Torah Portion: Chukat (Ordinance) B’Midbar 19-22
Haftorah Reading: Judges 11:1-33
Tonight we read a Torah section that includes two passages that are difficult to completely understand. The first is the “Red Heifer.” When we read the verses about the preparation and use of the ashes of the red heifer we see a process that cleanses one person from ritual impurity, because of contact with a dead body, while at the same time causing the priest, who is involved, to become unclean in the process. How can this be? I think we will be able to answer this riddle over the next few minutes.
Secondly we read of the incident of the people coming to Moshe and Aaron complaining about having no water. We see the reaction of Moshe and Aaron that causes them to not be allowed to enter the Promised Land. The punishment seems to far out weigh the actions taken by Moshe. Maybe the cause is deeper than we might think at first.
So let’s start at the beginning of the portion. The impurity caused by being around a dead body was the most serious of all the things that could cause a state of impurity. Why was this so? What made this so serious? What happens when a person dies? His or her soul leaves the body. At which time the body begins to decay. A person who has contact with death and decay could not enter into the presence of G-d in the Temple or in community life. (Remember being unclean or ritually impure is not equal to sin.) So, a remedy had to be found. The secret to our question posed earlier can be found in the first few words of this portion. In English we read, “This is the ordinance of the Torah.” In Hebrew the emphasis is more pronounced and would read, “This is THE ordinance of the Torah.” What is the difference? G-d is saying, in this commandment, all of Torah is explained and expressed here. In the New Testament, in Mark 12:30-31, Yeshua lays out what we call the Golden Rule. Now what does the red heifer have to do with the Golden Rule? Think about what we said earlier. We have a priest who is ceremonially clean, going out and performing this commandment for an unclean person he has never met and may never meet again. In this process he becomes unclean for a person he does not know. He takes that uncleanness upon himself. So these first few words of our portion are saying, “Love your fellowman, serve them, touch them, cleanse them. This is all of scripture. This is our call on our own life. G-d expects the same from us, to touch and minister His love to people that we may not even know, or even in the physical, no even want to know. Never the less our life should be spent touching people, bringing the light and love of G-d into their lives so they can enter into G-d’s presence and worship the Father. That is the point of everything. This is not easy. It may cause us to get our hands dirty and often calls on us to change our view of people, to remember we all are created in the image of G-d. All of us are His creation.
Now to our second puzzle. What happened with Moshe and Aaron? This was not the first time the people had complained about lack of water. Read in Exodus 17 where we see the people complaining again about no water, no food. Then in Numbers 11 they complain about no food and how great the food had been in Egypt. Compare these times with now in our portion today. Remember what we read tonight occurred almost 40 years after the other two times in Numbers and Exodus. What is different? Here they pine for the fruit of Israel. Here they mention G-d several times. These are the children of the earlier generation. They were different and at a different place. They are not asking to go back to Egypt. They are talking about the food promised in the Promised Land. But Moshe reacted toward them as he had toward their parents, maybe even worse. He struck the rock as he had before. Maybe these people needed a different approach. They were not like their parents. Moshe may have been stuck in the past. Rather than following what G-d had told him, he relied on the old way of doing things. What can we learn from this interaction? We must be able to recognize the different challenges people today face. They are facing things we never had to even consider 30 years ago. We are called to be able to speak of G-d’s love and His Word as it applies to their reality, to be flexible and apply the ashes of the Red Heifer.