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June 26, 2020 – Chukat

Shabbat Message from Cantor Eichaker

The weekly cycle of the Torah readings brings us to Parashat Chukat (laws).  The law that is being described regards a perfect red heifer that is supposed to be sacrificed, burned to ashes and mixed with water as a purification potion.  It is intended for the consumer of this concoction to be purified having come into contact with a corpse.  The same potion, however, renders the one who prepares it “unclean” until dark.  In addition to that curious practice, the law is not attached to any particular sin, like the laws appearing before this one.  The only triggering occurrence is that the person has come into contact with a person who has died, which, in and of itself, is not a sin unless the person actually caused the death of the individual, in which case, there are existing laws for dealing with this crime.  Also, finding a red heifer that is perfect inside and out and then burning it to ashes was an expensive proposition.  I am not sure in today’s pre-planning of funerals there is or should there be a provision like this for the family or attendants.  Phrased another way, I cannot see our Chevrah Kedisha having to require this in modern times.  In fact, there is no evidence that this practice took place outside the lines of the Torah.  So, what was the point?

First, let’s move on to the next narrative in Parashat Chukat.  The Israelites are still in the wilderness and the Parashah is encompassing 38 years.  That said, the cynical in our midst may want to look back to the fifteenth chapter of Exodus and say: “Well, the time span between the crossing of the Reed Sea, the delivering of not one, but two sets of Commandments from Mt. Sinai, the construction of the portable Tabernacle, all kinds of plagues, laws and political conflicts are all happening in a two years?”  According to this timeline, yes.  38 years have elapsed from the Korach incident last week, to this point and ends with the death of Aaron (the 40-year threshold).  What these numbers are telling us is that the slave generation that left Egypt has died out and we are being set up for another 40 years when Moses commits his third strike, literally, when he hits a rock.  More about that later too, because one of the most transformative events in the Torah took place after the narrative of the red heifer.  Miriam, Moses’ sister dies.  Let’s put this into perspective.  Moses was placed in the Nile River by his mother, Yocheved, to be saved from being murdered.  In Exodus 2:4 we read about his unnamed sister witnessing this act. That yet unnamed sister was Miriam, whose name is connected to “water”. Miriam’s connection to water, then, is not just in name only.  She would go on to become the nurturer, the life-giver, the voice of solace and counsel to both Moses and Aaron.  So impactful was her life and influence over the Israelites, that her presence allowed for fresh water to flow during the entire first forty years in the wilderness.  When she died, Moses had just come off a flaming encounter with Korach and 250 contrarians among the Israelites.  He had also suffered from the internal pressures of his own brother and sister gossiping against him and he had to appeal to God to heal them from their punishment.  He is not getting any younger and he’s been beaten up from sea to shore to the barren plains.  And yet again, the complaints fly out from the people that they are thirsty, and he is told by God to talk to the rock.  With no Miriam to help with the water or his sometimes-short temper, he allowed his impulses to get away from him one more time and he bashed the rock (so much for geological diplomacy).  Along with the now flowing water, Moses has just opened a big old pot of history.  Remember, Moses killed an Egyptian slave-master which sent him packing.  He then attempted to skip the tablets of the Commandments across the stiff-necked heads of his impatient people and now, here he is getting violent with a rock.  And in baseball terms – remember baseball? – Moses took a swing, assaulted a rock, quieted the angry crowd but eventually would have to sit out the entry into the Promised land.  Pretty harsh.

Getting back to the red heifer; we see three water metaphors in this first third of this short Parshah.  We have the water that is used in mixing the ashes of the burnt up bovine, we lose the primary source of water and its symbolism throughout the Wilderness experience (Miriam) and we see the water, while quenching the thirst of the masses clearly has also flushed Moses’ future down a depressing aqueduct.

A point can be made here that even though we see a law that may have no rational reason for its existence, when in the wilderness, it’s important to always be aware of your surroundings and follow all the laws of nature for you will get lost and burned like the red heifer.  When you are neck deep in frustration and anger over situations for which you have little or no control, it is always wise to take a step back and think slowly while looking to find another supportive presence to help guide you through the waves of fear and uncertainty.  And finally, before you jump to the quick fix that may satisfy either your own ego or dismiss the situation as not worthy of any more of your time, follow your slower-thinking mind and decide if the first shiny object of resolution is worth 40 more years of the same issues you have already faced but now you’re, well, 40 years older, so there is always that.

If this message sounds a bit frenetic, I want you to read Numbers 19:1 – 22:1 and do so in the middle of the Mojave Desert or Siberia which is currently experiencing a heat wave of its own.  Now put yourself in the sandals of Moses and try to work this through.  We are experiencing our own state of freneticism but if we allow for the fluidity of civil discourse, the stimulating currents of connecting with your community however you can and keeping your mind and body well fed and active so that you can navigate the waters of uncertainty, you and we will emerge from the depths and anchor ourselves to the 4000 years of history that tells us that “this too shall pass.”

Shabbat Shalom