"This is the Torah"
Sandwiched between last week's Torah reading of the high-tension narrative of the rebellion of Korach and its eventual defeat, and next week's Torah reading concerning the suspense-filled, nail-biting description of Bilaam and his attempt to curse Israel, this week's reading of Chukat is best described as "poignant." The parasha begins with detailed instructions concerning the para aduma - the red heifer. This chok, or ordinance, has come to represent the core nature of our relationship with G-d and Torah. Torah commandments are to be performed by man because they express G-d's will. While many commandment also contain a logical or self-evident basis, there are those commandments, such as the laws concerning kashrut or Shabbat which exemplify Israel's faith and commitment to our covenant with G-d. These commandments reveal no earthy "logic" or rational raison d'etre. The commandment of the red heifer is considered to be so unfathomable that even King Solomon, the wisest of men, confessed that, despite his efforts, he ultimately failed to comprehend its logic. (Ecc. 7:23)
The red heifer and the preparation and application of its ashes has to do with the Torah concept of spiritual purity and impurity. The most severe level of this impurity is contracted by contact with a dead body. A person in such a state cannot visit the inner courtyards of the Holy Temple and cannot bring an offering. Receiving a sprinkling of the ashes of the red heifer at the hands of a kohen renders the person pure once again. The irony of the red heifer is that the kohen preparing its ashes is himself rendered impure. It is just this irony, which is at the heart of the mystery of the red heifer, which reflects on the transient uncertainty and poignancy of life itself. After all, we are ourselves made up of an immortal soul placed within a very mortal vessel. Life is here today and gone tomorrow. Yet it is precisely through our actions in this temporal world of uncertainty that we purchase our share in the world to come after our body's ultimate demise. Yes, life can be seen as a paradox, but only by embracing this paradox by fulfilling G-d's Torah do we, by our actions, grasp what our mind can't comprehend.
The red heifer seems the only appropriate introduction to what unfolds next in our Torah reading. We are immediately told that Miriam, the sister of Moshe died and was buried in the wilderness of Zin, in the location known as Kadesh. As a direct result of Miriam's death, the people suffer from a lack of water, and Moshe, by striking the rock, and not speaking to it as G-d commanded, is told by G-d that he, too, will die in the desert, never entering into the land he so loved. It is after this that Aharon, by G-d's word, is taken by Moshe to Mount Hor, where he is divested of his vestments, which are transferred to his son Eleazar, and he expires on the spot.
It has already become clear, from the time of the ill-fated mission of the twelve spies to Israel, that the generation of the desert is in transition. The generation that left Egypt is dying out and the generation that will enter the land of Israel is coming of age. It is time for the old leadership to make way for the new. But before we pass the baton to Yehoshua and Calev and the new Kohen Gadol, (High Priest), Eleazar, it behooves us to reflect on the persons of Miriam, Moshe and Aharon, why they merited leadership and how they fulfilled the roles granted them. Miriam, as we know from Midrash, was active and instrumental in planning and shaping Israel's redemption from Egyptian bondage, even as a young girl, even before her brother Moshe was conceived. Miriam was born with a natural and instinctive love for G-d and His people Israel, and from this derived her ability to lead. She saw the adult world around succumbing to the oppression of slavery and refused to countenance its continuance. She "engineered" her parents' reconciliation which led to the birth of Moshe, and oversaw his safe adoption into the palace of Pharaoh. From these waters of the Nile upon which floated her infant brother to the redemptive waters of the Sea of Reeds, at which she led the women of Israel in triumphant song, Miriam, (whose name literally means "Bitter Sea"), was closely associated with water. Most notably, "Miriam's Well" followed israel through her desert sojourns, providing the people with water. Of course, water is also a metaphor for Torah, and it is self apparent that Miriam was a great teacher of her generation.
Moshe, torn from his family and his people, struggled on his own as he tried to make sense of the great injustice he saw all around him. It was only after he became a fugitive from the law and an exile from Egypt, with little accomplishments to show for himself, that G-d chose his shoulders to bear the mantle of leadership for the nation of Israel. Skeptical and reluctant at first, Moshe ultimately embraced his return to his people to the extent that, following the debacle of the golden calf, when G-d proposed to destroy Israel and begin again with Moshe, Moshe replied, in effect, that "The people and I are one." Despite the disappointments and deprecations he suffered at the hands of the nation, and despite his occasional moments of despair, Moshe never failed his people.
Aharon, it can be said, earned his leadership role, by dint of family relations. While this may sound questionable to our modern ear, we must bear in mind that it was G-d and not Moshe who made the decision to elevate Aharon to the role of High Priest. It was G-d Who said to Moshe "behold, he [Aharon] is coming forth toward you, and when he sees you, he will rejoice in his heart." (Exodus 4:14) It was this quality of brotherly love that merited Aharon his position. As High Priest he was the brother, not just of Moshe, but of every man, woman and child in Israel. We often think of the Temple priesthood as being a functionary, technical occupation, but in order to properly serve G-d and man and to provide a conduit for the direct interface between G-d and man, brotherly love is the one quality most required of the High Priest.
Perhaps the greatest lesson we can learn from these three leaders of Israel, is that each one of them, Miriam, Moshe and Aharon alike, remained active in the service of G-d and their people to their last dying day. We are not told whether Miriam had an intimation of her death or if she was taken suddenly, but it is clear by the immediate dearth of water after her passing that she was an active force on behalf of her people to her final breath.
Aharon merited the unique privilege of having his death be a direct commandment by G-d, proof of G-d's unspoiled love for Aharon. He served as Hight Priest until the moment he was stripped of his priestly garments, and then he expired.
Moshe, unlike his siblings, had to soldier on, (literally), despite suffering what must have been a triple personal tragedy for him, both the loss of his brother and sister, and the knowledge that he would never enter the land promised Israel. Yet, despite the huge blow, Moshe never faltered. Knowing that his final task was to see to it that Israel reach the border of Canaan, from where his successor would take over, Moshe assumed the role of commander-in-chief leading Israel victoriously through battles with hostile neighbors in order for him to complete the task with which G-d first assigned him.
Yes, life is fleeting and most certainly poignant. But the leadership and dedication embodied by Miriam, Aharon and Moshe are proof that our brief moment on this earth is both a gift and a challenge. By serving G-d and Israel with every fiber of our being, the immortality of our soul and our enduring legacy on earth are assured. The Divine promise of transcending our earthly limitations, embodied by the mystery of the red heifer, is established!
Tune in to this week's TEMPLE TALK, as Yitzchak Reuven and special guest host Tzvi Richman discuss a matter of life, death and the red heifer. What do the red heifer, Miriam's well, the rock that Moses struck two times with his staff, the disgruntled Israelites, Israel's request from the nation of Edom and her subsequent wars all have in common? Besides all appearing in this week's Torah reading of Chukat, they all provide insight into how G-d runs our natural world with an overlay and influx of His beneficence. That is, all reality bends to G-d's will. And, O yes, the color red is woven throughout the entire portion. At least that's what Yitzchak and Tzvi try their best to convince the listeners. Meanwhille, Rabbi Richman is in the heart of America, conducting his three week Torah of Transformation Speaking Engagement Tour.