Parashat Chukat is among the most enigmatic in all of Torah. While it gives closure to the lives of Moses siblings, it opens three new mysteries in the fabric of Israel’s, story, a peculiar ordinance, an odd deliverance, and a strange brand of justice. Though I won’t discuss them in this order, the following mnemonic title, “Three Children of Amram, Two Strange Cows, and a Rock with a Perpetual Living Stream” should help with the process of remembering the odd thematic happenings in parsha Chukat.
Two Strange Cows
Not only is this entire portion among the most strange and mysterious in all of Torah, but also it begins with ordinance of chukat, or the Red Heifer, which is among the most enigmatic decrees in Torah. One could ask, why a red heifer in particular, or what is a red heifer (how red must a red heifer be), or most fundamentally why a she heifer rather than the usual male require for other sacrificial rites. I find this question the most fascinating. According to one tradition this is Israel’s atonement for the Golden Calf, for just as a mother cleans up after her child, so the She – Heifer atones for the calf.
Due to the strange almost superstitious nature of the rite of the red Heifer, it could appear to mirror some of the pagan practices that surrounded Israel. R. Yochanon ben Zakkai when questioned about the rite of the heifer answered a Roman official “ Just as a person possessed by unclean spirits is freed by certain medications or the burning of certain roots, so the ashes of the Red Heifer dissolved in water drives away the spirits of defilement.” The Midrashic tradition sites his disciples’ dissatisfaction with his answer, “You have sent the heathen away with a broken reed of an answer, but what will you answer us.” But his subsequent answer to them is in fact a non-answer that upholds the mystery of God’s ways, “By your lives, the dead man does not defile, neither does the water with the ashes of the heifer make pure, but it is a decree from the King of Kings, whose reasons it behooves not mortals to question.”
What Yochanon Ben Zakkai is indicating is that the purifying rite of the red Heifer is not only enigmatic but also paradoxical. We further read in this Torah portion that the water with the ashes of the Red Heifer purifies that which is defiled, but at the same time it defiles those who are involved in the process of preparation. To this theme the Talmud reflects that Torah forbids the drinking of blood, but an infant nurses from its mother, whose blood is transformed into milk as a source of life (Niddah 9a). This paradox can also be helpful while pondering that the holiest work of HaShem is not normally accomplished in one’s own insular world of personal piety, but rather out in a world in need of help – recognizing that one may get a little dirty in the process. The great apostle spoke so of the Yeshua’s incarnate mission,
Though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God something to be possessed by force. On the contrary, he emptied himself, in that he took the form of a slave by becoming like human beings are. And when he appeared as a human being, he humbled himself still more by becoming obedient even to death— death on a stake as a criminal. (Philippians 2:6-8
Three Children of Amram
This parsha finalizes for us the destiny of Amram’s children – Moses, Aaron and Miriam, with the death of Miriam and a fateful act of disobedience on the part of Moses. They are counted as parnisim tovim , or amongst Israel’s good leaders. In many ways their lives though, are like the paradox of the Red Heifer – allowing themselves to be symbolically defiled for the sake of those they purify. According to the midrash, Yochaved Moses’ mother outlives her children the prophet, the prophetess and the high priest. Since they were the progenitors of the nation, it is as though she is the parent to the 600k who enter the promise. Later in this portion Moses will strike a rock in anger, when god merely asked him to speak to it. Moses’ sin does not seem so large to us, given his marvelous constancy — his humility, faithfulness, generosity and his sublime patience, especially compared with the fickleness of those he lead – their constant murmuring, mutinies, and woeful self-assertions. But Judaism teaches that he greater the man the stricter the standard by which he is judged.
A Rock With a Perpetual Living Stream
To understand the nature of Moses sin we must first investigate the unique nature of the rock that he struck and its relationship to HaShem’s provision in the wilderness. The aggadic tradition is helpful in this respect. At Marah and Elim (Shemot15) Moses listened to God and threw a branch in bitter water. The water was miraculously sweetened. The sages say God is not like humankind and does not need sweetness to sweeten bitterness. According to the Midrash the twelve wells at Elim had barely enough water to irrigate the 70 palm trees that appeared in the oasis and the trees did not provide enough shade for the throngs of Israelites, but miraculously the wells produced enough water to provide for the 603 thousand children of Israel and the palms fully bloomed to provide shade.
Later at Rephadim (Shemot 19) was by Dathan and a quarrelsome mob challenged Moses. Moses responded with forgiveness, “God has heard your prayers and he forgives you. Dathan challenged Moses and said you have found a stream the way the shepherds do. Moses struck a rock as God had commanded and water gushed out. To this Dathan still Jeered, “must we wait for a miracle every day. In Egypt we had a river that flowed every day.”
But Miriam believed in the miracles of water ever since she had placed Moses in the Nile as a baby. She believed in the tradition that God had created a great spring on the 2nd day of creation, from which Abraham had watered his flock, and over which he had prophesied, “Three score and ten generations of Israel shall water here.” Miriam had touched a sieve like rock in the valley that contained this spring. Suddenly twelve rivers gushed from it. Along the rivers trees grew and flowers gave fragrance, and everywhere Israel went for 40 years in the desert the rock and the stream followed.
The tradition goes on to say that following Miriam’s death the water ceased to give water. At the desert of Meribah Moses became so enraged with the dissidents that he struck the rock when God asked him to speak to it. Only a single drop came out. So he raised his staff to heaven and struck the rock and it gushed blood. All cried “God is no more with us the prophet is no more.” The rock cried why have you struck me? And God also cried, “I told you to speak to the rock not to strike it. I told you to lead my people not to insult them. If they are blasphemers, why should you go where I am leading you? You teach doubt to those who have faith; you erase my name in the hearts of those who seek me; and you expect them to find me? He commanded the rock, “Be healed of your blood: let the water cleanse you.” The blood covered the sand of the desert with roses and the water reflected them.
It is this aggadic tradition that Rav Shaul seems to be referring to in the Brit Hadasha when he says, “also they all ate the same food from the Spirit, and they all drank the same drink from the Spirit—for they drank from a Spirit-sent Rock which followed them, and that Rock was the Messiah.” (1Corinthians 10:3-4) The great apostle seems to have picked up on the enigma of the text as illumined by mysterious tradition of the community of Israel. How strange that God would command Israel to be purified by the ashes of a heifer, or rebuke the one he chose to lead a nation of insolent ex-slaves, or preserve the nation with a perpetual well in the form of a mobile rock. None of these is more mysterious though then God’s choice to purify the nation with the blood from a stone, a stone that was the Messiah. But Shaul might have echoed the words of Yochanon ben Zakkai, “By your lives, the dead man does not defile, neither does the water with the ashes of the heifer make pure, but it is a decree from the King of Kings, whose reasons it behooves not mortals to question.”