Parsha Chukat: On Loss, Goals and Continuity

During Rabbi Mark’s sabbatical this summer B’nai Emunah members are helping lead services and prepare drashiot. This drash was delivered July 1, 2017 by Andrew Nusbaum.

[Dedicated to the memory of Gerald Levene (1935-2017)]

In life, many of us can struggle with the tendency towards perfectionism. This is perfectly understandable—who doesn’t want to both do their best and avoid making mistakes? But, as anyone who has spent time trying to do everything perfectly will tell you, this approach is ultimately self-defeating, to say nothing of exhausting. So how do we guard against this temptation, while also not being too quick to let ourselves off the hook?

This week’s parsha is Chukat, from the Hebrew word chok, or decree. When establishing Jewish law the rabbis of the Talmud created two major categories of commandments: mishpatim, or statutes, are commandments whose purpose was self-evident or understandable by human beings. Chukim, on the other hand, are commandments whose purpose seems to be a mystery—or at the very least, not easily understood.

The classic example of a chok is the Red Heifer, introduced in the first section of today’s parsha. And in a way, it relates to our theme of perfectionism. The Torah says that after finding a Red Heifer (which is its own challenge), the priests are supposed to slaughter it, sprinkle its blood toward the tabernacle, then burn the carcass. The ashes are then to be stored so they can be used to make a decontamination potion, the mei niddah or “waters of separation” (also called “waters of lustration”,) which is used to purify Israelites after contact with the dead. Besides the fact that using dead animal ashes and water to purify yourself from death seems confusing already, there’s also the odd detail that in the process of slaughtering the heifer, the priests themselves become impure.

After the Temple was destroyed, there was no way to complete this ritual, and so for thousands of years, people have usually been presumed to be in states of impurity unless they’ve just immersed in a mikvah. This is further complicated by the fact that the Torah requires the priests to use an animal that is extremely rare. Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, written in the twelfth-century, mentions only nine red heifers having existed in history up until that point.

So what do we make of this? Some might say, so what, we’re impure, we can’t do anything about it, just forget it. Others, both Jews and Christians, are currently hard at work trying to breed purely red cows that can be used to re-establish ritual purity, which in turn, the thinking goes, will either help speed up the arrival of the Messiah or facilitate the building of the Third Temple. While I appreciate their dedication, I have to wonder whether they may be missing part of the point, overlooking the metaphor of creating deliberately impossible conditions to attain “perfection” in favor of genetic engineering and modern animal husbandry. Perhaps one reason the Torah makes it so hard to achieve perfection—or purity— is that the concept should be seen as something we work towards, not a physical item to acquire and then check off a list.

Another theme in this parsha, a theme that carries its own share of mystery, is death. Right after we learn about the Red Heifer ritual, the prophetess Miriam dies. Unfortunately we don’t receive much information about her death, but we are told about a problem it causes: the miraculous well that followed her through the desert has disappeared and the Israelites are suffering from extreme thirst. This, in fact, is what leads to the famous scene of Moses striking the rock at Kadesh, and being told that he and Aaron will not be allowed to enter the land of Canaan. Soon afterwards, Aaron dies as well. Interestingly enough, the rabbis of the Talmud add that the pillar of cloud, which had followed the Israelites, disappeared at Aaron’s death, echoing the loss of Miriam’s well.

How often do we, too, only truly appreciate the gifts we receive from each other, from friends, from family, until they are gone? It is so easy to take people and their contributions, whether physical, emotional or otherwise, for granted—and the fact that this is apparently not a new problem is not much comfort.

Also not of much comfort is the attempt to rationalize Moses and Aaron’s deaths by connecting them to the sin of striking the rock. Some argue that perhaps Moses needed more faith, or was too angry, or unnecessarily engaged in name-calling. Perhaps, they add, Aaron should have stopped him, and that was why he was punished as well. And perhaps, the argument goes, both of them actually show true deference to God by accepting their fates relatively calmly.

This, too, is a very human reaction— if something bad happened, it must be a punishment. What did I do to deserve this? Again, we seem confronted with very different assumptions and logic than we are used to.

Frankly, I don’t care much for exercises of theodicy, the attempt to explain why the world (or God) is still ultimately good despite the apparent existence of evil or injustice. And therefore, I don’t have very much interest in the possible rationales for why Moses and Aaron deserved punishment from the incident at the rock. Instead, I prefer to examine Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s observation that while Moses does eventually protest against his punishment (though not in this parsha), he only asks for the decree to be annulled—not that he be forgiven for his sin. Moses, Leibowitz concludes, does not seem to recognize that he sinned in the first place.

Some might see this point as evidence of Moses’ hubris. Even after being told that he was unfaithful and lacked trust in God, he still doesn’t get it. And if Moses, the great and wise leader of the Jewish people, can’t notice when he himself has made mistakes, how much more do us rank-and-file Jews need to guard ourselves against such blindness?

But couldn’t there be a simpler explanation? Perhaps Moses doesn’t recognize his sin because… it actually wasn’t all that bad! Perhaps Moses and Aaron simply died because it was their time. Death does not have to be seen as a punishment, nor God as a divine disciplinarian. I have known people in my life living with chronic illnesses that have asked me if I thought God was punishing them. And I have always told them, “I don’t believe in a God like that. I can’t.” If that ends up getting me in hot water later on, I suppose I’ll just have to follow Moses’ example and take my punishment.

The rabbis teach that when the Israelites were mourning Aaron, they spoke of him as a peacemaker, not only teaching people about God, but also helping solve disputes and even serving as a sort of marriage-counselor. The rabbis add that thanks to Aaron’s help, thousands of potential divorces were avoided, and that by his death, grateful parents had already named over 80,000 children after him. I think we can all appreciate the idea that, whatever our theology about the afterlife, one way we do live on is through others’ memories, and that one of our tasks as Jews is, to paraphrase Debbie Friedman and the Book of Proverbs, to live a life—and create a memory—that will “be a blessing.” How would the world be different if more people prioritized that sort of goal when ordering their lives?

When Aaron is about to die, what does God have Moses do? He takes Aaron’s priestly uniform and puts it on his oldest son, Eleazar, passing the torch (or staff) to the next generation. Eleazar is not told that he has to become a clone of Aaron, just that it is now his time to play his role. Those of us who have lived long enough to take on tasks for relatives or mentors know how challenging it can be to fill their shoes—as well as how necessary it is to, eventually, be able to chart our own way. Many are familiar with the Torah’s refrain that “there was no prophet in Israel like Moses.” I would suggest that not only should this be read as praise of Moses, but also a warning for us not to become too absorbed with trying to emulate him. Remember, his bones, unlike Joseph’s, were not brought along with the people into Canaan. His grave, unlike his siblings’, was not even marked. The Torah recognizes that while we should honor our dead, we should not create personality cults around them, and that if we focus too hard on following in their footsteps, we may never find our own path.

In a sense, all of Chukat is a chok. From protective magic like the red heifer to the copper serpent (an early precursor to the staff of Asclepius which is so common on contemporary medical symbols) to the deaths and punishments of one of the Jewish people’s royal families, we have no easy solutions. What we do notice, though, are the paradoxes. Purity isn’t without a cost—of time, of effort, and of resources—all to address an invisible problem that many of us struggle to fit into our modern framework. Many may also wrestle over how to reconcile our modern perspectives with the Torah’s approach to death, punishment and leadership. We are supposed to admire and respect our heroes, but not too much. We are supposed to consider God merciful and just, even as we see Aaron killed and Moses punished for what seem like trivial offenses. As in life, we search for answers. Though we may not be able to find definitive explanations, just as we may not be able to achieve perfection, we can at least offer attempts at meaning.

Last week I attended Taste of Limmud, and one of the classes dealt with the idea of impostor syndrome: the concept is that some people can be so insecure about their own abilities that they develop a profound fear of being exposed as frauds, not competent in their own rights or deserving of praise or acknowledgment. This is the dark side of perfection: paralysis. Thankfully, this is not the path our tradition points us towards. As the Hasidic master Zushe of Anopol said when dying, he was not worried that God would ask him why he was not more like Moses, but why he was not more like Zushe.

This is our task: to use the gifts and strengths we have been given and to shape our lives according to our values and community. The goal is not to become Moses or Aaron or Miriam, but to become our best selves.

There are two quotes from the Talmud that speak to this idea of moderating expectations and taking ownership and responsibility for our own lives: Rabbi Tarfon said, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it.” And Rabbi Abahu said in the name of Rabbi Elazar, “If you try to grab too much, you grab nothing, but if you try to grab a little, you may keep it.”

If instead of grasping for perfection or trying to live up to lofty expectations (whether from others, our ancestors, or even God), we work towards steady improvement and think about how best to leave behind blessings for others, we, too, may have a better chance of making it to the Promised Land.






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