Tuesday, January 27, 2009


This week’s Torah portion, Chukat, contains two difficult stories and a break in continuity. The break in continuity consists in the fact that the parshah begins where last week’s parshah, the story of Korach’s rebellion, left off, but midway through the parshah, the time frame jumps 37 years to the last years of the sojourn in the Desert. The Rabbis teach us that this is because after all the rebellion and complaining, the children of Israel had learned to get along and got along for all that time. Nonetheless, after 37 years we still find them complaining and that is one of the stories.

My mother (z”b) had a saying she was fond of – “even kreplach you get tired of if you eat it every day.” This saying went with a story about a mother who served her child’s favorite food, kreplach, every day until the child gently suggested that maybe they could have something else. To which the mother replied “Monday, you like kreplach, Tuesday, you like kreplach, Wednesday, you like kreplach, Thursday, you like kreplach – all of a sudden on Friday you don’t like kreplach. Similarly after almost 40 years of eating manna, the people complain that they are tired of it. In addition, they are in a place where there is even less water than usual, and complain about that, so God tells Moses to take his staff and speak to a certain rock and then gather water from the rock. Moses, angry at the people’s complaining and at their lack of trust in God rebukes them saying “do you think that we (Moses and Aaron) could get water from this rock?” He then strikes the rock twice and water flows. God, in turn, rebukes Moses for not following instructions and punishes him by telling him he will see the Promised Land but not lead the people in.

The second story in the parshah seems unrelated – every parshah in Numbers has some ritual instructions or Chukim in it and in this parshah contains the chukat of the red heifer with reference to the purification of people who have been in contact with dead bodies. The chukat of the red heifer, says in short to find a heifer (a cow that has not had a calf) that is absolutely pure red in color – the Talmud says that even two hairs that are not red disqualify the animal – sacrifice it, burn it, grind the ashes and sprinkle them on the contaminated person. The Talmud and even King Solomon considers this to be the most difficult, impenetrable piece of Torah and no scholar has ever claimed to have figured it out, and neither have I.

But when I look for themes the Parshah gets interesting. The Rabbis have many interpretations of why Moses error was so great as to deserve such a severe punishment – these range from disobeying the literal commandment of God to the fact that he was angry, to a lack of faith in God himself by saying “do you think we could get water from the rock” rather than “do you think God could get water from the rock.?” All of these are plausible and none hit the bull’s-eye (or heifer’s eye) for me. In the parshah, God is (once again) exasperated with the Hebrew people for their constant complaining and doubting, as is Moses. One could argue that depriving the people of Moses’ leadership just when they might need him most punishes them as much as it does Moses, but let’s assume that God does not punish to be punitive but to teach a lesson – what lesson is taught here. Some would say the lesson is strict, literal obedience to God’s word, but again I don’t find that tenable. If I did, and if those who hold this view really did, then I would kill my son when he was insolent (he’d never have made it past 12), stone adulterers, and keep slaves so I could treat them the way the Torah prescribes. So I’m looking for a more likely lesson.

That search brings me to the juxtaposition of the story of Moshe hika al tzur – Moses struck the rock – and the whole business of contact with the dead and purification with the ashes of the red heifer. Why, in Judaism, do we make such a big deal about contact with a dead body? Why does such contact make one so impure that they have to be put outside the camp unitl purified? And why is the purification so difficult and arcane? True, many religions such as Hinduism also consider contact with the dead to be contaminating, but others do not. Buddhist monks meditate over corpses to practice non-attachment, and many of our Christian brethren embalm and display the dead as an act of respect and remembrance.

The Rabbis teach that the Torah counsels, along with Aristotle, moderation in all things. Saul was punished by God for dishonoring himself by an excess of humility. A penitent is not to go to extremes such as self-mutilation or suicide to atone for sins, and we are commanded that mourning for the dead, even for a loved one, is to be a finite process. So, for example, the Hindu practice of suttee, where a widow throws herself on her dead husband’s funeral pyre and dies with him would be frowned upon, as would the practice of mortification of the flesh. But why? As intellectual heirs of Aristotle we in the West generally accept moderation as a good thing, but what makes it so?

I think the message of Chukat and of most of the Torah is one of acceptance rather than of obedience. By acceptance I don’t mean submission, but rather a kind of relationship to the world that does not involve either resistance or submission, but rather an attitude that this is what has happened and our job now is to deal with it. The Buddhists say that the source of all suffering is attachment, and that attachment can take the form of grasping or rejecting what happens.

To take loss as an example, it has been shown that grieving takes a natural course – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Research has also shown that the acute stages – denial, anger, and bargaining, if allowed to run their course, take about a month and the rest about a year. That sequence, however, can be prolonged if the mourner resists it and tries to pretend it is not there or indulges it and stays in any stage (particularly depression) not allowing it to end. The Rabbis intuitively recognized this long before Dr. Kübler-Ross, and set the rituals for mourning as 7 days of intense mourning (shiva), a month of less intense mourning, still saying Kaddish daily, and 11 months of less intensity saying Kaddish weekly. Research also shows that grieving reoccurs on the anniversary of the loss, hence the Yahrzeit custom or rememberance and on family holidays, hence Yizkor. This is a recipe for acceptance – I have suffered a loss, I will observe it and allow my natural grieving process to run its course – experience it fully – and when it is over I will move on.

Moses’s error? He did not accept what God decreed – take your staff, speak to the rock, and I will show the people. God’s exasperation with the people? They refused to accept that God had promised to look out for them – they demanded proof after proof and more and more. The contaminative quality of dead bodies – so that we accept our loss, bury our dead, and move on.

We speak of faith or trust in God, but what does that mean – about five years ago, just before New Years, I got a call from my doctor – some tests done that week on my liver function looked questionable – would I please come in after New Years for further tests? Well, needless to say that was not the best New Years I’ve ever had. By a few hours after my doctor’s call I was sure I had liver cancer and was going to die. I went through denial, anger, and bargaining in record time and spent most of the rest of the holiday in conversation with God, as usual taking both sides of the conversation myself. Finally, after some time in contemplation, the thought came to me as clear as a bell, “not my will, God, but yours” I realized two things as I had this thought: first, that it was my absolute commitment – I meant it with all my heart, and my anguish ceased as though a switch had been thrown. Second, I recognize that I was not the first to say it – it was a quote from a great Jewish teacher, Yeshua ben Yosef. That bothered me some, but after all, he was a Jew and if he could accept God’s will even in the matter of his own death, he seemed like a pretty good role model to me, notwithstanding what others had done, supposedly in his name.

Obviously I didn’t die, and I didn’t have liver or any other cancer, thanks be to God. What did happen was a profound realization of how powerful acceptance was. Quite suddenly I was free to go on with my life – I didn’t have to like it or enjoy the prospect of what might be my imminent demise, but I was released from obsessing over what, why, and what it all meant. None of that mattered. I was free to live again for as long as I did.

Traditionally, going all the way back at least to the Exodus, Jews aren’t very good at acceptance. Abraham was – all the way to going to circumcising himself and going to sacrifice his son, but it kind of went downhill from there to all the kvetching in the desert. There’s a story of a Jewish mother who was walking on the beach with her son…..[HAT STORY] – that kind of sums it up for us culturally.

But I’d like to think that 21st Century Judaism, particularly Reform, Reconstruction, and Jewish Renewal, is about accepting what God has given us and making the most of it. For me, that started with the commitment that my life was not really mine to control – that all my plans could be shattered by an illness or an accident or a terrorist plot that put me in the wrong place at the wrong time. Once I accepted that, it became a question of what I was going to do with what God gave me, be it time, or resources, or the opportunity to influence something in a positive direction, or the opportunity to learn something that would make a difference.

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