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Friday, July 04, 2008

Parashot Chukkot (Numbers 19-22:1)

I'm supposed to introduce the Torah reading tomorrow at shul so thought I'd share here what I've written. At shul we have two talks during the course of the 3 hour service. The one I will be giving is just prior to the Torah being chanted and is an overview of the reading with comments of course. Later on someone else will give a d'var Torah which is more like a short sermon.


This week’s parashah, Chukkot, is a fascinating parashah with speaks of death and dealing with death, of battles avoided and battles fought, of songs of triumph and voices of complaint.

The parashah presents a series of perhaps contradictory images. There is a red heifer ritual which makes an impure person pure while at the same time rendering a pure person impure. There is the rod which was instrumental in gaining our freedom but which now contributes to the downfall of the very leader who led us to freedom. There is a bronze snake fashioned to bring healing to those who spoke against God, yet which we see later in Tanakh being destroyed for leading people away from God. There is the avoidance of conflict with Edom which leads to complaining while the battles fought against the Amorites lead to singing.

The parashah begins with a ritual for being cleansed after coming in contact with a corpse. Three pages in our Chumashim are devoted to describing this mysterious ritual, yet even though the parashah then tells us of Miriam’s death followed shortly thereafter by Aaron’s, we never read of this ritual actually being followed. It remains a bizarre ritual which midrash teaches not even King Solomon could understand!

Immediately following these instructions for the red heifer, we read a very stark statement: Miriam died there and was buried there. That’s it. It seems her death had little impact on the community, yet perhaps the text gives a hint of her value when immediately following this brief statement of her death we read that the community was without water. Our tradition teaches that the well which provided us water in the wilderness was Miriam’s contribution. Her brothers were the leaders, the greatest prophet and the Cohen Gadol, so perhaps the terse statement of Miriam’s death shows how little she was appreciated while she was alive while the subsequent events show how quickly her presence was missed. Perhaps as is often the case with behind the scenes people, her value was not recognized until after she was gone.

The loss of Miriam, of Miriam’s water, led to a thirsty people and an angry brother. The brother’s mourning the loss of their sister, missing the water she provided for them as well, were perhaps not ready to deal with all the stresses of leadership. Perhaps that is why when Aaron dies, 30 days of mourning follows; a result of what we learned from Miriam’s death, that we need time to mourn before we’re required to once more take on the responsibilities of every day living.

When Miriam died there was no mourning period, only complaining people, angry leaders and a rock. One might well wonder what God was thinking in telling a frustrated leader to take a rod and produce water from a rock! Surely it is asking for trouble to put temptation right in someone’s hand! Nevertheless, God holds Moses and Aaron responsible for striking the rock. Moses is told to bring Aaron and Aaron’s son to Mount Hor. Aaron will die there and Aaron’s son will carry on in his father’s stead. Perhaps this is something we also learn from Miriam’s death, that we need to pass things down generation to generation so that the community can carry on even after the loss of someone as valuable as a Cohen Gadol. Aaron dies, his son takes on his role, every one mourns for 30 days. Perhaps it is suiting that the death of a peacemaker was followed by days of peace rather than the upheaval we see after Miriam’s death.

Afterwards Moses alone is left to carry on. The people aren’t allowed to pass through Edom and begin to complain, again, as they are skirting the land. This time God sends serpents and many people die. Moses again intercedes for the people, but this time only after they ask him to do so and this time something is required of the people. If they’re not willing to at least lift their eyes and look at the snake, they will not be healed. In previous intercessions Moses asked for forgiveness for the people and it was granted; Moses had Aaron run through the camp with a fire pan to make expiation for the people. Perhaps this time, with Moses alone and knowing he would soon be joining his siblings, it’s time for the people to start taking some responsibility for themselves and their actions.

The people complained as they avoided conflict with Edom, yet once they were able to fight the Amorites, to conquer land and destroy people, we find bards reciting poetry, a bit of a disturbing, but all too human, image I would say.

The parashah comes to an end with us sitting on the opposite side of the Yarden from Jericho, seemingly poised to enter the land, yet as you can see, Torah, which ends with us still on the opposite side of the Yarden, if far from finished. So close, yet so far. It’s sort of like when Rabbi says, “Let me just say a few words and then we’ll go in for kiddush….”