The sidrah Chukat, this week’s parashah, is multilayered with several disjointed tracks — the purification rituals of the red heifer, the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, Moses striking of the rock to produce water, followed by the battles with neighboring tribes. So much to ponder.
Even the title Chukat raises issues within itself. Rashi calls a chukah “an indisputable decree before God which you don’t have any right to question.” There are some who even connect the root of this word to the word for “engraving,” “chokek.” That would imply that the rules and decrees stated in the text would be eternal, unchangeable. Once it is chiseled into stone, it remains forever. The delete button didn’t exist back then, so the laws we find through the archeology from that period could be seen as eternal.
Decades ago, I stood on the bimah as this sidrah was read. It was troubling for a bar mitzvah to fully understand the complications within the text. A red heifer? The built-up anger of our leader? A very limited explanation of the deaths of Aaron and Miriam?
A city boy at that time, I wasn’t even sure what a heifer was, let alone how its ashes and blood might be used for cleansing a person who had contact with a dead body and became impure. I did know about our contemporary ritual of purification, rinsing our hands before leaving a cemetery. But a red cow?
I was a 13-year-old on the bimah, leading a traditional Shabbat morning service, with my European-trained rabbi standing at my side. Many thoughts went flying through my brain. Would Rabbi Klein find a mistake to correct me? As frightened as I was in front of the congregation, how much the more so must Moses have been directly facing God?
Still thinking: Why did he have to “strike” the rock, twice? Why was this speech-impaired fellow so angry that he disregarded what God had said? I knew what happened to me when I did something wrong out of anger. I was told to calm down, breath and reassess my action. Moses had many assistants, called judges, that he had appointed a while back to be his support staff; where were they? Why didn’t they calm him down and relieve his fury, and possibly
“An indisputable decree.” Moses brought forth water from the rock and immediately he was to be punished. No “I’m sorry, I won’t do it again,” no time to correct bad behavior, no “go to your corner.” In today’s terms, one and done!
To my teenage mind back then, the punishment of someone being banned from entering the Promised Land seemed harsh. And almost as cryptically as was the punishment delivered to Moses, even more with limited explanation were the deaths of Miriam and Aaron. What a sidrah!
The concerns of Parashat Chukat can be challenging to all Jews. The “indisputable decrees” that Rashi highlights will be forever with us. But just as the generation of Egypt needed to grow up or pass on in preparation for entry into the Promised Land, so too did the lives of Moses and his siblings need to end. From the earliest times, religious principles, leadership problems and fighting the forces opposed to us present the “indisputable decree” to listen to the voice of God, however we understand it. JN
Rabbi Robert L. Kravitz coordinates the Metro Phoenix hospital chaplaincy program of Jewish Family & Children’s Service. He is past president of the Greater Phoenix Board of Rabbis, and serves as senior chaplain with the Scottsdale Police Department.