Chukat: Rabbi Avraham


By Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum

Torah Reading: CHUKAS, Numbers 19:1-22:1


Now that we have passed the summer solstice, the days are still long but imperceptibly they are starting to get shorter, as we move inexorably closer to the end of the year and the coming New Year and Days of Awe. The Hebrew letters of the present month, Tammuz, are the initial letters of the phrase Z-MAN T-ESHUVAH M-MASHMESH U-VA, “the Time of Teshuvah is getting closer”. The letters of next month, AV, are the initial letters of ELUL BA – “Elul (month of repentance) is on the way”. After the month of Av comes Elul itself, and soon afterwards, Rosh HaShanah, Simchas Torah and the conclusion of the annual reading of the Torah.

In the previous parshah, KORACH, we passed the mid-point of the book of Numbers (Numbers 17:20). Korach’s conspiracy is not explicitly dated in the Torah narrative, but is considered to have taken place early on during the wanderings of the Children of Israel in the wilderness. The Torah passes over the 38 years of wandering after the sin of the Spies in almost complete silence — except for a list given later on of the stopping points on the journey, Numbers ch. 33, parshas MAS’EI. In our present parshah of CHUKAS, we move almost imperceptibly from the initial period in the wilderness following the Exodus and the Giving of the Torah, right to the end of the 40 years of wandering and the first stages of the conquest of the Land of Israel.

Parshas CHUKAS begins with the commandment of burning the Red Heiffer and using its ashes for purification from defilement from the dead. This commandment was among the first given to the Children of Israel directly after the Exodus and the Crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 15:25, see Rashi there). The section about the Red Heiffer as we have it in CHUKAS (Numbers ch. 19) is also listed in the Midrash (Sifra) as one of those given to Moses on the 1st Nissan one year after the Exodus, the day the on which the Sanctuary was erected.

The positioning of the section of the Red Heiffer here — as we move into the latter part of the book of Numbers and on towards the end of the Torah — is bound up with its thematic relationship with other sections of our parshah. The commandment of the Red Heiffer, which comes to purify from defilement from contact with the dead, is followed immediately by the narrative of the death of Miriam. (“The death of Tzaddikim atones like the sacrifices” — Rashi on Numbers 20:1). The death of Miriam took place in the last year of wandering in the wilderness, on the 10th Nissan, exactly a year before the crossing of the Jordan and the entry into the Land. This is the first clue to dating the events in this parshah. The ensuing lack of water in the wilderness caused Moses and Aaron to strike the rock, leading to the decree that they would not enter the Land but die in the wilderness. Moses takes Aaron up Mount Hor to die, while Elazar, his son succeeds him as High Priest. We suddenly have to confront the loss of the elders and leaders of the generation. How do we deal with death?

Without our even noticing the transition, the older generation are leaving one by one, having been replaced by a whole new generation. The new generation — who are actually the old generation in new bodies — are now moving inexorably forward to the end and the goal – the Land of Israel. The Generation of the Wilderness have passed on, and the Generation of the Conquest now begin their advance.

As the Torah directs our eyes to the end goal of the wandering in the wilderness — entry into the Land to fulfill the Torah there — it first focuses our eyes upon the end goal of man, which is death: “This is the Torah: when a man dies.” (Numbers 19:14). For unless we come to terms with death, we cannot truly live. Death is a fact, perhaps the main fact, of life. We are forced to confront it at some time or another. In order to come to terms with it, we have to learn how to look at it.

Thus parshas CHUKAS takes its place in the series of parshas read during the bright summer months of Tammuz, time of Teshuvah, that teach us how to look at various different aspects of life in the correct perspective. BEHAALOSCHAH taught about the purity of vision in general. SHELACH LECHA taught about viewing the world — and our own selves — with the eyes of faith despite outward appearances. KORACH taught about how we look at others who may be better than ourselves. CHUKAS now comes to teach us how to look at our mortality, death, the end goal of life, in the right perspective — for with the right perspective, we can transcend death.

Today, only a decade after we were promised a new order of peace, the world has been plunged before our eyes into an era of global war. Every day we are bombarded with gruesome and horrific images of bloodied, burned, mutilated bodies. It has long ceased to be surprising to hear of new daily outrages in locations far and near. We are hardly aware of how dulled our sensitivities have become to injury, death and suffering. If we were to start weeping as we should, would we have enough tears for all the suffering in the world?

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov teaches that the only way we can transcend suffering is by trying to focus our vision on the faraway, ultimate goal of the entire creation, which is surely completely good. Rabbi Nachman says we must even close our eyes to this world — close them tight — so as to keep focussed on this ultimate, transcendent goal, which is to bring the entire universe to perfect unity and completeness through G-d’s hidden guidance and providence. (Likutey Moharan 1:65 “Garden of the Souls”.)

While no-one can fathom the depths of meaning of the Red Heiffer — any more than we can fathom the real meaning of death and of life — we are free to search for hints of meaning in this fascinating commandment, which is the key to complete redemption. This depends upon the restoration of the ashes of the Red Heiffer, because only when we are able to be purified from impurity from contact with the dead can we go up to the Temple, source of LIFE, and carry out all its rituals in the proper way.

What causes defilement from contact with the dead is not the soul of the dead person. It is the physical remains of his or her body. The death and decomposition of the body are very repugnant: they threaten us, both as health hazards and because they undermine our pride and dignity as living human beings. They remind us of our mortality — “You are earth, and to the earth you will return” — but we cannot live with such intense awareness of the vanity of the physical world. We are commanded to cover the body, bury it in the earth, put it out of sight. We should not pre-occupy ourselves with the dead (as did the Egyptians). Our job is to keep living, to keep marching to the end goal — “the Land of Israel”.

Thus the priest (son of Aharon, signifying light and vision) takes the pure Red Heiffer — its redness signifying the harshness of DIN, Strict Judgment, and GEVURAH, Might. The priest sheds the heiffer’s blood — breaking its power. The priest gazes towards the the Holy of Holies and sprinkles the blood of the heiffer towards it. This sprinkling of the blood of the Red Heiffer towards the Holy of Holies was integral to the whole ceremony, which was performed on the Mount of Olives at a spot directly aligned towards the gates of the Temple. The body of the heiffer was then burned on a woodpile and minute quantities of its ashes were mixed with water from a living source to be sprinkled with hyssop on people and utensils that had become defiled.

In breaking the power of Strict DIN, the priest had to look towards the Holy of Holies, because this is the ultimate goal of all creation, the place of complete unit, peace and perfection. Defilement from the dead is very depressing. (The chapters on this subject in Rambam’s Mishneh Torah can also be somewhat depressing, as they deal in detail with different parts of the body in varying stages of decomposition, etc.) In order to live we cannot occupy ourselves with death. We must be aware of our mortality, but we must separate ourselves from physical death. The souls of the dead go on living on their plane, and so must we on ours. The seven days of purification from defilement with the dead are seven days of separation from what ought to be the abnormal — the decaying dead body, which has to be buried and put away — in order to return to the Land of the Living. It is necessary to be sprinkled with the ashes of the Red Heiffer on the third and seventh days of the week in order to draw renewed strength by repeatedly looking toward the Holy of Holies.

Like the priest breaking the force of severe DIN by gazing towards the Holy of Holies, we too, in order to keep living, must keep our gaze focussed on the Holy of Holies. The Holy of Holies in our lives should be our times of prayer and Torah study, and, in the family context, quality time with our dear ones and especially spouses. These are the best support through all the vicissitudes of life.

“ARISE, O WELL.” (Numbers 21:17) 

The living waters with which the ashes of the Red Heiffer are mixed are one of several references to water in our parshah. Notable among the other references are the “Waters of Strife” — the waters that Moses and Aaron extracted from the Rock, which cost them the privilege of leading the Children of Israel into the Promised Land. This section of the Torah is of course no less profound than the preceding section about the Red Heiffer. Rabbi Nachman saw his explanation of Moses’ striking the rock (Likutey Moharan I:20) as being the key to all of his Torah discourses. The bare essence of Rabbi Nachman’s teaching is that even the saintly Moses should not have sought “water” — Torah insight and inspiration — “by force”, i.e. in the merit of his good deeds, his “rod”, as a “right”. Rather, he should have wept and begged for the waters of Torah as a gift, through prayer. Thus Moses had to atone for his error with the 515 prayers that he offered in the hope of entering the Land of Israel.

It was the death of Miriam that led to the lack of water which made Moses strike the rock. For throughout the forty years of wandering, a miraculous well accompanied the Israelites in the merit of Miriam. Miriam (having the connotation of bitterness) symbolizes the soul of the suffering true Torah scholar (“eat bread with salt, drink water by measure”) through whose merit Torah insight comes into the world to inspire the generation. When this soul departs the world, there is a terrible thirst for water, with no one having the power to enlighten and inspire. Each generation needs to dig for the waters of the Torah anew.

The history of Miriam’s well is not written explicitly in the Torah text but only allusively. The allusions are brought out in the Aramaic Targum and in Midrashim brought by Rashi on certain verses in our parshah — such as Numbers 20:10-11 and 21:15ff. This well of the waters of inspiration accompanied the Israelites on all their journeys in the wilderness and provided water for the camp at each of their stopping places. When Miriam died, it disappeared, but it returned in the merit of Moses and traveled with the Israelites on the last stages of their journey through the wilderness. When they entered the Land under Joshua (on 10 Nissan, anniversary of the death of Miriam), the well also entered the land. It traveled to the Kinneret (Sea of Gallilee), where it is said to be visible from mountains to the east as a kind of “sieve” on the surface of the sea. From the depths of the Kinneret, the well is said to feed the waters of Israel’s most important water reserve. (The ARI is said to have taken R. Chayim Vital on a boat and given him a cup of this water to drink, after which R. Chayim Vital understood the teachings of his master.)

The final stages of the journey of the Israelites through the wilderness and the first stages in the conquest of the Land of Israel are recounted in our parshah. Their geography is somewhat obscure to many, as they took place in what is today the kingdom of Jordan, which for political reasons remains temporarily out of bounds for Torah lovers. The Israelites were headed to ARVOS MO’AV, the “plains of Moab” east of the River Jordan facing Jericho. There they assembled prior to the entry into the Land in order to hear the final discourses of Moses, which make up the book of Deuteronomy.

Our present parshah describes their journey there. From the wilderness, they advanced around Edom (S.E. of Yam HaMelach, the “Dead” Sea) and Moab (to the east of the southern part of Yam Hamelach), crossing the River Arnon, which flows into the Yam HaMelach from the east, midway from north to south. The Arnon, which meets the sea via a spectacular mountain gorge, is the boundary between Moav, which the Israelites were forbidden to conquer, and the territories to the north, which had been conquered by the Emorites. The narrative of the Israelite conquest of the latter territories begins in our parshah.

The parshah relates that the miracles of the crossing of the Arnon were comparable with the miracles of the crossing of the Red Sea (Numbers 21:14ff.). The Emorites were waiting for the Israelites in caves in the gorge below, but the two sides of the gorge miraculously came together, allowing the Israelites to walk safely above. The Well of Miriam, which traveled with the Israelites, flushed the blood of the dead Emorites out of the gorge so that the Israelites could see the miracles performed for them.

Thus, forty years after the Generation of the Exodus had sung to G-d when they came up from the Red Sea, the Generation of the Conquest sang again as they witnessed the first miracles of the conquest. “That was the well of which HaShem said to Moses, gather the people and I will give them water. Then Israel sang (lit. WILL SING) this song: Arise, O well.!” (Numbers 21:16-17).

The conquest of the Land depends upon Miriam’s well — the well of Torah insight and inspiration. May we soon hear the song of the conquest of the Land for the Torah, for the Holy of Holies and for the glory of HaShem — quickly in our days!

You may also like...