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"This is the statute of the Torah"

 

(Numbers 19:2)
Tammuz 9, 5778/June 22, 2018

 

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This week's Torah reading, Chukat, poignantly describes the changing of the generations in the desert. The generation that witnessed the miracles in Egypt, the crossing of the Sea of Reeds and the receiving of Torah at Mount Sinai, is on the way out. The generation that only knew slavery and then experienced the instant blast of freedom, but which never fully became free of its old fears and limitations, is now dying out. They were nourished by manna, bread from heaven, were watered by the miraculous well of Miriam, and were embraced each day by the clouds of glory, yet they never quite overcame their cravings for the most basic of foodstuffs which had been parsimoniously provided to them by their taskmasters in Egypt. Ultimately, as amazing as their journey was, as incredible as were the heights they achieved and the direct nurturing they received from G-d, they suffered the same fate we all do: they were human and they were mortal.

Humanity and mortality are the underlying themes which inform the subject which opens parashat Chukat, the ordinance of the red heifer. The ashes of the red heifer, which are able to purify Temple pilgrims from the impurity imparted by contact with death, is, at once, an acknowledgement of the reality of death, and, at the same time, a revelation of the ephemeral and illusory nature of death in the great cosmic scheme of things. Death is, indeed, an unavoidable fact of our physical existence on this earth, yet it ultimately gives way to the eternal life of the metaphysical, spiritual reality of G-d, to Whom we are attached in our souls and our spirit, by our deeds, when informed by Torah, and by the Holy Temple, G-d's chosen place on our earth, where His Presence reigns and death has no dominion.

The ordinance of the red heifer also informs us of the limitations of our intellects, our ability to fully comprehend and process the wondrously breathtaking ways of G-d, Who created our world, placed us within it, and blessed us with His endless goodness. This ultimate inability to fully account for every detail of G-d's world is, of course, exemplified by the phenomenon of the kohen who is rendered spiritually impure through the process of preparing the very same ashes of the red heifer which possess the power to purify all others upon whom it, mixed with pure, living waters, is sprinkled. The beginning of wisdom is the acknowledgement that not all is within our grasp to comprehend: science gives way to faith.

Moshe, we are told, was the only one who did fully fathom the mysterious nature of the ashes of the red heifer, an ability attributed to his nearly super human modesty and obliteration of the ego, that driving force, which more than any other, delineates and defines our mortality, or at least, our illusion of mortality. Yet, in the very same Torah reading of Chukat we read of the sudden demise of Moshe as a result of striking, and not speaking, to the rock at Mei Merivah (the waters of contention), a sure sign that Moshe, G-d's beloved and faithful servant, was as human as the rest of us.

Miriam dies in this week's Torah portion, as does Aharon. Moshe soldiers on, literally leading his people to victory in battle after battle as he continues to lead them to the land that he will see, only from afar, but never enter into. But shining brightly through the dusk of the passing of the generation of the desert is the rising sun of the new generation, a generation of warriors, moving relentlessly forward toward the fulfillment of their destiny to enter into the promised land under new leadership, to conquer and settle the land, to build a Torah society, to build towns and cities, to build a Holy Temple, and, purified by the ashes of the red heifer, to bring their first-fruits and other offerings and stand at the altar before G-d, in love and gratitude for all of G-d's blessings.

G-d's relationship with Israel and His ever unfolding intention for mankind was always a generational thing. G-d's first covenant with Avraham was a promise to his progeny, to the children of Israel. Our own limited time on this earth, and that of our generation is no contradiction to the reality of the eternal and incontrovertible significance of each and every one of us in G-d's evolving revelation of redemption. As mysterious and incomprehensible as it sounds, you and I are necessary. G-d needs us. Lets live life accordingly!

 

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