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Torah Sparks

Parashat Hukkat
June 15, 2013 – 7 Tammuz 5773

Annual: Numbers 19:1-22:1 (Etz Hayim p. 880; Hertz p. 652)
Triennial: Numbers 21:11-22:1 (Etz Hayim p. 890; Hertz p. 660)
Haftarah: Judges 11:1-33 (Etz Hayim p. 910; Hertz p. 664)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
(Temple Emanuel of North Jersey; Franklin Lakes, NJ)

Parashat Hukkat opens with one of the most inscrutable passages in the Torah, about the parah adumah – the red heifer. The ashes of an entirely red cow are mixed with the other significantly red ingredients with which it is to be burned, for use in a ritual that purifies one who has been in contact with a corpse. The ashes, which render the affected Israelite pure, render the officiating priest impure.

When the Israelites arrive at Kadesh, a series of significant events takes place. Miriam dies and is buried. Immediately after her death, we learn that Israel is without water – the juxtaposition providing the impetus for the midrashic link between Miriam and the Israelites' miraculous access to water in the wilderness. The Israelites quarrel with Moses about their potentially lethal lack of water. God tells Moses and Aaron to equip themselves with Moses' staff, and then to order a rock to produce water for the Israelites. Moses, inexplicably departing from these precise instructions, instead twice strikes the rock, which nevertheless does produce sufficient water for the Israelites and their livestock. God responds to the prophetic breach of discipline harshly: because they "did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelites," Moses and Aaron are told they will not be permitted to accompany the people into the Promised Land.

Also at Kadesh, speaking in the protracted and florid language of diplomacy, Moses appeals to the King of Edom to allow the Israelites to pass through his territory, invoking Israel's history of suffering and promising not to use any of Edom's natural resources. Edom responds tersely: "You shall not pass," adding a threat of military enforcement to his refusal.

Moses, no doubt disappointed by Edom and grieving for Miriam, is further bereaved: Aaron dies on Mount Hor. Moses transfers priestly leadership, as well as Aaron's vestments, to his brother's son Eleazar. The nation mourns its founding priest for 30 days.

Following a battle in which Israel defeats the Canaanite king of Arad, God punishes the typically disgruntled Israelite community with lethally poisonous snakes. Moses is instructed to construct a copper serpent, which will be displayed on a pike. Afflicted Israelites are cured by looking at the metal snake.

Citing a lost "Book of the Wars of the Lord," the route through Transjordan is detailed, culminating in a battle against the Amorite King Sichon, whose land the victorious Israelites conquer. A similar victory and conquest follow the Israelites' battle with Og, king of Bashan.

The parashah concludes with the wandering Israelites "encamped in the steppes of Moab, across the Jordan from Jericho."

Theme #1: "Lustration Frustration"

"The priest shall wash his garments and bathe his body in water; after that the priest may reenter the camp, but he shall be impure until evening." (Numbers 19:7)

Derash: Study

"While the red heifer served to cleanse the unclean, it rendered unclean the clean individuals who had contact with it. The reason for this is that the red heifer served to atone for the sin the Israelites committed when they worshipped the Golden Calf. The Sages point out that it certainly did not behoove the Israelites of that generation to sin. But in order that it might show to future generations a way in which they might be able to repent their sins, that generation alone was punished and it was through that unclean generation that a means was given to the generations of the future to cleanse themselves by repentance. So, too, it is with the red heifer... It serves as a means to cleanse the unclean, but it is unclean in itself, so that the priest must wash his garments after contact with it." (Chatam Sofer)

"The contradiction of this law mirrors the paradox of the relationship between our physical and spiritual sides; its very perplexity challenges our tendency to see the physical as the final reality." (Rabbi Michael Bernstein)

"There is a profound lesson to be learned from the Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer. We learn that there's a price we pay even for deeds that seem meritorious, like cleansing others. The question we need to ask however – is it worth the price?" (Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald)

"We all encounter difficult situations in our lives. Situations that are so painful, we feel we are left impure. Sometimes they are situations we cause. Sometimes they are situations that are thrust on us. The best reaction to such an encounter with impurity is to reflect on it – and to think about how to turn it around, how to turn it into something pure. Have a huge clash with a loved one, or a co-worker, that leaves you feeling drained, what can you do? Reflect on the causes of the conflict, reflect on ways to heal it, seek solutions." (Rabbi Barry Leff)

"How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress." (Niels Bohr)

Questions for Discussion

The ritual of the Red Heifer represents one of the most inscrutable and paradoxical passages in the Torah: its ashes simultaneously render the impure pure… and the pure impure! Many traditional commentators (of the past and today) identify the ritual as a "chok" – a divine injunction beyond human logic, reason, or understanding. The sources provided here, however, attempt to make sense of this law… to derive contemporary meaning from this strange and ancient ritual protocol. Which do you find compelling? Or do you prefer simply to approach our chapter as an inexplicable "chok"?

Consider the Chatam Sofer. How do our sins of the past enable us to make spiritual progress of which we might otherwise be deprived? How does the "unclean" give us renewed hope for purity, goodness, repentance, godliness?

Niels Bohr (Danish, Nobel Prize winning physicist) suggests that paradox is of inherent virtue. What "progress" does the ritual of the Red Heifer (or, at least, its study) make possible? Is Rabbi Bernstein simply paraphrasing Bohr… or suggesting an answer to our question?

How do Rabbis Buchwald and Leff both differ and agree regarding the moral significance of the impurity "suffered" by the officiating priest handling the ashes of the Red Heifer?

What should be our approach to ritual requirements… the spiritual origins and moral significance of which are all but lost to our distant past?

Theme #2: "Hail to the Grief"

"The whole community knew that Aaron had breathed his last. All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron thirty days." (Numbers 20:29)

Derash: Study

"When Aaron's soul rested, the clouds of Glory moved away, on the first day of the month of Av. And the entire congregation saw Moses descend from the mountain with rent garments. And he was weeping and saying: ‘Woe is me for you, my brother Aaron, the pillar of Israel's prayer.' And they, too, wept for Aaron thirty days, the men and women of Israel." (Targum Yonatan)

"Moses was also mourned for thirty days, an indication of Aaron's importance since mourning ordinarily lasts for seven days. To be sure, Joseph was mourned for seventy days, but this was in accordance with Egyptian practice." (Jacob Milgrom, JPS Commentary)

"The biblical narrator's characteristic impassivity does not allow us to know confidently whether these thirty days of mourning are merely a formal ritual or an expression of real sorrow. Aaron was often enough a target of popular resentment." (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses)

"To be traumatized and in mourning inevitably affects a group's ability to assess current threats and deal with them effectively and realistically. Therefore we have to steer a careful line between not forgetting and excessive remembering. Too much stress on remembrance is an oppressive way to live. It is often overlooked that the process of mourning should ultimately lead to some measure of resolution and resignation without despair." (Martin Bergmann)

"Now he belongs to the ages." (Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, at the deathbed of Abraham Lincoln)

Questions for Discussion

How would you "eulogize" Aaron, who certainly "belongs to the ages"? He was both the progenitor of the Israelite priesthood… and the malleable and complicit architect of the debacle of the Golden Calf. How should we, and how does Jewish history, judge him?

Respond to Professor Alter. Does the evidence of the biblical text suggest that the thirty days of mourning were a sincere outcry and expression of national grief? Or an unavoidable ritual response by a people perhaps committed to form, perhaps demonstrating deference and sensitivity to Moses?

What textual support is there for Targum Yonatan's evocative portrayal of Moses as deeply grieving? What else does the Targum add to our understanding of this verse? Is the customary thirty days of mourning ("sheloshim" – extended to a year for children mourning a parent) intended to provide for sufficient expression of personal bereavement… or is it a finite limitation placed upon a necessarily endless and ultimately inexpressible loss? How might Martin Bergmann approach this question?

No national mourning is described after the death of Miriam. What are we to make of this? Does Moses react differently to the death of his sister and that of his brother?

Historic Note

In Parashat Hukkat, read on June 15, 2013, Moses is doubly bereaved, as both his brother Aaron and his sister Miriam die and are buried. On June 15, 1864, the property surrounding the home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Arlington, Virginia is designated as a national military cemetery.

Halachah L'Maaseh

The People Israel learned of Aaron's death – and consequently could begin their thirty days of mourning – only after he had already been buried (and according to Targum Yonatan, only after they saw that Moses had already begun mourning). If news of a death is delayed, but reaches mourners within thirty days of the death, "all the laws and customs of mourning must be observed from the moment the news is received" (Rabbi Isaac Klein, Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, p. 293). If the news is delayed more than thirty days, one hour of mourning (akin to Shivah: no leather shoes, sitting on a low stool) is observed. Kriah (tearing one's garment) is observed in such circumstances of delay only in the case of one mourning a parent's death. See Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De'ah 402:1-4.

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