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Dvar Torah – Chukat Numbers 19:1–22:1

Chukat  Numbers 19:1–22:1

Dvar by Joe Nalven, June 23, 2018

 The Red Heifer Puzzle

 Summary[i]

Moses and Aaron are told the ritual of the Red Heifer and commanded to tell it to the Children of Israel. The ashes of the Red Heifer purifies those who have been contaminated by contact with a dead body.

Miriam dies and is buried in Kadesh. The waters from the Well of Miriam dry up and the people complain about the lack of water. The forty year journey in the desert is near its end.

God tells Moses and Aaron to gather the community before a rock. Moses is instructed to speak to the rock and that water will pour forth from it. But Moses, instead, strikes the rock. While the water issues forth, God tells Moses that neither he nor Aaron will enter the Promised Land.

Moses seeks permission from the King of Edom to pass through his land, but is refused and the children of Israel must go around Edom and find another way to get to Canaan.

They arrive at Mount Hor.  Aaron dies and is succeeded by his son Eleazar.

The Amalekites, disguised as Canaanites, attack the Jews. The Jews pray to God and are victorious.

The Jews continue their complaining[ii] – even saying that the bread provided to them is rotten. God sends poisonous snakes and many are fatally bitten. The people ask to be spared, admitting their sins of speaking against God and Moses. God responds to Moses prayer and tells Moses to ‘Make a brass serpent and place it on a pole and whoever has been bitten by a snake will look upon the brass serpent and live.’

The journey continues with Moses leading the people in battle – first against Sichon, king of the Emorites, and then against Og, king of Bashan. The Jews are victorious. They are now at the bank of the Jordan River across from Jericho.

Understanding Chukat

How might we understand Parsha Chukat?  A kaleidoscope[iii] would help – as we turn the object box containing the various verses, we might stumble upon the following reflections.

The First Reflection:  The Law of the Torah, NOT the Law of the Red Heifer

In Exodus 32, we read about the Golden Calf. In Numbers 19, we now read about the Red Heifer. Both are cows, one young (egel hazhav), the other mature (parah). The Golden Calf echoes the Egyptian (and pre-Egyptian cultic) deity Hathor[iv] who personified the female – of motherhood, joy and love. But this goddess – the Golden Calf – was a sin against Adonai. The Red Heifer ritual is often explained as an atonement for this earlier sin – like a mother cleaning up the mess of its child.

The egel (or Golden Calf) represents the attempt to fashion one’s own intermediary to God.[v] That was the sin, the sacrilege. In response, the parah adumah (Red Heifer) is imposed as the Law of the Torah, an essential but impenetrable law.[vi]  Its importance is underscored by being called the Law of the Torah, not the Law of the Red Heifer. Performing this ritual is a way of repentance for the attempt to fashion one’s own mitzvah.

But even wise King Solomon was stumped by this commandment. It is not a logical law that one might see between individuals (mishpatim), but a law that cannot be understood except that God demands its fulfilment (chukim, or singular, a chok).

There are some further reasons for the puzzling aspects[vii] of this ritual. First, it is performed outside the temple (where the sacrifice of animals are normally performed). Sacrificing an animal outside the temple might look like a heathen practice, a worship of nature rather than of God. The sacrifice of the scapegoat is unlike that of the Red Heifer.[viii] The scapegoat ritual begins in the Temple and then continues outside and there is a reason for selecting the scapegoat. The Red Heifer, by contrast, is conducted completely outside the Temple and there is no reason given for why this ritual should be performed outside the Temple.

Second, the ritual makes impure those who perform it while making pure those upon whom it is performed. One act with opposite effects. An argument could be made that heat can melt tin and yet harden an egg; but this opposite effect of heat is an aspect of nature. What God commands does not have such opposite effects – that would be inconsistent, and as we know, God is not inconsistent.

And so, like King Solomon, we are also stumped by this Law of the Torah. It is for us to fulfill, and not to explain – to do God’s mitvah and not to inquire into it, to seek justification for what God commands. That is the nature of a chok, a suprarational commandment.

The Second Reflection:  The cure comes before the disease, OR Healing the Trauma of Loss[ix]

Following the extended explanation of performing the purification ritual of the Red Heifer, Miriam dies and the well dries up. That’s bad news. Then when the people complain, Moses fails to follow the divine instruction correctly. So, the people get the water, but Moses’ action results in his being told he won’t be getting into the Promised Land. More bad news. Then Aaron dies. More bad news again. The three leaders – all siblings – are a triumvirate of bad news. One way of looking at this is to follow the dictum that ‘the cure comes before the disease.’ That the Red Heifer ritual is the cure – a way of dealing with the disease or perhaps better worded as dealing with the loss of leadership, especially in advance of getting into the Promised Land.

The message in this juxtaposition of cure (the Red Heifer ritual) and the malady (the loss of leadership) may be a way to remind us that we are mortal and we must prepare for the transition in an orderly and correct way. It is not easy to deal with grief. So, best to have a ritual – a process to impose upon ourselves to engage with the grieving process.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks takes this approach in two commentaries on this Torah portion. One in 2011 and another in 2016. Both are instructive.

In 2016, Rabbi Sacks writes about Healing the Trauma of Loss.[x] Why didn’t Moses follow God’s command to speak to the rock in order to get water to the Children of Israel? Moses had done this before and the instruction was quite literal. Perhaps it wasn’t about Moses being angry with the complaining people for lack of water, but about what had just happened at a personal level. Moses had just lost his older sister. He was dealing with grief as well as the call for action.

Rabbi Sacks takes this path in thinking back to the death of his own father and the effect of grief in paying attention to the mundane things that life calls for.  Sacks writes:  “However it seems to me that the deeper         connection lies not between the death of Miriam and the lack of water       but between her death and Moses’ loss of emotional equilibrium.    Miriam was his elder sister. She had watched over his fate when, as a           baby, he had been placed in a basket and floated down the Nile. She had had the courage and enterprise to speak to Pharaoh’s daughter    and suggest that he be nursed by a Hebrew, thus reuniting Moses and          his mother and ensuring that he grew up knowing who he was and to        which people he belonged. He owed his sense of identity to her.           Without Miriam, he could never have become the human face of God    to the Israelites, law-giver, liberator and prophet. Losing her, he not only lost his sister. He lost the human foundation of his life.

“Bereaved, you lose control of your emotions. You find yourself angry           when the situation calls for calm. You hit when you should speak, and    you speak when you should be silent. Even when God has told you what        to do, you are only half-listening. You hear the words but they do not       fully enter your mind.[xi]

We can see the ‘why Moses struck the rock’ as part of his grief and loss of a reasoned action. But the question remains open about why and how the Red Heifer ritual addresses Moses’ problem. Yes, Miriam died and the Red Heifer ritual deals with purification. The connection seems tenuous and too general to be satisfactory for a teachable moment.

Rabbi Sacks’ commentary zeroes in on this search for the connection to the ritual. Is it simply a chok – a divine instruction – dropped into the preface of the loss of leadership, particularly with Miriam’s death.

Here, Sacks connects the dots for us:  “With great subtlety the Torah      mixes law and narrative together – the law before the narrative       because God provides the cure before the disease. Miriam dies.         Moses and Aaron are overwhelmed with grief. Moses, for a moment,     loses control, and he and Aaron are reminded that they too are mortal           and will die before entering the land. Yet this is, as Maimonides said,    “the way of the world”. We are embodied souls. We are flesh and         blood. We grow old. We lose those we love. Outwardly we struggle to          maintain our composure but inwardly we weep. Yet life goes on, and   what we began, others will continue.

And yet, we know that there are no Red Heifers[xii] and none seen for several millennia. Is there no longer any cure before the disease – no longer any divine way of dealing with mortality?  Do we simply invent a new way of dealing with death, a new ritual?  But isn’t that the very problem of the Golden Calf? Or the people creating their own way of reaching God?  The Red Heifer ritual was God’s answer to the Golden Calf fiasco. So, what do we do in the absence of Red Heifers to carry out the ritual purification about death; how do we deal with mortality – of family, friends and that we will not complete all the tasks and purposes we set for ourselves?

The Third Reflection:  A new rationality – emotional intelligence for dealing with mortality and aggression[xiii]

All of the questions raised in the previous reflection derive from a rational mindset. Perhaps we become both cynical and skeptical – about whether life is ultimately meaningless and that there are no equivalents to the Red Heifer – and never were.  The path from rationality into such thoughts may be partly the result of how we think about ‘thinking.’ Descartes said, “I think therefore I am.” But what if that was a labeling mistake – that who we are, in terms of human consciousness, is not a narrow concept of rationality.

Rabbi Sacks tackles this parsha once more – from the perspective of a book titled, Descartes Error. If we are much more than ‘I think therefore I am,’ then perhaps how we understand the mental leap from the ritual of the Red Heifer to the consequences of our mortality should be re-examined. This is especially true in re-examining why Moses made a choice to hit the rock in order to get water from the rock? Why would Moses disregard God’s instructions?

Rabbi Sacks suggests[xiv] that we should view Moses’ decision from a more           complex understanding of rationality:  “It is less reason than emotion     that lies behind our choices, and it takes emotional intelligence to make         good choices. The problem is that much of our emotional life lies   beneath the surface of the conscious mind.  That, as we can now see, is        the logic of the chukkim, the ‘statutes’ of Judaism, the laws that seem         to make no sense in terms of rationality.”

So what is this thing or process called ‘reason/rationality’?  Are we just computers set into the mind of an advanced primate? Or is there baggage that we bring with us as we have evolved over a million plus years?

Rabbi Sacks[xv] reaches for Sigmund Freud and Jared Diamond to examine the human condition as part of our recent spurt into civilization, perhaps no more than 10,000 years. There is aggression and destructive growth. There are important downsides to the human condition that is overlooked when we say ‘I think therefore I am.’  Better, perhaps, to say, ‘I think, but I also seek to dominate others and remake the environment is reckless ways.’

In this perspective, we share competing dimensions in engaging with others and the world around us:  it is, in Rabbi Sacks, an emotional intelligence:

“It is less reason than emotion that lies behind our choices, and it takes emotional intelligence to make good choices. The problem is that much of our emotional life lies beneath the surface of the conscious mind.

“That, as we can now see, is the logic of the chukkim, the ‘statutes’ of Judaism, the laws that seem to make no sense in terms of rationality. . . . [I]n the light of recent neuroscience we can suggest that they are laws designed to bypass the prefrontal cortex, the rational brain, and create instinctive patterns of behaviour to counteract some of the darker emotional drives at work in the human mind.”[xvi]

You may sense some ambiguity in Rabbi Sacks’ explanation of the emotional element that makes up “emotional intelligence.”  How is it that emotions can influence reason in making choices – as with Moses getting distracted from the divine instruction to speak to the rock? Sacks sees the ‘chok’ – the Red Heifer ritual as conditioning a behavioral response when dealing with death. Yes, grief can benefit from the assistance of ritual – to help us with an emotional intelligence. But Sacks also notes the element of aggression in that emotional component. The Red Heifer ritual addresses grief, but not aggression – and yet, I would think that emotional intelligence comprises both types of emotion.

My sense is that Rabbi Sacks takes on too much in dealing with an expansive view of rationality to include emotional intelligence. Perhaps, he would respond that the Red Heifer ritual or ‘chok’ addresses part of that aspect of death – a ritual cure before the disease of death. That we may need another kind of ritual to deal with our aggressive nature.

Conclusion

In sum, we should not look at the Chukat parsha as a mystery or something we cannot understand, but as a partial understanding how death affects us and how we can soften some of those effects. We lose our Miriam and Aaron and we find that the Promised Land may be a step too far – as with Moses. We can gather together to grieve, not fully understanding in any rational way the path of mortality.

[i] Summary of Chukat here is guided by other summaries at Chabad.org and MyJewishLearning.com. https://www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/528307/jewish/Aliyah-Summary.htm ; https://www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/2959/jewish/Chukat-in-a-Nutshell.htm ;     https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/hukkat-a-summary-of-the-parsha/ (Nancy Reuben Greenfield); See also, “Manna or Thistles” for a comparison of Parsha Chukat (Numbers) with Parsha Beshalach (Exodus) for common ideas presented at the beginning and the conclusion of the desert journey.  http://www.aish.com/tp/i/moha/48945311.html

[ii] About Jewish kvetching in the Torah from Behaalotecha, Shelach, Korach to Chukat. Kvetch! by Levi Avtzon, https://www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/2990014/jewish/Kvetch.htm

[iii] Kaleidoscope. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaleidoscope The word was coined in 1817 by its inventor to mean: observation of beautiful forms.

[iv] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hathor

[v]  Parshas Chukas: Understanding the Law, Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz,  https://torah.org/torah-portion/torah-thoughts-5767-chukas/?printversion=1   According to the Beis Halevi, “Hashem created the world – the heavens and the earth. Each mitzvah that a Jew performs brings meaning to Hashem’s world and fulfillment to creation. What if one could understand the workings of Hashem, asks the Beis Halevi? Could he construct his own mitzvos? Surely not!! The Beis Halevi maintains that this type of flawed thinking resulted in the sin of the egel. When the Jews thought that Moshe did not return from Heaven, they wished to create their own intermediary to Him – with tragic results. Their goal was well-intentioned, but their desire to create their own intermediary resulted in many other deviations from the path of Hashem. Therefore, the perfect teshuvah (repentance) for the egel, which resulted from well-intentioned deviation from the commands of Hashem, was for the Jews to perform a mitzvah whose reasons are so hidden from us. The Beis Halevi points out that all the comments of the Midrash note similarities of the Parah Adumah to the egel – but do not offer us insight into the mitzvah itself! ”

[vi] Rashi (Bamidbar 19:22}

[vii] The Red Heifer’s Unique Irrationality, Adapted by Chaim Miller; From the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. https://www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/535204/jewish/The-Red-Heifers-Unique-Irrationality.htm

“Rashi: Because Satan and the nations of the world cause grief to the Jewish people, saying, “What is this commandment? What purpose does it have?” Therefore, the Torah uses the term chukah (suprarational command). [G‑d says], “It is My personal decree. You do not have permission to ponder over it.”

“Ramban: The nations taunt the Jewish people about this mitzvah for a reason that is similar to their derision of the scapegoat of Yom Kippur—because it is slaughtered outside the Holy Temple.”

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Following Jonathan Sacks, 5776  July 2016. Healing the Trauma of Loss,  http://rabbisacks.org/healing-trauma-loss/

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Maybe ‘red heifers’ are not that unusual when we consider the linguistic connection between adumah (red) and adamah (earth) in Hebrew. A red earth? A red cow? Maybe not that difficult to imagine. See, For Real, How Rare Is a Red Heifer?

By Yehuda Shurpin https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/3613245/jewish/For-Real-How-Rare-Is-a-Red-Heifer.htm  A note of thanks to Gordon Glenn for pointing out this article to me.

[xiii] Following Jonathan Sacks, 5771  July 2011,  Chukat (5771) – Descartes’ Error, http://rabbisacks.org/covenant-conversation-5771-chukat-descartes-error/

[xiv] Ibid.  Note that this commentary is five years earlier in the order of the discussion here. I have presented them in reverse order for literary and explanatory reasons. For yet another treatment of Chukat by Rabbi Sacks, see Chukat (5768) – Law and Narrative, July 2008.

[xv] Op. cit. Sacks, Descartes’ Error, 2011.

[xv]  Ibid.

I would like to thank Rabbi Lawson for reading my wrestling with this parashah.

NDNOTES

[1] Summary of Chukat here is guided by other summaries at Chabad.org and MyJewishLearning.com. https://www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/528307/jewish/Aliyah-Summary.htm ; https://www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/2959/jewish/Chukat-in-a-Nutshell.htm ;     https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/hukkat-a-summary-of-the-parsha/ (Nancy Reuben Greenfield); See also, “Manna or Thistles” for a comparison of Parsha Chukat (Numbers) with Parsha Beshalach (Exodus) for common ideas presented at the beginning and the conclusion of the desert journey.  http://www.aish.com/tp/i/moha/48945311.html

[1] About Jewish kvetching in the Torah from Behaalotecha, Shelach, Korach to Chukat. Kvetch! by Levi Avtzon, https://www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/2990014/jewish/Kvetch.htm

[1] Kaleidoscope. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaleidoscope The word was coined in 1817 by its inventor to mean: observation of beautiful forms.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hathor

[1]  Parshas Chukas: Understanding the Law, Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz,  https://torah.org/torah-portion/torah-thoughts-5767-chukas/?printversion=1   According to the Beis Halevi, “Hashem created the world – the heavens and the earth. Each mitzvah that a Jew performs brings meaning to Hashem’s world and fulfillment to creation. What if one could understand the workings of Hashem, asks the Beis Halevi? Could he construct his own mitzvos? Surely not!! The Beis Halevi maintains that this type of flawed thinking resulted in the sin of the egel. When the Jews thought that Moshe did not return from Heaven, they wished to create their own intermediary to Him – with tragic results. Their goal was well-intentioned, but their desire to create their own intermediary resulted in many other deviations from the path of Hashem. Therefore, the perfect teshuvah (repentance) for the egel, which resulted from well-intentioned deviation from the commands of Hashem, was for the Jews to perform a mitzvah whose reasons are so hidden from us. The Beis Halevi points out that all the comments of the Midrash note similarities of the Parah Adumah to the egel – but do not offer us insight into the mitzvah itself! ”

[1] Rashi (Bamidbar 19:22}

[1] The Red Heifer’s Unique Irrationality, Adapted by Chaim Miller; From the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. https://www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/535204/jewish/The-Red-Heifers-Unique-Irrationality.htm

“Rashi: Because Satan and the nations of the world cause grief to the Jewish people, saying, “What is this commandment? What purpose does it have?” Therefore, the Torah uses the term chukah (suprarational command). [G‑d says], “It is My personal decree. You do not have permission to ponder over it.”

“Ramban: The nations taunt the Jewish people about this mitzvah for a reason that is similar to their derision of the scapegoat of Yom Kippur—because it is slaughtered outside the Holy Temple.”

 

[1] Ibid.

[1] Following Jonathan Sacks, 5776  July 2016. Healing the Trauma of Loss,  http://rabbisacks.org/healing-trauma-loss/

[1] Ibid.

[1] Ibid.

[1] Maybe ‘red heifers’ are not that unusual when we consider the linguistic connection between adumah (red) and adamah (earth) in Hebrew. A red earth? A red cow? Maybe not that difficult to imagine. See, For Real, How Rare Is a Red Heifer?

By Yehuda Shurpin https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/3613245/jewish/For-Real-How-Rare-Is-a-Red-Heifer.htm  A note of thanks to Gordon Glenn for pointing out this article to me.

[1] Following Jonathan Sacks, 5771  July 2011,  Chukat (5771) – Descartes’ Error, http://rabbisacks.org/covenant-conversation-5771-chukat-descartes-error/

[1] Ibid.  Note that this commentary is five years earlier in the order of the discussion here. I have presented them in reverse order for literary and explanatory reasons. For yet another treatment of Chukat by Rabbi Sacks, see Chukat (5768) – Law and Narrative, July 2008.

[1] Op. cit. Sacks, Descartes’ Error, 2011.

[1]  Ibid.

I would like to thank Rabbi Lawson for reading my wrestling with this parashah.

 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the D’var Torah articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Beth Israel.

 

 

 

 

Comment(1)

  1. Reply
    Janice Heimann says

    Iris in mans nature to both challengeand rest the unknown. The rationality of the unconscious drive seek balance between the primary drives and the reality testing ego. Maybe Moses didn’t get it alright but we couldn’t have gotten so far without him.

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