Chukat – Connecting Seemingly Disjointed Elements: Red Heifer, Kaddish and Moshe’s Punishment.

One of the stories in Chukat triggered a question from one of my many friends.  Hhere is Ruth’s question: 

What is the point in having faith in a God who gets angry, regrets his behavior and isn’t ” perfect”?  Why couldn’t Moses go into the promised land?   Was G-D being petty or did Moses deserve that punishment? 

Shalom Ruth, thank you so much for the insightful question.  At first instinct, I thought that the first question should have a separate, independent answer.  And maybe I will elaborate on it in the near future.  In this response, I will try to tie an answer to all these questions as a whole.  For that, we need to explore two elements that are in our Parasha: the issue of the Red Heifer, and the incidence of the rock. 

The Purpose of the Red Heifer.

Parashat Chukat elaborated to the smallest details how to deal with the highest of all profanities – the dead.  The process details how the same object, be it a person or an animal, changes status form purity to profanity.  The Heifer used for this purpose is pure (“Tahor”): blemish-less, perfect, never had a yoke.  The Priest who slaughters it becomes profane (“Tameh”).  Same happens to the person that burns the cow.  The ashes are now deposited by a pure (“Tahor”) person outside the camp, in a pure place.  This act turns that very person to be profane (“Tameh”).  The mixture of the ashes and pure water-of-life (“Mayyim Ḥayyim”) purifies anything that was in contact with the dead.  

Totally not understandable.  How does this work? What is the physical/chemical principle that makes it happen? We don’t know.  This tells me that I need to look for something else.  For a deeper meaning.  This direction is also triggered by the opening verse that contains the word Chukat, the name of the Parasha.  

A translation would be: “This is a requirement of the law that the Lord has commanded:

:זֹֹֹאת חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה, אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה לֵאמֹר

In Hebrew, the word for Law is Ḥock – a masculine form.  In the context of Torah, Ḥock us a commandment that has no logical explanation.  However, the Torah uses in this particular case the feminine form of the word – Ḥuckah.  In Hebrew, this word translates to Constitution.  Maybe not then in ancient times, but certainly today.  A constitution is higher in priority than a law.  The constitution provides the guiding principles according to which we are looking and understanding the laws.

One of the underlying principles that is hidden here is the “Unity” of things.  I find it more complex to explain, and rather use the term “duality” within things.  Basically, both mean the same: everything has all in it.   The two complete opposites, the good and the bad, and everything in between.  One can not take out the bad and leave the good in that “thing”.  One needs to accept the whole as a whole, with peace.  Interestingly, the Hebrew word of Whole is “Shalem”.  The very same root as “Shalom” – peace.

Duality (or Unity if you will) in Jewish thought, in life.

Our current culture holds high our desire to understand what and why we do whatever it may be.  We are reluctant to act upon things that we do not fully understand, nor can explain their rationale.  With the principle of Duality in place, we will act upon both understandable and mysterious commandments, regardless. Accepting Torah as a whole, we would keep certain level of Kashrut in a similar fashion to “Do not Murder”.  The concept of Duality also manifests itself in many other situations.  An example could be when sadness and joy are simultaneously present.

Within the concept of Duality is the belief that the material and spiritual worlds intertwine, integrated together.  Physical profanity finds also expression in the form of spiritual and ethical profanity, and vice versa.  Consequently, situations that could ignite a doubt in one’s belief are declared profane, impure from the physical perspective.  Following a physical purification process will also purify the spiritual world, the soul.  After all, the purification of the soul is the real purpose and desire of the human being.  Becoming pure, holy, also means being whole and in peace with oneself and with his/her Creator.

The interface with death shakes the very foundations of one’s belief in The Creator.  The sorrow and grief can surface questions and heretic thoughts such as: “why did this happen to my loved one?” “Why there is no justice in this world?”  “Is there no Judge overseeing what is happening here?”

The transition of the “profane” through the portal of irrational purification strengthens the foundation of our belief structure.  Following this “mechanical” process, without any logic attached to it, brings under its wing humility.  The person that follows it bows logic and conscientiousness to the Will of God.  Our ability to understand the ways God manages and operates the world is very limited.  We cannot see and understand the many facets of God’s actions.  We cannot answer those questions that rise when we face death of a loved one.  And yet, we eventually accept it as an integral part of life.

Our ancestors did not understand either: not the death, nor the purification by the Red heifer.  However, adhering to the red Heifer ritual they paralleled the two: both death and purification were coming from heaven.  For millennia, the Red Heifer ceremony was replaced by reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish.  With that prayer, the mourners publicly attest that despite the death that found their family, their belief in the Sovereignty of The Creator is not cracked.  

Saying out loud – “Yitgadal V’yitkadash Sh’mei Rabba” – “Exalted and sanctified is the Name of God” – is the proof.  Reciting the Kaddish strengthens the mourner’s belief in the Holy One Blessed Be He, and in Him overlooking all his creation.  This, in turn, creates satisfaction and pleasure to the Neshama (Soul) of the deceased, elevating the Neshama to higher levels in its eternal world of rest.

Moshe, the Rock and the Consequences.

First, we need to understand the background and the whole story (Numbers 20:1-12).  The People of Israel arrived to the Desert of Tzin, and camped at Kadesh (in Hebrew it means “to Sanctify).  Miriam, dies and is buried there.  Talmud (Taanit 9a) tells us that “The well was given to the Jewish people in the merit of Miriam. When Miriam died the well disappeared, as it is stated: “And Miriam died there” (Numbers 20:1).   And it says thereafter in the next verse: “And there was no water for the congregation”.

Immediately after that – even before mourning – the People start quarreling with Moshe, complaining bitterly about their fate.  Moshe and Aharon leave the crowd and “fall on their faces” at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. HaShem Presence instructs Moshe exactly what to do: “Take the staff, assemble the community, including you and your brother Aharon.  Talk to the Rock in the plain view of the community; the Rock will give its waters.  Thus, you will produce water from the Rock and water the community and their livestock”.

Moshe and Aharon gather the congregation in front of the Rock.  Moshe, in agony and anger, tells them: “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?”  And then, he hits the Rock with his rod twice.  Out came copious water for the whole community and their livestock.

God’s response is harsh (vs 12 ):

יַעַן לֹא־הֶאֱמַנְתֶּם בִּי לְהַקְדִּישֵׁנִי לְעֵינֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

 “You did not have faith in Me to sanctify my Name (L’Hakdisheni – see the bolded and underlineed word above: same letters as Kaddish!) in the sight of the People of Israel.  Therefore, you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.”

What was Moshe’s mistake? Where did he err? And if he did, does he deserve such a harsh punishment?

In Moshe’s Defense.

First and foremost, Moshe is in a different state of mind and spirit.  He just lost his elder sister, the one who saved his life and soul.  She saved his life by putting him in the basket on the Nile for Pharaoh’s daughter to find and rescue.  She saved his soul by convincing Pharaoh’s daughter to let Yokheved, their mother, to nurse and raise him.  Moshe trusted Miriam as his confidant, prayed for her healing even when she slandered behind his back.  No one can expect rational decisions from someone who is in a deep state of grief and emotional stress.

Then, Moshe already have faced a similar situation in the past and received almost identical instructions to resolve the crisis.  “Pass before the People, with few of the Elders of Israel.  Take the rod in which you stroke the Nike in your hand and walk.  I will be standing in front of you on the Rock at Ḥorev.  Strike the Rock and water will emerge out if it. (Exodus 17:5-6)”.  He followed these instructions then and it worked.  He did the very same now and it worked.

Misunderstanding the Instructions.

The key difference between the two sets of instructions, in my opinion, is in the meaning of the word “Mateh”, commonly translated as a rod. It also means Staff.  A group of leaders and advisors that work alongside the Leader of the People.  Moshe has his Staff (Numbers 11:16-17): ““Gather for Me seventy of Israel’s elders of whom you have experience as elders and officers of the people.  I will draw upon the spirit that is on you and put it upon them.  They shall share the burden of the people with you, and you shall not bear it alone.”

In the first incidence (exodus), God explicitly instructs Moshe to take the physical Rod that he hit the Nile with.  Here, the instruction is to take the Staff and with their help to gather the whole congregation, 600,000 of them.

Another nuance lies in the word Rock.  Rock is another name for God.  In the first incidence, God says to Moshe: “I am standing in front of you on the Rock”.  This time, God tells Moshe: “talk to the Rock”, meaning: “talk to me, in front of the congregation”.

The way Moshe should have understood the instructions is completely different.  God, the one that talks with him face-to-face, comforts him.  “I know the pain that you are experiencing.  Don’t worry, it will be OK.  As a Leader, you have the ultimate responsibility, yes.  And you have the Staff of Elders that helps you.  Take them, have them gather the whole People of Israel.  Mourn. Express your pain.  Talk to me.  Say Kaddish – Sanctify My Name.  Accept death as a fact of life, and life goes on.  The Water, the ultimate symbol of life, will flow, will continue coming.  I am with you.” 

Instead, Moshe hits the Rock, hits God.

Lessons Learned, More Open Questions.

Accepting mortality as part of life is yet another manifestation of the Duality Principle we talked about earlier.  Life and death are intertwined, not separatable.  Saying Kaddish when we remember a loved one that passed away emphasizes this idea.  Much more so, since the Kaddish does not include even one word about death.

We envision, dream, intend to do so many things some mundane, others extraordinary.  We are motivated to see those dreams come through, enjoy the fruits of the achievements.  Yet, we also need to accept with serenity that it might not happen the way we want it to.  The knowledge that it could be the case should not discourage us from doing our earnest to make it happen.  Rabbi Tarfon said (Avot 2:16): “It is not your duty to finish the work, neither are you at liberty to neglect it.”

Crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land is a major milestone, a phase change, in the Life of Israel.  This phase may need a different type of a leader.  No more prophet and teacher, but a strategist, a warrior, a manager that can lead the people to sustain themselves.  Moshe’s job is done, and done well.  It is now time to step down and let someone else, with different set of skills to take the reins.

Ruth, you “claimed” that God is not Perfect.  What is Perfect? How you want God to be Perfect for you? Would He be the same Perfection to someone else?  Are we, as parents, always perfect – equally – to all our children?  Let us remember that those we love are not perfect.  And they love us back despite up being imperfect.

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