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Torah Commentary
Chukat (June 15, 2013)

Robyn Weinstein Cimbol, Senior Director of Development and Philanthropy

SPRINKLED THROUGHOUT THE TORAH are mysterious, primitive rituals that seem pagan and out of place for our protagonists — the Israelites. In this week’s portion, Chukat, we examine one of the strangest and most incomprehensible: the laws of ritual purification involving the red heifer. The red heifer (parah adumah) refers to the cow whose ashes were used in the purification rites for one contaminated through contact with a corpse. This is an elaborate ceremony in which the cow first is slaughtered and the blood sprinkled seven times. The cow then is burned together with cedar, hyssop and crimson. Finally, these ashes are mixed with water. Performing this rite is a sacred obligation that will spiritually purify the contaminated individual.

However, the great paradox of this ritual is that the one who performs this by burning the cow becomes impure. The reflexive nature of this process — purifying the defiled and defiling the pure — is one of the great mysteries that have challenged rabbis for centuries. This so-called law cannot be explained rationally. The more we try to understand it, the more it eludes us.

Chukat is certainly one of the saddest chapters of the Bible, and the Angel of Death is a constant intruder. In this portion we bid farewell to the triumvirate who have guided us through liberation and the not-so-smooth journey to the Promised Land. The Israelites have been traveling for 39 years, and the elders, who began the journey, clearly will not live to enter the Promised Land. They are truly the original Lost Generation. The desert air weighs heavily on their battered and beaten souls. After nearly 40 years of simply wandering, the end is in sight. The future looks uncertain.

Just as the masses have aged, Moses, Aaron and Miriam also have aged 40 years since the Exodus. They have been the models of leadership required at the time. But change is on the horizon. It is time for a transition of leadership.

It is in this portion that Moses strikes the rock, rather than speaking to it as God had instructed, and Moses’ fate is sealed. Perhaps Moses foresaw the imminent change. Perhaps he simply was frustrated with the rebellious Israelites he’d been called upon to rescue, teach and inspire. It can be no surprise that the Israelites’ never-ending kvetching and continuously waxing nostalgic for their lives in Egypt was enough to wear down anyone. And, most of those who yearned for a return to Egypt had not actually experienced slavery, so they were able to create a romanticized image or they were young children at the time and now only had vague recollections.

The desert wanderings that take the Israelites on a seemingly unnecessarily circuitous route can be interpreted as preparation for a future radically different from their past. It is about transformation. Perhaps the ceremony of the red heifer is somewhat analogous. Logic tells us that sprinkling a mixture of ashes and water cannot really have the power to purify. But maybe that is the point. Less important than the actual efficacy of this ritual is the perception that transformation can take place. The state of an individual can change from unclean to pure.

The death of an entire generation forces a new beginning. Perhaps the deaths of Miriam, Aaron and Moses — those who transformed the Israelites from one state of being (slavery/impurity) to another (freedom/purity) — provide a key to this paradox. And perhaps it is no coincidence that on one of the Sabbaths prior to Passover, this section also is read in preparation for the state of purification necessary to offer the Passover sacrifice.

Therefore, if a path exists through which a defiled individual can be returned to a state of purity, then it is conceivable that such a process can take place for the Israelites on the collective, communal level as well. The future awaits…

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