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Parashat Hukkat
Shabbat Rosh Hodesh

June 28, 2014 – 30 Sivan 5774

Annual (Numbers 19:1-22:1): Etz Hayim p. 880; Hertz p. 652
Triennial (Numbers 19:1-20:21): Etz Hayim p. 880; Hertz p. 652
Maftir (Numbers 28:9-15): Etz Hayim p. 930; Hertz p. 695
Haftarah (Isaiah 66:1-24, 23): Etz Hayim p. 1220; Hertz p. 944

 Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, South Carolina

 

God introduces the ritual law of the red heifer, whose ashes are used to purify those who are impure after being contaminated by a corpse.

Miriam dies. The Israelites, bereft of water, despair that they are still in the wilderness. Even though God says water will emerge from a rock, Moses strikes the rock twice before it pours forth. Moses and Aaron are punished by not being allowed to enter Canaan. Aaron dies at Mount Hor, and Eleazar succeeds him as High Priest.

The Israelites are challenged by nearby peoples: the Edomites refuse them safe passage; the Canaanites unsuccessfully attack them; the Amorites and Bashan fall to them convincingly. But the Israelites still complain about their hardships, and some are killed by bronze snakes.

Theme #1: Don’t Have a (Blemished) Cow!

This is the ritual law that the Lord has commanded: Instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid. You shall give it to Eleazar the priest. It shall be taken outside the camp and slaughtered in its presence. (Numbers 19:2-3)

The instructions regarding the red heifer are arguably the most mysterious in the entire Torah. So many of the things we do without question as Americans make no sense on the specific level, but contribute to our identification as participants in a certain part of American culture. [Wearing a] tie lets us know something about a man’s values, community, income, education, and work. A woman’s lipstick does the same. These things gain their value not from the particular practice, but from the context that such practices creates. So, too, with the hukkim, the unexplainable mitzvot in the Torah and in rabbinic literature. Any living culture requires distinct customs and practices to maintain its own special identity, to affirm the loyalty of its members and its continuity across generations. Judaism has those same needs. -- Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, The Bedside Torah

To be sure, there are reasons also for the commandment concerning the red heifer. But the true and basic reason for this Divine enactment was disclosed to no human being save Moses. At one time King Solomon, having divined the reasons for all the commandments, believed that he had succeeded in discovering their true and deeper purpose. But when he came to the Scriptural portion dealing with the red heifer he realized that while he knew of many superficial reasons for this law, he was still unable to fathom its basic purpose, which had not been revealed to any man. -- Hanukkat HaTorah

What does Torah have to do with a cow? Only perhaps that just as the cow defiles and makes pure, so too does the Torah. Our sages say (in Yadayim 3:5), “All the sacred Scriptures render the hands unclean …” For one who learned and thereby made himself a sage and a teacher and subsequently became arrogant, such a person the Torah has defiled. -- David of Tolnye

Questions for Discussion:

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson identifies examples of behaviors that illustrate the values of a community, just as the law of the red heifer, mysterious though it may be, helps to explain the values of the ancient Israelites. Are there examples that are particular to your synagogue? Your city? Your family? What do they say about the group(s) that you belong to?

Hanukkat HaTorah sees the rule of the red heifer as a key example of the uniqueness of Moses and of his relationship with God that would never be replicated with any other person. Likewise, many Jewish customs reflect a unique relationship with God that, we understand, does not exist with any other group. Is Judaism’s uniqueness an important part of its appeal? In what ways might it be a disadvantage?

David of Tolnye comments on the double-edged sword that is Jewish knowledge -- just as Torah can be used for great accomplishments, so too can it be utilized for damaging and hurtful behavior. Often, opponents of religion point to the latter as reason enough not to follow any kind of organized faith. While there is no doubt that there has been much pain caused in the name of religion, how do we teach Judaism in a way that emphasizes the great gifts it can bring the world?

Theme #2: Don’t Pound the Rock

Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank. But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” (Numbers 20:11-12)

With two swipes of his staff, Moses is barred from the one destination he tried to reach for forty years. There are two views concerning the character of the sin which Moses committed at the waters of Meribah. Maimonides holds that Moses sinned in that he became angry and insulted the Children of Israel, saying to them: “Hear now, you rebels …” (Verse 10). Nachmanides, on the other hand, claims that his sin lay in the fact that he struck the rock instead of speaking to it as he had been commanded to do. Actually, both views are valid, for the end result was the same. There are two kinds of righteous individuals. The one rebukes others with harsh words until, stricken by remorse, they repent of their sins. The other achieves the same end by positive means; by his kind words, he makes the people feel so greatly uplifted that they become ashamed to sin. -- Kedushat Levi

According to Moses Maimonides, the main sin of Moses and Aaron was in the language with which they spoke to Israel: “Hear now, you rebels.” To be sure, many of the prophets of Israel spoke with sharpness in similar language. But here it was inappropriate since the children of Israel sought water, incontestably an urgent matter of life and death for a person. There was no reason to speak to them harshly. -- Yad Yosef

Moses’ final enigmatic failure -- the narrative of the waters of Meriva that condemns him to die in the desert -- is clearly focused on a regressive return to the staff modality. When he hits the rock instead of speaking to it, his hand returns to grasping, to the conceptual. At issue there is the problem of faith, of emuna; of the caressing, questioning modality that consists in seizing upon nothing, and that learns its own complex stability. -- Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections of Exodus

Questions for Discussion:

Kedushat HaLevi says that while the jury is out regarding what aspect of Moses’s transgression is worse, it almost doesn’t matter, since the end result is identical and bad enough as it is. At the same time, there are multiple paths to creating good results in our interactions. What are some examples of creating positive moments through vastly different means? Creating negative moments with different methods?

Yad Yosef argues that while Moses’s frustration is understandable, even justifiable, he chooses the wrong moment to lose his cool -- a time when the peoples’ desire is sensible and important. When we are at our angriest, is it common to express our exasperation at any given moment, or is it possible to keep enough perspective to lash out at a time when others are truly being unreasonable? By the time we’ve reached the “last straw,” is it conceivable to have some aspect of patience left?

Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg comments that Moses’s inability to stay patient at the waters of Meriva is due to a lack of faith in God's ability to redeem -- which is strange, given that Moses is enraged at the Israelites for the very same reason. Sometimes, when we are frustrated with others, we feel that way because they are displaying the same kind of behavior that we show (or we fear that we might show). What are some other examples of this?


 
 
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