Chukat: Marching On

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

Judaism is a religion that celebrates life. "Better one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than the entire life of the world to come" (Pirkei Avot 5:22). It is only while we are alive that we can elevate ourselves through the performance of mitzvot, that we can contribute to the betterment of the world, and that we can become partners with G-d in the process of creation. There is no nobility in death.  Death defiles. "Whoever touches the corpse of any human being shall be contaminated for seven days" (Bamidbar 19:11). Such a person may not enter the Temple area, may not approach G-d. Death distances us from G-d. Thus, a mourner must recite the kaddish, a prayer that essentially asks for the restoration of G-d's name, which has been, kvyachol, as if it were possible, diminished through death. "May His great name grow exalted and sanctified".

The Torah, at the beginning of this week's parsha, prescribes a ritual that seemingly defies explanation, a ritual that is mandated so that we may purify ourselves from contact with death. An unblemished red heifer, parah adumah, must be slaughtered and burned and the ashes sprinkled on the impure person on the third and seventh day. The sprinkler himself becomes defiled until the evening. The rabbis were well aware that there would be many, Jew and non-Jew alike, who would ridicule this process, a process that purifies the impure and defiles the pure. Thus, the Torah explicitly uses the term "zot chukat haTorah", this is the divine decree, chok, of the Torah. We finite human beings must submit ourselves to the will of the infinite G-d, even when it apparently contradicts our sense of rationality.

Rav Soloveitchik, zt”l, posits that it is not so much the parah adumah that is the paradigm of a chok; the ultimate chok is death itself. Death is incomprehensible. Death defeats us all.  We cannot answer the whys of death; we cannot fathom why great people often die in the most tragic of circumstances. Parshat Chukat describes the death of Miriam and Aharon, and records the decree that Moshe Rabbeinu would not be able to lead the Jewish people into the land of Israel. This, too, is an incomprehensible chok. Why did the Jewish people, who faithfully "travelled into a barren desert", have to die in that desert?  Were they expected to ignore the report of the spies? And is it comprehensible why Moshe Rabbeinu, the dedicated leader, the constant defender of the Jewish people, is denied the fruits of his labour? And what about Aharon and Miriam; why were they destined to spend forty years in the desert, only to be denied entry into Israel in year forty-one? Zot chukat haTorah, this is the law of the Torah!

While we can never fully comprehend the meaning of the parah adumah, the chok of death itself, the Torah does teach us a critical lesson in helping others. Often the only way to be metaher, purify, others—to help others—is by becoming ta'meh, impure ourselves. Helping others does entail a personal sacrifice of time, money and even religious growth. The entire ba'al teshuva movement is predicated on the notion that we will sacrifice our own unblemished purity to help another Jew. Often, a rabbi must sacrifice personal growth in order to attend to his community’s many needs. And yes, sometimes we even must die so that others may live.

The leadership of the Jewish people of the desert was about to undergo radical change. Our teacher, our peacemaker, and our sustainer would be no longer. Yet this was no time for chaos; the march to Israel continued. The parsha begins by detailing the laws of death, but it ends with, "The children of Israel journeyed and encamped in the plains of Moab on the banks of the Jordan, opposite Jericho" (Bamidbar 21:35). "One generation goes and another arrives", but the march of Jewish history and destiny must continue. Zot chukat haTorah. This, too, is the law of the Torah.