Chukat, Numbers 19:1-22:1 (July 16)
In last week’s portion, Korach, a man named Korach and 250 other elites questioned Moses and Aaron’s power. As punishment, God opened the earth and swallowed them. The Israelites who rose up in response to these men's deaths were quickly killed by plague. A blossoming staff revealed Aaron and his family’s chossenness as priests and the text details their sacramental duties.
Cast of Characters
Aaron and his son Eleazer
Kings and citizens of other nations in the region
Kadesh, in the desert of Zin
Chukat begins with God’s instructions to the Israelites concerning the red heifer. When one becomes impure through contact with a corpse, they must be sprinkled with a mixture of the heifer’s ashes and water, and then immersed in a mikveh to become pure again.
Miriam dies and is buried in Kadesh. The Israelites have no water and, per usual, complain to Moses and long for their old lives in Egypt. God tells Moses and Aaron to speak to a rock that will bring forth water. Instead, Moses strikes the rock twice and water gushes out. As punishment for striking the rock rather than speaking to it, God does not permit Moses to enter Canaan, the Promised Land, with the Israelites.
Before entering Edom, Moses sends messengers to the Edomite king asking for safe passage through their land on their way to Canaan, but the Edomites refuse their request. They travel to Mount Hor and Aaron dies there. His son Eleazer is dressed in his clothing. The congregation mourns Aaron for thirty days.
The Israelites’ journey to Canaan continues and they meet various tribes. Though each tribe attempts to combat the Israelites, God helps them triumph and gain land throughout the territory. They reach the bank of Jordan.
What’s the deal with the Red Heifer? Why does a mixture of red heifer ashes and water make somebody pure?
Why is Miriam’s death only one verse in the entire Torah?
How does Moses’s crime of hitting the rock yield the punishment of not entering Canaan?
What do the tales of Israel’s battles with other tribes try to teach us?
Parashat Chukat is full of subplots that have been the subject of endless Torah commentaries. Yet, the portion’s very first topic, the rituals surrounding the red heifer after contact with a corpse, remains our Torah’s most elusive. Even the wise King Solomon remarked about the red heifer’s mystery: “All of the Torah’s commandments I have comprehended. But the chapter of the red heifer, though I have examined it, questioned it and searched it out—I thought to be wise [in it], but it is distant from me.” (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:5)
Though I, too, have wanted to discover the red heifer’s mysterious purpose, what speaks to me now is the power of ritual so evident in these laws. When an individual comes into contact with a corpse, which presumes that someone they know has died, they’re required to perform a complex cleansing ritual with the red heifer. Today, too, we perform rituals during challenging times.
This summer I’m completing a unit of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) at Rush University Medical Center and serving as an interfaith chaplain for patients and families across the hospital. I’ve been present with dozens of dying patients and grieving families of every color, religion, and background. Despite superficial differences, the families I’ve accompanied through death share a commonality: in their immense grief, they rely on the power of ritual for comfort. Though we don’t see many red heifers at Rush, people request anointings, prayers, silence. Conducting ritual is a crucial part of the chaplain’s role serving patients and families in times of grief.
For me, Jewish ritual is one of our tradition’s most comforting characteristics. When someone close to us dies we recite Kaddish Yatom, known as the Mourner’s Kaddish, for 11 months after their death. For many Jews, reciting Kaddish brings an incredible sense of comfort in times of mourning. Its cadence, its alliteration, voices of the community joined together--these all contribute to its power. Jewish rituals don’t just comfort in times of grief. When I light Shabbat candles, hear a familiar Jewish melody, or smell my grandma’s matzo ball soup, my soul finds a sense of peace.
Perhaps this sense of peace is what the biblical author sought to create with the ritual of the red heifer--to provide grieving Israelites with a soothing custom in their time of need. What Jewish rituals bring peace to your soul? How can you access these during trying times?
Summary and musings by Student Rabbi Sarah Rosenbaum.