Parsha Chukat begins with a mitzvah we are asked to perform even though we are unable to understand its purpose and reason - the sacrifice of the red cow, whose ashes are to be used to purify people who have become contaminated through contact with a corpse. The Red Heifer or Red Cow must be completely red without any blemish, and never have been placed in a yoke. It shall be slaughtered outside of the sanctuary, and some of its blood sprinkled in the direction of the Sanctuary. It shall then be entirely burnt, and cedar wood, hyssop and crimson thread thrown into the fire. The Kohen who performs this ceremony becomes tamei (ritually impure). The ashes should be gathered and placed outside the camp for safekeeping. The person who gathers the ashes also becomes tamei. Anyone who comes into contact with a corpse becomes Tamei, and must purify themselves by being sprinkled with water containing the ashes of the Red Heifer on the third and seventh day of the purification process. The person who sprinkles the ashes becomes tamei. Anyone who enters the Temple without undergoing this purification process will receive karet (be spiritually cut off). If there is a dead body in a room, any person or thing that is in that room, or enters into it becomes tamei, and requires purification with the ashes of the Red Heifer.
The narrative then jumps 38 years to begin the description of what transpires just before the Jews enter the land of Israel. In the fortieth year in the desert, in the first month, the Children of Israel arrived at Kadesh in the Wilderness of Zin. Miriam dies and is buried there. There is no water for the people to drink, and they gather against Moses and Aaron, complaining that they are about to perish. God instructs Moses to take his staff and speak to the rock in the presence of the entire congregation. Moses and Aaron gather the congregation, but instead of speaking to the rock, Moses hits it twice. Water comes gushing out, but God punishes Moses and Aaron for disobeying Him. Because they didn't sanctify God in the eyes of the nation, they will not be able to bring the Jews into the Land of Israel. Moses sends emissaries to the king of Edom asking permission to pass through their land. The king of Edom refuses and threatens war against the Jews.
The Jews arrive at Mount Hor. God instructs Moses to lead Aaron and Elazar his son up the mountain. Moses dresses Elazar in Aaron's priestly robes, and Aaron dies there. The entire nation mourns Aaron's death for 30 days. The Canaanite king of Arad wages war against Israel and takes a captive. Israel vows that if God will help them to defeat the Canaanites they will consecrate all the spoils of victory to God. God hears the prayer of the people, and delivers the Canaanites into their hands.
The people journey on, and once again complain that they have no substantial food or water. God sends serpents to attack the people. and a large multitude die. The people come to Moses, admit their sin and ask Moses to pray for them. God instructs Moses to make a serpent and place it on a pole. Anyone who is bitten should look at the serpent and they will live. Moses makes the serpent (Nachash) out of copper (Nechoshet). The Torah lists the journeys of the Children of Israel.
After passing through valley of the river of Arnon the Children of Israel sing a song of thanksgiving to God for the miracles which he performed for them there. (The Torah doesn't explain the miracles, but we have a tradition that He miraculously killed the Emorites who were waiting there in ambush for the Jews.)
The Jews ask permission of the king of the Emorites to pass through his land of Sichon. He refuses and wages war on them. They defeat Sichon and take possession of his land. Israel settles in the land of the Emorites and Moses sends spies to Yazer. They conquer its suburbs, and drive away the Emorites remaining there. They then turn toward Bashan. Og, the king, comes out to fight them and he and his people are totally destroyed. The Children of Israel take possession of his land. They then journey and encamp on the plains of Moav on the bank of the Jordan opposite Jericho.
What is the reason for the command to sacrifice a pure red cow, with the resultant temporary impurity of the sacrificers?
There are three categories of commandments in the Torah: eidos, recalling past events, Shabbat, and holidays; mishpatim, laws dictated by moral understanding (e.g., don’t murder, steal or commit adultery, and give to charity); and chukim, for which there is no rational explanation. The Red Cow sacrifice is one of the latter. In it, God asks us to perform as a sign of our willingness to accept the Torah and his commandments, even those that transcend our experiences.
Perhaps, the Red Cow conundrum is a metaphor for Torah: the cow’s ashes have the power to cleanse, as does the Torah. Here is an interesting perspective to consider: Rabbi Maury Grebenau writes,
There are many ways to divide up the 613 commandments that are the backbone of Judaism. One could break them up by positive and negative commandments. One could distinguish between the commandments that are directed toward Hashem and the commandments that are in the realm of interpersonal relationships. One particularly interesting categorization relates to this week’s Torah portion. The Mitzva (command) of the red cow, which is the lead off topic this week, is referred to as a “Chok” as opposed to a “Mishpat.” A Mishpat is a law which seems intuitive to us. It isn’t difficult to understand why we shouldn’t kill or steal or worship other gods. A “Chok” is the exact opposite.
The entire section of the Torah which describes the process of the red cow’s ashes being a source of purification is very difficult to understand. Aside from the fact that the entire concept of purity and impurity is not an inherently logical idea the details of this section are confounding as well. King Solomon said about this Mitzva that he sought to understand the Torah but it was far from him (Koheles 7:23 with commentaries). The idea he was expressing is that regardless of the extent of one’s intellect there are certain commandments which are quite opaque in terms of their rationale. The Mitzva of the red cow is the paradigm of a “Chok”. It is a command which is not inherently logical.
Our sages teach us that the command of the red cow is connected directly to the sin of the golden calf.
How? One possible connection is the very idea of “Chok”. These non-logical Mitzvot are essentially a subjugation of our own intellect in the face of God’s will. We don’t really understand the reason behind the red cow and it may even seem antiquated or archaic to us. Since we are unable to assess the reason for the command, we may conclude that no explanation exists. Instead, we are expected to exhibit a level of trust in God and the divinity of the commandments. We follow the commandments, even those which are classified as “Chok” because we trust that Hashem asks of us only that which is beneficial and relevant. It is a much clearer act of faith to follow the “Chok” than the “Mishpatim” which we have an easier time following since they seem “correct‟ in our own life view.
The worship of the golden calf was a departure in our service of God. It was the very antithesis of following the word of God simply because it is the word of God. We strayed from the proper path and so we rectify our mistake with the “Chok” which emphasizes our faith in God and highlights our allegiance to His word regardless of our own estimations. The Sforno (a Medieval Torah commentator) points out that the reality is that the “Mishpatim”, while understandable, are not followed because of their lucidity to the human mind. He comments that the verse groups both of them together to teach us that the very same reason we follow the laws of the red cow is the same reason we don’t kill. When we refrain from murder it is not because that is proper for society or that we as individuals feel that it is morally repulsive. The reason we don’t kill is because God said so. Morality can only be objective if it is divine. The Torah is our objective moral code; it is the word of God and as such demands that we follow it. This is the lesson of the red cow which the generation of the golden calf needed to repeat.
It once happened that, despite searching high and low, the Sanhedrin could not find a Para Aduma. Eventually they learned that a certain non-Jew indeed owned a completely red cow. A delegation was dispatched to verify and negotiate for the purchase of the animal. The owner of the cow proposed a price of 400 gold coins. The delegates accepted and informed the owner that they would return the following day with the money. In the meantime, the owner of the cow told his friends about the prospective sale. As a result of this, he discovered just how rare and valuable the heifer was. When the envoys of the Sanhedrin returned the following day, the owner told them bluntly "I’ve changed my mind. The animal is not for sale." The delegation offered him more money but he was adamant. Offers and refusals flew back and forth until finally the Sages offered him an extra one hundred gold coins (some say a thousand). To this offer he acquiesced. The Sages told him that they would return the following day with the full sum.
After they left, the owner of the cow joked with his neighbor: "You know why they offered me so much money? Their religion says that they have to have a cow that’s never been harnessed to a yoke. I think I’ll play a little trick on them."
That night, he took the Para Aduma, harnessed it and plowed with it. The following morning the delegation returned with the money. Before paying, however, they wanted to examine the animal. After a few seconds they turned to the expectant owner and said, "Keep the cow. We don’t need it." He was dumbfounded as to how the Sages knew what he had done. He said, "Blessed be He Who chose this nation." And then, broken-hearted at losing this vast fortune, he went and hung himself.
How did the Sages know that the animal had been used for plowing?
A cow that has never been yoked has two particular hairs on its neck that are straight. After it has been yoked they are permanently bent. Also, the eyes of an unyoked animal do not blink. After it has been yoked, it squints, trying to see the yoke.
The question remains, however, why the owner of the cow jeopardized a king’s ransom for a little bit of sport. How could he risk so much to satisfy his vindictiveness? Surely it must have crossed his mind that the Sages weren’t merely going to rely on his word and might have ways of verifying his claim.
Nothing is more infectious than a bad character trait. The owner’s greed and his love of money caused him to renege on his original agreement. But it didn’t stop there. That character flaw provoked other character flaws to surface: deceit, mockery and vindictiveness.
If we don’t make the effort to improve our character in one area, necessarily we will find deficiencies festering in many other areas of our personalities.
For nothing is more infectious than a character flaw.
Here is an interesting study by Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed, summarized here by his students.
Living with "Contradictions"
The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabba) in this week's Torah portion cites several examples of something impure stemming from another thing that is pure. For example, our sages note that when those involved in preparing the Red Heifer contact clothing, they make the clothing impure. But the Heifer itself, when its ashes are sprinkled on a person, makes the clothing of that person pure! Such midrashim superficially seem to contradict logic. Common sense dictates that something pure will generate another pure entity, while that which is impure will produce another entity that is impure. Our sages note, however, that occasionally, something pure may indeed derive from another entity which is impure. Logic dictates that a person who has Tzara'at ("leprosy") all over his body, would be more impure than a person who only experiences a "baheret" (sore) on only part of his body. Nevertheless, the Torah asserts that someone who is completely covered by a "baheret" is pure, while someone who only has such a sore the size of a mustard seed, is, in fact, impure. The deeper explanation for this kind of unusual halachic phenomenon is rooted in a recognition on the part of man that the world is one united, organic reality. Since everything derives from one source, God, even that which seems superficially "bad" is part of a Divine plan; it, too, possesses a nucleus of "light" by virtue of which it exists. In certain unique situations, this small speck of "light" nestled within the impurity can produce something else overtly good, such that good derives from bad, impure from pure. This perspective may help explain how, in this week's Torah portion - the snake, which God uses to smite Israel, is the very same animal which heals those bitten by it. The snake has both the capacity to kill and to give life.
One should, however, be cautious not to blur the boundaries between Holy and Profane, the pure and the impure; in fact, we are clearly bidden by the Torah to make a distinction between these concepts and realities. The fact that all of existence is part of one organic Divinely-interconnected reality does not exempt us from choosing what we know to be the proper, moral path. What Did He Do Wrong?
Later in our Torah portion, we encounter the story of "Mei Meriva" - or "The Waters of Contention." The nation is thirsty for water, and God commands Moses to take his staff and draw water from a rock. Moses turns to the nation, saying, "Listen now you rebels, will we draw water for you from this rock?" He then hits the rock twice, and water flows. Despite Moses's apparently having followed God’s commandment, he is harshly reproved; God tells Moses that he and Aaron did not believe in Him sufficiently to sanctify His name before the Children of Israel. The punishment? Moses will not enter the Land of Israel. Question: What was Moses's sin and why was he punished so severely? One Approach
The Maharal explains that Moses's key mistake was the manner in which he spoke to the nation. ("Listen now, you rebels") The Hebrew term "Morim" has several possible meanings; one is, as we have explained, "rebels." Another explanation is that it comes from the Hebrew word, "Hora'ah", or teaching. In other words, Moses said to them: "You people are teaching your teachers what to do."
Moses Rabeinu was angry with the Jews, and it was from the midst of this angry state of mind that he carried out God's instructions. Maharal explains that Moses "Departed from the path of true belief because he acted out of anger, and one who performs God’s mitzvot in this manner, is showing a lack of proper faith; true faith entails trusting in Hashem, may He be Blessed. Such an approach is manifest by one acting out of joy and trust. And don't say that his anger was localized, directed only at Israel. With 'Emuna' - proper belief - a person radiates 'simcha' (joy) to all." While in Midian, Moses was asked to return to Egypt and to tell the Children of Israel of the impending Geula (redemption). Moses hesitates, starts to doubt his abilities and also the likelihood that the Jews would believe his news: "They will not listen to me or hearken to my voice," he laments in his conversation with Hashem. "They'll say that God did not appear to you." At first glance, it seems that Moses's hesitation was prompted by pure motives; he spoke to God with the honour of Heaven in mind. Moses wished the Geula to be clear, definitive and absolute - an indisputable fact. He did not want anybody to challenge his authority, to ask, "Who are you, anyway?" or "Redemption - Now?" Despite Moses’s refusal, God commands him to approach the Jews, to bring them the news of the redemption. No questions are to be asked in response to God's commands. But in the story of the "Waters of Contention", says the Maharal, a flaw surfaces within Moses himself. God says (regarding Moses and Aaron) "You didn't believe in Me." It now appears that there were, all along, flaws in Moses's personality! Moses Rabeinu, as a leader, as someone responsible to educate the nation, to guide it towards a firm belief in Hashem, was himself expected to reach a high level of personal belief in God. The perfected person, certain in his ways, is firm and confident in the righteousness of his approach. Such a person is therefore not self-conscious; he knows that his views in the end will prove triumphant. Such a person doesn't get angry at others. Man should strive to perfect himself, and through this perfection, to impact on others, as well. One should not blame others, but first and foremost check oneself, and ask: "Did I do everything I could to ensure that my fellow Jew was positively influenced by me?"
An "Exilic" Leadership Style
There are others who maintain that Moses's main transgression lay in his having hit the rock. God commanded him to speak to the rock and Moses hit it instead. What is the distinction between hitting and speaking? Why is switching speaking for hitting such a serious departure from the Divine mandate? A possible answer may lie in the difference between an action performed out of stress and one that derives from persuasion. When one acts under pressure, the action is certainly done - at the end of the day - but the one who performs the action is a "stranger" to his own behavior! When, however, the action is done as a result of persuasion, the performer of the action willingly acts; he is no stranger to his actions, but rather identifies with them. Had Moses spoken to the rock and successfully prompted water to flow from it, this would have been a great lesson to the Jewish people: they would have learned that it is possible to perform God's mitzvot out of one’s free will to do so, and not out of force or fear of punishment. As a result, the Children of Israel would have been drawn to serve God on a higher spiritual level. But Moses chose instead to hit the rock. He apparently felt that the Jews' service of God should still stem, ultimately, from the fear of punishment. This is certainly a perspective appropriate for the desert, for the exile, but not for a healthy nation about to conquer the land. In Eretz Yisrael, service of Hashem should ideally stem from love, from a deep personal acceptance of the necessity of serving God, not as a response to the fear of punishment. Moses's fate - his not entering the Land of Israel - was not a punishment in the classic sense of the word. It was more an indication that his leadership style was appropriate for the exile, but not for the Land of Israel. Our sages teach us that were Moses to have entered the Land, the Beit Hamikdash (Temple) would not have been destroyed, and the Jews would not have gone into exile! Why? If Moses had merited entering the Land, the Jews would have merited serving Hashem out of love, out of a deep internal desire to do so. Our "Avodat Hashem" (service of God) would have utilized both our Good and Bad Inclinations, such that there would have been no room for sin "to find a home..."
In the course of preparing for this week’s Parsha of the Week class, I came across this article that does a wonderful job of explaining the concept of a “chok”.
by Janet Madden, PhD
How ironic it is that a chuk, which in Biblical Hebrew means a “statute” or “decree” for which no reason is given, means, in Modern Hebrew, “a conundrum.” This shift in meaning provides a commentary on the struggle between authority and autonomy, of our modern difficulty in simply accepting what we are incapable of comprehending.
The shoresh of chuk is intriguing: chet. vav. kuf means both to fix limits and to encircle or embrace. And Parshat Chukat is saturated with images of watery limitations and encirclings.
Chukat begins with the exposition of mei niddah, the waters of the red heifer, and the laws of ritual purity and defilement concerning death. Its most dramatic episode concerns mei merivah, the waters of dispute, when God decrees that Moses and Aaron will not enter the Land because in his attempt to bring forth water, Moses strikes the rock instead of speaking to it as God commands.
And Parshat Chukat also records the death of Miriam, whose life has been consistently entwined with images of water–as she watches over her baby brother Moses floating in the Nile, as she leads the Israelite women as they dance and sing the Song of the Sea, and as the people are sustained in the wilderness through Miriam’s Well.
Wells figure prominently throughout the Torah. Sources of life-giving water, literally and symbolically serving as focal points, wells connote Divine blessings. One well, though, created by God at twilight on the sixth day of Creation, possesses uniquely symbolic depths. According to legend, this miraculous well is given by God to Abraham and passes to Hagar and Ishmael when they are cast out into the wilderness. Lost during the Egyptian enslavement, this well, which is called “Miriam’s Well” in recognition of Miriam’s merit, reappears at the moment of greatest need. For forty years, it sustains the wandering people with the revivifying water of life–mayyim chayyim.
The miracle of Miriam’s Well is that it is not static, that its waters enliven both the well itself and B’nei Israel. Numbers Rabbah tells us that Miriam’s Well takes the shape of a beehive-shaped rock that rolls along as the people travel. After the Mishkan is set up, the Well appears when the leaders stand upon the rock and say “Rise Up O Well!”–the same words that the people sing to the Well after Miriam’s death. But Miriam’s death precipitates a crisis. With her demise, there is no more water.
In the section of Parshat Chukat that follows Miriam’s death, God instructs Moses how to access water, and thus come both a new chuk and a narrative that goes beyond the limits of the story of Miriam’s Well. But although the Well apparently disappears, the water of life in fact continues to flow in a new form– the Torah, our encircling text.
According to Samson Rafael Hirsch, embedded in the word be’er, well, is the notion of clarification, of the movement from darkness to light. And as from the depths of a well come waters that sustain and renew, so in Jewish tradition “well” becomes a metaphor for the Torah, an expression of how its ever-flowing wisdom and instruction sustain the Jewish people.
When we acknowledge that God is the Wellspring of all that is, we connect our understanding of God to our experience of life-giving deep, still well-water. It is an understanding that is necessarily limited by our human inability to comprehend the Divine. But when we immerse ourselves in the study of Torah, the bedrock of Judaism, we plunge into the infinite possibilities that enable us to be constantly refreshed and renewed, to gain more and greater clarity, and to join in the life-enriching and life-sustaining flow from darkness to light.