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Parshat Chukat: A Cow in the Middle of the Desert

by Rabbi Mordechai Soskil, Director of Judaic Studies
Rabbi Soskil explores what he considers to be one of the greatest mysteries in the Torah: why does the Torah interrupt the stories about Korach’s insurrection against Moshe, Miriam and Aharon’s deaths, and the first battles to conquer the land of Israel, to tell us about the parah adumah ceremony?
Parshat Chukat contains one of the greatest mysteries in the Torah. The most memorable anecdote in the parshah is the moment when Moshe is told to speak to a rock and tell it to give water, but for reasons, he hits the rock. Immediately after the conclusion of that story the Torah reports that Hashem tells Moshe that because of his failure in that moment he (and Aharon) will not be allowed to enter The Land. What exactly Moshe did wrong, why he made whatever error it happened to be, why excluding him from The Land after 40 years of leadership is just, and why Aharon was also included in the verdict, are all questions that have intrigued and engaged biblical scholars for millennia. But I don’t think that’s the greatest mystery in the parshah.
To me the greatest conundrum has to do with the very start of this week’s Torah reading which is a very detailed description of the laws of the parah adumah (red heifer) ceremony. In a nutshell, (not like pistachio shell, more like a coconut shell) if a person comes into contact with a dead body, or even if they are in a room with a dead body, then the person is considered tamei – impure. Also, any objects or food items that were in the room with the dead body are considered impure. And depending on what they are and a bunch of other details, both that person and those items could even pass their impurity on to other items or people. The only way to undo this tumah (impurity) is to have the ashes, of an unblemished and unworked red cow, that has been mixed with certain water, sprinkled on you. And even then it is only a kohein that can do it, and only in a certain system of days after the initial contact, and so on. Now, it’s not the actual procedure of the parah adumah that is a mystery to me. I accept that an Infinite Creator made a world with physical structures, rules of biology and physics, and that the Infinite Creator ALSO made a coexisting spiritual world with its own physics and details. So, if something about my contact with a dead body somehow makes make my presence in a holy place undesirable, I accept even if I don’t understand. (Just because I don’t understand doesn’t mean there isn’t a reason.)
The mystery is, why is this here?
If you have a sense of the flow of the Torah’s narrative is then you know that we finished all the laws of sacrifices and purity and impurity way back in Sefer Vayikra. This book is about the foibles and successes of the Jewish people in the desert. And even more, last week we had Korach’s insurrection against Moshe and this week we have the death of Miriam, the hitting of the rock, the death of Aharon, the first battles to conquer the land – this is some really great stuff! Why is the whole flow of the story interrupted with the laws of parah adumah? THAT is the greatest mystery in the parshah.
In the great rabbinic tradition, before we answer that question let me add one more.  The Torah does NOT have a passage that reads anything like this: “And for the next 38 years the Jewish people lived quiet lives in the wilderness. They ate the heavenly mun, they drank the miraculous water, and they studied the law given to them by the Almighty. In those years, the first generation died and a new generation grew strong in their faith in Hashem, in love for each other, and in their dream to one day plant in the soil of their forefathers.” It doesn’t say anything like that. We have anecdotes of the first year and a half in the desert, and then the last nine months or so, but the whole time in the middle is not a subject the Torah spends any ink on. BUT IF IT WOULD have a passage like that, IT WOULD HAVE BEEN RIGHT HERE. The ideal place for that summary of the yeas in the desert would have been right where the parah adumah is. What do you make of that?
At the beginning of this week’s parshah the Malbim (Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser, 1809-1879, Ukraine), has a lengthy piece where he discusses the some of the mystery of the parah adumah. (And when I say lengthy, I mean almost 10 pages long. Thank G-d for summer hours at school!) The Malbim explains that impurity comes when a soul leaves a body, but not really. Not completely. When we are born, we are imbued with a soul. In the Malbim’s view, that soul shares characteristics with the body which is it’s home. The job of living is to transform that soul into something completely “spiritual.” Meaning, when we choose to overcome our physical desires or temper our natural sense of anger or jealousy to the details of Faith and Halacha, then we actually transform that aspect of ourselves from something basically physical to something beyond physical. That’s the work of living. Alas, in our post-Garden-of-Eden-world it’s not possible to 100%, absolutely, complete that transformation. Whatever vestiges of potential spirituality are left clinging to the body after death when the soul departs, become “putrid” and produce tumah – impurity. Dead animals produce greater impurity than dead vegetation, and dead people produce even more impurity than dead animals because the more “aliveness” and potential for that metaphysical alchemy, the greater the stink when it gets wasted, unused.
It’s a provocative idea and the Malbim spends the next nine pages trying to show how various enigmatic passages in the Talmud are actually weighing in on this concept. He builds a far-reaching debate between Hillel and Shamai and then their students on the topic of whether it is possible for a person to completely transform all the potential spirituality within them, and whether it would be a good idea to become a hermit or an ascetic in order to do that the work necessary. In the Malbim’s world, Hillel’s position is that it is not possible to do it, it would require totally cutting yourself off from society and all others, and to subject yourself to great discomfort, and it is not what the Torah wants from us. Shamai thinks it is possible, that all you have to do is cut yourself off from society and endure great discomfort, and it’s worth it.
And here I wonder if there is some room to guess why parah adumah is placed in this spot. There are lots of ways of thinking about the transformation of the Jewish people during their time in the desert. They changed from being slaves to being a Free People. They changed from being a community of fate to a community of destiny (to borrow a thought from the Rav). But I think another way of saying that, is to say they changed from being a people that thought about changing mud into bricks into a people that thought about changing corporeal people into spiritual beings. A result of living lives of miracles, lives that were totally dependent of faith and not human action, must be the sense that, “luminous beings are we. Not this crude matter.” Or at least, we have the potential to become luminous beings.
Parah adumah is here because in the Torah’s style, where philosophy is given cloaked in law, and where instructions are hidden inside of narratives, the Torah is teaching us that the generation that saw death when there were gifts and felt like grasshoppers in the face of challenges, had passed. Now the people saw the potential for holiness embedded in impurity and spiritual greatness available in the mundane choices of everyday. That’s the generation ready to move forward to The Land.
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BT School News

List of 3 news stories.

  • Parshat Chukat: A Cow in the Middle of the Desert

    by Rabbi Mordechai Soskil, Director of Judaic Studies
    Rabbi Soskil explores what he considers to be one of the greatest mysteries in the Torah: why does the Torah interrupt the stories about Korach’s insurrection against Moshe, Miriam and Aharon’s deaths, and the first battles to conquer the land of Israel, to tell us about the parah adumah ceremony?
    Read More
  • 2021 High School Awards

    Congratulations to the following Beth Tfiloh High School 9-th-11th grade students whose achievements, character and community involvement were celebrated at the 2021 High School awards ceremonies! 
    Read More
  • My Family Story Goes Virtual

    Our BT family is so incredibly proud of the work done by some of our eighth grade students who have recently presented their in-depth family analyses for the annual My Family Story exhibition.
    Read More
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