Red Heiffer as we have it in CHUKAS (Numbers ch. 19) is also listed in the
Midrash (Sifra) as one of those given to Moses on the 1st Nissan one year after
the Exodus, the day the on which the Sanctuary was erected.
The positioning of the section of the Red Heiffer here — as we move into the
latter part of the book of Numbers and on towards the end of the Torah — is
bound up with its thematic relationship with other sections of our parshah. The
commandment of the Red Heiffer, which comes to purify from defilement from
contact with the dead, is followed immediately by the narrative of the death of
Miriam. (“The death of Tzaddikim atones like the sacrifices” — Rashi on Numbers
20:1). The death of Miriam took place in the last year of wandering in the
wilderness, on the 10th Nissan, exactly a year before the crossing of the Jordan
and the entry into the Land. This is the first clue to dating the events in this
parshah. The ensuing lack of water in the wilderness caused Moses and Aaron to
strike the rock, leading to the decree that they would not enter the Land but
die in the wilderness. Moses takes Aaron up Mount Hor to die, while Elazar, his
son succeeds him as High Priest. We suddenly have to confront the loss of the
elders and leaders of the generation. How do we deal with death?
Without our even noticing the transition, the older generation are leaving one
by one, having been replaced by a whole new generation. The new generation —
who are actually the old generation in new bodies — are now moving inexorably
forward to the end and the goal – the Land of Israel. The Generation of the
Wilderness have passed on, and the Generation of the Conquest now begin their
As the Torah directs our eyes to the end goal of the wandering in the wilderness
— entry into the Land to fulfill the Torah there — it first focuses our eyes
upon the end goal of man, which is death: “This is the Torah: when a man dies.”
(Numbers 19:14). For unless we come to terms with death, we cannot truly live.
Death is a fact, perhaps the main fact, of life. We are forced to confront it at
some time or another. In order to come to terms with it, we have to learn how to
look at it.
Thus parshas CHUKAS takes its place in the series of parshas read during the
bright summer months of Tammuz, time of Teshuvah, that teach us how to look at
various different aspects of life in the correct perspective. BEHAALOSCHAH
taught about the purity of vision in general. SHELACH LECHA taught about viewing
the world — and our own selves — with the eyes of faith despite outward
appearances. KORACH taught about how we look at others who may be better than
ourselves. CHUKAS now comes to teach us how to look at our mortality, death, the
end goal of life, in the right perspective — for with the right perspective, we
can transcend death.
Today, only a decade after we were promised a new order of peace, the world has
been plunged before our eyes into an era of global war. Every day we are
bombarded with gruesome and horrific images of bloodied, burned, mutilated
bodies. It has long ceased to be surprising to hear of new daily outrages in
locations far and near. We are hardly aware of how dulled our sensitivities have
become to injury, death and suffering. If we were to start weeping as we should,
would we have enough tears for all the suffering in the world?
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov teaches that the only way we can transcend suffering is
by trying to focus our vision on the faraway, ultimate goal of the entire
creation, which is surely completely good. Rabbi Nachman says we must even close
our eyes to this world — close them tight — so as to keep focussed on this
ultimate, transcendent goal, which is to bring the entire universe to perfect
unity and completeness through G-d’s hidden guidance and providence. (Likutey
Moharan 1:65 “Garden of the Souls”.)
While no-one can fathom the depths of meaning of the Red Heiffer — any more
than we can fathom the real meaning of death and of life — we are free to
search for hints of meaning in this fascinating commandment, which is the key to
complete redemption. This depends upon the restoration of the ashes of the Red
Heiffer, because only when we are able to be purified from impurity from contact
with the dead can we go up to the Temple, source of LIFE, and carry out all its
rituals in the proper way.
What causes defilement from contact with the dead is not the soul of the dead
person. It is the physical remains of his or her body. The death and
decomposition of the body are very repugnant: they threaten us, both as health
hazards and because they undermine our pride and dignity as living human beings.
They remind us of our mortality — “You are earth, and to the earth you will
return” — but we cannot live with such intense awareness of the vanity of the
physical world. We are commanded to cover the body, bury it in the earth, put it
out of sight. We should not pre-occupy ourselves with the dead (as did the
Egyptians). Our job is to keep living, to keep marching to the end goal — “the
Land of Israel”.
Thus the priest (son of Aharon, signifying light and vision) takes the pure Red
Heiffer — its redness signifying the harshness of DIN, Strict Judgment, and
GEVURAH, Might. The priest sheds the heiffer’s blood — breaking its power. The
priest gazes towards the the Holy of Holies and sprinkles the blood of the
heiffer towards it. This sprinkling of the blood of the Red Heiffer towards the
Holy of Holies was integral to the whole ceremony, which was performed on the
Mount of Olives at a spot directly aligned towards the gates of the Temple. The
body of the heiffer was then burned on a woodpile and minute quantities of its
ashes were mixed with water from a living source to be sprinkled with hyssop on
people and utensils that had become defiled.
In breaking the power of Strict DIN, the priest had to look towards the Holy of
Holies, because this is the ultimate goal of all creation, the place of complete
unit, peace and perfection. Defilement from the dead is very depressing. (The
chapters on this subject in Rambam’s Mishneh Torah can also be somewhat
depressing, as they deal in detail with different parts of the body in varying
stages of decomposition, etc.) In order to live we cannot occupy ourselves with
death. We must be aware of our mortality, but we must separate ourselves from
physical death. The souls of the dead go on living on their plane, and so must
we on ours. The seven days of purification from defilement with the dead are
seven days of separation from what ought to be the abnormal — the decaying dead
body, which has to be buried and put away — in order to return to the Land of
the Living. It is necessary to be sprinkled with the ashes of the Red Heiffer on
the third and seventh days of the week in order to draw renewed strength by
repeatedly looking toward the Holy of Holies.
Like the priest breaking the force of severe DIN by gazing towards the Holy of
Holies, we too, in order to keep living, must keep our gaze focussed on the Holy
of Holies. The Holy of Holies in our lives should be our times of prayer and
Torah study, and, in the family context, quality time with our dear ones and
especially spouses. These are the best support through all the vicissitudes of
* * *
“ARISE, O WELL.” (Numbers 21:17)
The living waters with which the ashes of the Red Heiffer are mixed are one of
several references to water in our parshah. Notable among the other references
are the “Waters of Strife” — the waters that Moses and Aaron extracted from the
Rock, which cost them the privilege of leading the Children of Israel into the
Promised Land. This section of the Torah is of course no less profound than the
preceding section about the Red Heiffer. Rabbi Nachman saw his explanation of
Moses’ striking the rock (Likutey Moharan I:20) as being the key to all of his
Torah discourses. The bare essence of Rabbi Nachman’s teaching is that even the
saintly Moses should not have sought “water” — Torah insight and inspiration —
“by force”, i.e. in the merit of his good deeds, his “rod”, as a “right”.
Rather, he should have wept and begged for the waters of Torah as a gift,
through prayer. Thus Moses had to atone for his error with the 515 prayers that
he offered in the hope of entering the Land of Israel.
It was the death of Miriam that led to the lack of water which made Moses strike
the rock. For throughout the forty years of wandering, a miraculous well
accompanied the Israelites in the merit of Miriam. Miriam (having the
connotation of bitterness) symbolizes the soul of the suffering true Torah
scholar (“eat bread with salt, drink water by measure”) through whose merit
Torah insight comes into the world to inspire the generation. When this soul
departs the world, there is a terrible thirst for water, with no one having the
power to enlighten and inspire. Each generation needs to dig for the waters of
the Torah anew.
The history of Miriam’s well is not written explicitly in the Torah text but
only allusively. The allusions are brought out in the Aramaic Targum and in
Midrashim brought by Rashi on certain verses in our parshah — such as Numbers
20:10-11 and 21:15ff. This well of the waters of inspiration accompanied the
Israelites on all their journeys in the wilderness and provided water for the
camp at each of their stopping places. When Miriam died, it disappeared, but it
returned in the merit of Moses and traveled with the Israelites on the last
stages of their journey through the wilderness. When they entered the Land under
Joshua (on 10 Nissan, anniversary of the death of Miriam), the well also entered
the land. It traveled to the Kinneret (Sea of Gallilee), where it is said to be
visible from mountains to the east as a kind of “sieve” on the surface of the
sea. From the depths of the Kinneret, the well is said to feed the waters of
Israel’s most important water reserve. (The ARI is said to have taken R. Chayim
Vital on a boat and given him a cup of this water to drink, after which R.
Chayim Vital understood the teachings of his master.)
The final stages of the journey of the Israelites through the wilderness and the
first stages in the conquest of the Land of Israel are recounted in our parshah.
Their geography is somewhat obscure to many, as they took place in what is today
the kingdom of Jordan, which for political reasons remains temporarily out of
bounds for Torah lovers. The Israelites were headed to ARVOS MO’AV, the “plains
of Moab” east of the River Jordan facing Jericho. There they assembled prior to
the entry into the Land in order to hear the final discourses of Moses, which
make up the book of Deuteronomy.
Our present parshah describes their journey there. From the wilderness, they
advanced around Edom (S.E. of Yam HaMelach, the “Dead” Sea) and Moab (to the
east of the southern part of Yam Hamelach), crossing the River Arnon, which
flows into the Yam HaMelach from the east, midway from north to south. The
Arnon, which meets the sea via a spectacular mountain gorge, is the boundary
between Moav, which the Israelites were forbidden to conquer, and the
territories to the north, which had been conquered by the Emorites. The
narrative of the Israelite conquest of the latter territories begins in our
The parshah relates that the miracles of the crossing of the Arnon were
comparable with the miracles of the crossing of the Red Sea (Numbers 21:14ff.).
The Emorites were waiting for the Israelites in caves in the gorge below, but
the two sides of the gorge miraculously came together, allowing the Israelites
to walk safely above. The Well of Miriam, which traveled with the Israelites,
flushed the blood of the dead Emorites out of the gorge so that the Israelites
could see the miracles performed for them.
Thus, forty years after the Generation of the Exodus had sung to G-d when they
came up from the Red Sea, the Generation of the Conquest sang again as they
witnessed the first miracles of the conquest. “That was the well of which HaShem
said to Moses, gather the people and I will give them water. Then Israel sang
(lit. WILL SING) this song: Arise, O well.!” (Numbers 21:16-17).
The conquest of the Land depends upon Miriam’s well — the well of Torah insight
and inspiration. May we soon hear the song of the conquest of the Land for the
Torah, for the Holy of Holies and for the glory of HaShem — quickly in our
Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
~ Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys ~
NUMBERS 19:1 – 22:1
Chukat begins by describing one of the most mysterious rituals described in Torah – the rite of the Red Heifer. The ashes of the Red Heifer are mixed with certain specific ingredients and mixed with water to create special waters of purification. This mixture is used to purify anyone who has contact with Death.
Chukat recounts the deaths of both Aaron and Miriam. After Miriam dies, the people are thirsty and complain to Moses. God tells Moses to speak to the rock in order to draw forth water, but instead of speaking to the rock he hits it.
DURING OUR TORAH JOURNEY THIS WEEK, both Miriam and Aaron will die. The Torah portion Chukat prepares us by beginning with a ritual that purifies us at those times when we come into contact with death. It is one of the most mysterious and powerful rituals of Torah. The great blessing of Chukat is the knowledge that whatever our defilement and whatever our mistakes, we can always return to our essential purity.
Whenever I seek to learn from mistakes I have made, I look for a pattern and then try to understand the source of that pattern. It is understood by our Tradition that the quintessential mistake of our ancestors as they wandered through the wilderness was the sin of the Golden Calf. This portion begins by discussing the great ritual for purification. The first and major ingredient required for this ritual is the Red Heifer. (The heifer is a mother cow that has never been yoked.) To know the source of sin, I must lay the Red Heifer on the fires of Truth. Because she is the mother of the Golden Calf, the source for the pattern of sin, her ashes are the first ingredient that I will need for purification.
ON THESE FIRES OF TRUTH I will also place just the right proportions of pride and humility, represented by tall Cedar and low-growing Hyssop. I will need both pride and humility in order to accomplish my journey of purification. Pride allows me to stand tall enough to see the path ahead, and humility connects me to the earth beneath my feet. The last element the Torah requires for this ritual is Crimson, my passion, which adds my own holy fire to these fires of purification. Thus, the recipe includes Insight, pride, humility and passion, mixed with living waters, the compassionate flow of Life, combining to provide the perfect alchemical formula for our renewal.
The Golden Calf is built when we lose faith in an invisible, unnameable God who may have abandoned us to die in the wilderness. We are tempted to build a life around this Golden Calf, thereby placing something other than God-the-essential-mystery at the center of our attention. That life built around the worship of security or happiness or wealth or fame obscures the root fear of Death that has unconsciously driven us.
When we are ready to identify our Golden Calf, then we must trace its roots to find the Red Heifer, the impetus for our own idolatry, the clue to our own pattern of sin. Then, we are able to offer up the ashes of the Red Heifer, the insight into the nature of our root fear. When death touches our lives, we can be protected from our own tendency towards fear, by the blessing of this insight. Having faced our fear, we need not live in its shadow.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
CHUKAT TELLS US OF MIRIAM’S DEATH, and immediately afterward the text notes that the people are thirsty. Their thirst drains them of strength for the journey and fills them with despair. They complain to Moses and Aaron who ask God for help. God tells Miriam’s grieving brothers to speak to the rock before the assembled community, promising that it will yield water for everyone. Moses speaks sharply to the thirsty masses and then hits the rock twice instead of speaking to it.
Miriam had a way with water. She could touch the depths with her song and call forth spiritual nourishment. No matter how difficult the journey, Miriam’s dance would bring ease and beauty to the process itself. She carried with her the feminine wisdom that could not be written down. Upon her death we are given a spiritual challenge: to reclaim the source of her wisdom, to discover the song in our voice and the dance in our step.
MOSES WAS GIVEN THIS CHALLENGE, and he failed in order that we might learn from his mistake. Moses blamed the thirsty people for their complaint and then took credit for the life-giving power that was God’s alone. When he struck the rock twice, it did pour forth water, but it also exacted a great price. Until we learn to speak to the rock, we will be denied entrance to the Land of Promise.
To speak to the rock means to be in conversation with the natural world; hitting it is an attempt to subjugate nature. Miriam knew the words and she knew the music that would open the deep and secret places of earth-wisdom. The spiritual challenge of Chukat is to call Miriam’s wisdom back to us, to re-open the conversation with the rock that was interrupted by Moses’ mistake.
For Guideline for Practice please click link to website.
This is the decree (chok) of the Torah… (Numbers 19:2)
This phrase can be understood in two ways. On one level it means that this–the law of the red heifer–is the ultimate “decree,” the most supra-rational of all the Torah’s precepts. A deeper meaning is that all of Torah is, in essence, divine decree. It is only that with many of the mitzvot, the supra-rational divine will come “clothed” in garments of reason.
(Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi)
In reference to what did King Solomon say (Ecclesiastes 7:23), “I thought to be wise to it, but it is distant from me”? He said: “All of the Torah’s commandments I have comprehended. But the chapter of the red heifer, though I have examined it, questioned it and searched it out–I thought to be wise to it, but it is distant from me.”
Speak to the children of Israel, that they bring to you a red heifer (19:2)
The Mishneh Torah is a purely legal work. As he explains in his introduction, Maimonides included only the final rulings of Torah law, leaving out the reasoning and deliberations behind them, in order to make it a readily accessible guide to daily life for all. Also in those rare cases in which Maimonides appears to “digress” and interject a philosophical insight or some background information, upon closer examination these always prove to be a statement of law and a practical instruction on daily living.
The same is true of the above quoted passage. At first glance, it appears to be a brief piece of history concerning the red heifer, followed by a prayerful appeal to the Almighty to send Moshiach. But Maimonides is demonstrating to us the true definition of “belief in Moshiach.” To believe in Moshiach is not just to believe that he will someday come, but to expect his coming on a daily, hourly, and momentary basis. It means that no matter what you are discussing, the subject turns to Moshiach at the slightest provocation. It means that in the midst of arranging the laws of the red heifer, a spontaneous plea erupts from the depths of your heart: “May he speedily be revealed, Amen, may it be the will of G-d!”
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
The clean person shall sprinkle upon the unclean person… and he shall be clean at evening… [But] he that sprinkles the water of sprinkling… shall be unclean (19:19-21)
The fact that the ashes of the heifer “purify the contaminated and contaminate the pure” carries an important lesson to us in our daily lives: If your fellow has been infected by impurity and corruption, do not hesitate to get involved and do everything within your power to rehabilitate him. If you are concerned that you may became tainted by your contact with him, remember that the Torah commands the kohen to purify his fellow Jew, even though his own level of purity will be diminished in the process.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
And Miriam died there… And there was no water for the congregation (20:1-2)
Three great providers arose for the people of Israel–Moses, Aaron and Miriam–through whom they received three great gifts: the well, the clouds [of glory], and the manna. The well was in the merit of Miriam, the clouds in the merit of Aaron, and the manna in the merit of Moses.
When Miriam died, the well was removed, as it says, “And Miriam died there…” and, immediately afterward, “And there was no water for the congregation.” The well then resumed in the merit of the other two.
When Aaron died, the clouds of glory were removed, as it says, “And the Canaanite, the King of Arad, heard …and waged war on Israel.” He heard that Aaron died, and thought that he now had license to attack Israel [because the clouds of glory which protected them were gone. The well and the clouds] then resumed in the merit of Moses alone.
(Talmud, Taanit 9a)
A people have various needs, and different types of leaders arise to provide them. Spiritually, too, a nation requires “food,” “air” and “water” — wisdom, faith and guidance. Again, different leaders arise to provide these different needs, each according to his or her specialty.
But there may come a time when a leader cannot afford the luxury of “specialization.” He may be capable of teaching Torah on the highest level, but there is no one to teach the children alef-bet. He may be suited to raise the most spiritual souls to sublime heights, but there is no one to sustain the simple faith of the common man or to provide guidance on the most commonplace dilemmas of life. In such times, the true leader assumes all these tasks, as Moses did in the closing days of Israel’s sojourn in the desert, when the people stood at the threshold of the Promised Land. Miriam and Aaron were no more, and Moses served as shepherd, nurse and guardian of faith in one.
A person may ingest the ingredients of life, but these will not vitalize him without the fluids that course through his body. The food swallowed by the stomach, the oxygen drawn in by the lungs, must now be transported through the body’s canals and made to saturate its every cell.
Therein lies the spiritual significance of Miriam’s role as Israel’s provider of “water.” Miriam first appears in the Torah (see Midrashim and commentaries on Exodus 1:15) as a children’s nurse: one who distills adult food for the consumption of a child; one who trains and educates a growing human being, filtering the stimuli of an adult world for his maturing mind; who processes the raw materials of life to meet the specific needs of her charge’s age and phase of development.
Miriam’s well is the vital fluid of Israel’s spiritual life, the water that inculcates them with the knowledge and identity her brothers provide. The waters of Miriam transport and apply the nutrients of Torah and the abstractions of faith to each individual, on his or her particular level.
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
Choice and change (Radical Torah repost) Here’s the d’var Torah I wrote in 2007 for the first of this week’s portions, originally published at Radical Torah
In Kedushat Levi, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev offers some striking insights into this week’s Torah portion of Chukat, riffing off of the first verse in the parsha, “This is the law of the instructed-ritual that YHVH has commanded, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel, that they may take you a red cow, wholly-sound, that has in it no defect, that has not yielded to a yoke[.]'” (Numbers 19:2, transl. Everett Fox.) Levi Yitzchak writes:
In our world, it appears to us as if we were created to engage in the things of this world. But in truth, that is not the case. The primary reason that we were created was so that we might come to recognize the unity of the Holy Blessed One…
That is the sense of “This is the law of the Torah:” there are mitzvot that reason compels us to perform. When we do them, we do not sense so strongly that we are performing them because the Creator commanded these mitzvot. That is why the Blessed Creator gave us commandments that reason does not comprehend. When we do them, we more readily recognize that we do them only because of God’s commandment.
It’s easy to understand why ethical commandments are important. How we treat one another matters. But ritual commandments, especially ones (like the red heifer) which don’t make much sense — those can be harder to cherish. For Levi Yitzchak, the illogic of a chok (a commandment which can’t be made to fit our sensible paradigm) is precisely what makes it important. In accepting the chukim, we accept the “yoke of heaven” and acknowledge God’s sovereignty.
There’s something beautiful about that. It affirms that there are things in this vast universe which are beyond our comprehension and beyond our control. That life isn’t all about us. That, as Levi Yitzchak writes, we were created for an ineffable purpose — recognizing the fundamental unity of infinite God! All of our strivings and disagreements and philosophical ruminations are not the point. Performing chukim has an impact on our spiritual awareness. They’re devotional practices, not intellectual exercises.
There’s also something difficult about it. The red cow becomes a kind of red flag. Maybe especially for women, who may feel that we are always already trying to break free from the expectation that we will submit ourselves to priorities which come from someone else. The world is too full of hierarchy and power-over, and siting ourselves in a position of submission to incomprehensible mitzvot can feel like another iteration of the same old song and dance.
The Mishna talks about accepting the yoke of heaven upon ourselves, but what does that even mean, in a day and age when few of us have ever even seen oxen yoked? It’s easy for the idea to feel uncomfortable, too much like unquestioning submission. Which may be fraught, even painful or impossible, to those who are already working to free themselves from subservience. The tradition knows that as well as we do — just look at the story of the Exodus. When the Israelites were enslaved, they were incapable of covenant with God. Freedom was necessary first.
Of course, freedom is necessary but not sufficient. In order to live up to our whole and holy potential, we need to be free and in relationship with God. Still, I see in the Exodus story, and its aftermath, an awareness which can shape how those who today feel disempowered or disenfranchised might approach mitzvot. The yoke of heaven is necessarily something we choose, not something thrust upon us — and a choice coerced by circumstance is no choice at all.
One of my teachers has suggested that the word mitzvah, usually translated as “commandment,” can also be rendered “connection.” The mitzvot connect us with God, and with one another. They place us in relationship.
Relationship with God, like relationships with one another, inevitably involves compromises. There are things I do because I want to do them, and things I do because they bring my partner joy — and cutting either category out of my life would damage both me, and us. Just so, with God. There are things I do because I perceive that they enrich my days, and there are things I do because Jewish tradition teaches they are worthwhile. Maybe the practice of doing them opens me to a new kind of transformation. And maybe choosing to take on a practice is, itself, a radical and powerful change.
“Today we are all Jews by choice,” writes Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. “The old understanding of being commanded was of commandments handed down the mountain, of an authority beaming down on us from above. Today any sense of commandment must come from within, from inside us. Can we feel commanded without feeling coerced?” Rabbi Marcia Prager poses a similar question: “Where, then, is the locus of the imperative once there is no commander, no coercion, once I can choose or relinquish obligations as I wish?”
More, she asks:
What do we do when we encounter a mitzvah we don’t understand, or that we think we do understand and therefore reject? Is the system fixed and sealed, or is it flexible and unfolding? Is it ancient wisdom or ancient prejudices? Is the authority to craft the mitzvot allocated only to a hierarchy of male legalists in a particular chain of rabbinic command, or can we approach the evolution of mitzvot in a feminist, historical, and critical way? Do we practice only the things we understand and appreciate? Can we understand and appreciate without practice?
My answer to those last two questions is “no” — though a delicate balance is required, and a healthy respect for paradox. For many of us, in this age of chosen-Judaism, it’s hard to take on practices that don’t immediately resonate — even if we understand that some practices only resonate properly from the inside. The hardest thing may be making the leap of opening oneself to the possibility that an illogical practice can have transformative effect…and that’s a leap each of us may have to make, not once, but repeatedly over the course of a lifetime.
Chukim (like the ritual of the red cow, and its decontaminating ashes) are the deepest level of mitzvah, and the hardest level to understand. The root of the word is one which denotes “engraved” — these are the proverbial rules carved in stone. As Reb Zalman notes:
In order to reveal an engraved message, the medium of transmission must give up something of itself: this is what the chipping-out process of engraving entains. And the medium of transmission here is us. More than the other types of mitzvot, the chukim ask for a higher level of surrender to a will that is not our own.
Giving up something of myself isn’t easy. Part of me rebels against it, and I have to work at discerning when that rebellion is healthy (feminism has valuable things to teach me about integrity and strength) and when it’s an old defense mechanism (Judaism has valuable things to teach me about covenant and surrender.) In the end, this isn’t an either/or — neither feminism nor Judaism requires me to choose a single lens through which to see the world. Neither is the covenant detailed in this week’s portion an either/or: mitzvot aren’t binary, a single piece of whole cloth one either embodies or rejects. Each of us is a work-in-progress, and so is each person’s relationship with mitzvot, and with power, and with God.
And how can we relate today to the chok which begins this portion, the ritual of the red cow without blemish — no longer possible, in the absence of the Temple, and therefore ripe for revisioning in the new Jewish paradigm which we inhabit? For our ancestors, the sacrifice of a mother cow who had never been yoked offered a way to become tahor again after contact with death. What can we find in the deepest part of ourselves — the part which has never submitted to anything — to cast on the fire? What in ourselves should we burn in order to know ourselves as pure, no matter what loss or sorrow we have touched?
From Reb Mimi Feigelson 2009
The Kiss of Death – The Water of Life
In this week’s Torah reading both Miriam and Aharon die. Despite the difference in the description of their deaths, Rashi, quoting the Babylonian Talmud (Mo’ed Katan, 28a), teaches us that she too was among the seven that died ‘al pi Hashem’ / by the mouth of God. This is considered to be the highest form of death, the easiest death. It is a death in which the image that is offered is that God, so-to-speak, inhales into God’s-self the last breath of the person, as they exhale. The reason this isn’t expressed explicitly in the verse (Bamidbar/Numbers 20:1), why it doesn’t say ‘al pi Hashem’ regarding Miriam’s death, Rashi quotes for us, is that it isn’t respectful to say that God kissed a woman. The anthropomorphic and gender layers of this reading scream out to us to redeem all the components of this Talmudic segment.
Unless you are aware of the biography of the Piastzna Rebbe (Reb Klonimus Kalman Shapiro, 1888-1943) you may think it interesting that it is a Chassidic Rebbe that challenges the integrity of the Talmud. In his teaching’s on parashat Chukat, that he taught in the Warsaw ghetto, published in his known commentary, The Aish Kodesh, he poses this challenge based on an earlier question that he raises.
His first question is based on the Babylonian Talmud (Ta’anit 9a), that Rashi also quotes in our parasha, as to the connection between Miriam’s death and the lack of water that the children of Israel are plagued with:
“Then came the children of Yisrael, the whole congregation, abode in Kadesh, and Miriam died there, and was buried there. And there was no water for the congregation…” (Bamidbar/Numbers 20:1-2)
The Talmud teaches us that the reason these two versus are adjacent to each other is because the well was in Miriam’s merit, and with her death the well dried up. Elsewhere we are taught that there were three gifts that sustained us in the desert: the manna in Moshe’s merit, the clouds of glory in Aharon’s merit, and the well in Miriam’s merit.
In his humbleness the Piasetzna Rebbe says that we have no way to understand the greatness of such a tzadeket / righteous woman like Miriam, but non-the-less, he aspires to understand what does this connection between Miriam and the well come to hint to us.
The paradigm that he introduces is one that I remember shedding many words (and even some tears) over in my high school years. It is the teaching of Rabbi Chanina in the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Kama 38b): “Greater is the one that is commanded and fulfills the commandment then the one that is not commanded and fulfills the commandment”. It always seemed to me that when an intention, followed by an action, comes from within one’s own personal drive it surpasses an external commandment / obligation. Tosafot, Rashi’s grandchildren, (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 31a), suggest that the reason for Rabbi Chanina’s statement is that the commanded person will be even more careful in the fulfillment of the commandment due to their concern to correctly fulfill their obligation. From here we can derive that seemingly, when the obligation comes from within then there lies the danger of laxness, since the volunteer is the sole authority behind the deed.
When challenging this opinion as often presented by my teachers, and as adopted throughout the Halacha, I would suggest a perspective drawing on altruism, self-sacrifice, intimacy as ways to contest this opinion.
I didn’t know that I could quote the Babylonian Talmud (Gittin 20a) that teaches us that ‘the reward for a mitzvah is the reward for a mitzvah’ even when the person was not obligated from the outset to perform it. I also didn’t know that I could quote the Piasetzna Rebbe…
First he clarifies that it is hard to understand the Talmud, as brought by Rashi, since clearly we are not talking about a physical kiss! Clearly we can’t say it isn’t God’s glory, ‘kavod shel ma’alah’ to say that God kissed her, since we aren’t talking about a corporeal kiss at all! It is here that the Piasetzna Rebbe will follow the practice of many before him and offer an interpretation on Rashi himself. Based on his father’s teachings, the Piasetzna Rebbe suggests that ‘kavod shel ma’alah’ means glory that was commanded from above, and Miriam represents the voice, and actions, of those that are not commanded and non-the-less set out to fulfill God’s commandments. Therefore the verse can’t say ‘al pi Hashem’ / by the mouth of God, because the generator of her actions was internal, and did not come as a commandment from above!
It is for this reason we can now understand the relationship between Miriam and the well, since the well is perceived as a self generated, self contained source of water. Miriam is the well, and when she dies, the well dies with her.
The last question left for us to solve is what drives the Piasetzna Rebbe to contest such a broadly accepted halachic paradigm, “Greater is the one that is commanded and fulfills the commandment then one that is not commanded and non-the-less fulfills the commandment”. What demands of him to voice the voice of those that generate from within themselves their desire to serve God, to go beyond what they were commanded to do?
His love and respect to his wife seems to be the key to this puzzle. The Piasetzna’s wife, Miriam, was known for her piety and rabbinic scholarship. It is told that she would learn Torah four hours every day. It is told that once someone sent the Rebbe a question that he began to answer before he had to leave the house. When he came back home the responsa had been completed by his wife Miriam. The source of this story has shared that you can see the shift in the handwriting mid responsa. It begs to be understood that since the tzadeket / the righteous woman Miriam Shapiro of Piasetzna left the world this week, seventy years ago, the 10th of tamuz 1939, Shabbat parashat chukat, she is the prototype for the Miriam that the Piasetzna Rebbe see’s in Miriam, Moshe and Aharon’s sister. He see’s the reflection of both Miriam’s in Miriam-the-prophetess’s well. The well that his wife Miriam revived through her Torah study.
May we follow in the footsteps of Yitzchak who dug up the dried up wells of his father Avraham. May we follow in the footsteps of Miriam Shapiro (of blessed memory) and in our Torah study dig up the well of Miriam the prophetess. And may we too merit, at the end our days, to return our souls to God with a kiss.
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