Parashat Chukkat 5776

Rabbi Pete Tobias, 8 July 2016

The latter two of the three chapters that make up this week’s Torah portion of Chukkat contain a series of troubling episodes that seem destined to offer nothing but trouble to our ancestors on their journey through the wilderness. In no particular order they are as follows. The people are refused entry into Edom even though Moses promises that they will pass through without taking any food or drinking any water. Following this rebuff, the next three monarchs who offer any opposition are swiftly despatched: the nameless king of Arad along with Sihon of Heshbon and Og of Bashan are roundly defeated as the Israelites continue their travels towards the Promised Land.

Needless to say, those following Moses’ leadership continue to complain about their lives in the wilderness. One episode of grumbling is punished with a plague of deadly snakes, while an earlier complaint about the lack of water in the desert heralds the episode when Moses lost his temper and, instead of speaking to the rock as God had commanded him, he struck it twice with his staff in order to bring forth water. The consequence of this act –whether it was out of anger or impatience – was that Moses was denied the opportunity to lead the people into the Promised Land.

That isn’t the only bad thing to happen to Moses this week: in addition to all the above he loses his sister and his brother: chapter twenty of the book of Numbers begins with Miriam’s death (in half a verse) and ends with Aaron dying (in considerably more verses).

An action packed Torah portion with a whole range of (mostly negative) human experiences and the emotions that attend to them. Like many Liberal Jews, I have just returned from our 2016 biennial conference, which also offered a range of emotions and experiences. Thankfully these were more positive: delegates seem to have enjoyed the various sessions, services and other activities and it would seem that even the food on offer did not provoke the level of displeasure normally associated with any event attended by a large number of Jews (and which doubtless has its roots in the ancestral complaining in this week’s portion).

It is clear that these two groups of descendants of the patriarch Israel, separated by more than three thousand years, had very different experiences. One group had been slaves, had witnessed a series of remarkable events that had led to their being released and had stood, terrified, at the foot of a mountain as their leader had ascended it to meet with their God. The memory of those extraordinary events faded as they travelled further from them, and all that remained was the sense that things had once been better than they were in the wilderness.

The other group, having briefly come together for a series of shared experiences, have now returned to their separate communities and individual homes. In our modern age of individual isolation and even alienation, it could be argued that the delegates at the Liberal Judaism biennial have in some ways returned to a wilderness: a world that is not dominated by the celebration of Liberal Judaism that was theirs to enjoy over the weekend that has just passed.

The weekly portion of Chukkat opens with one of the most mysterious sections of the Torah. It talks about the red heifer – a perfect specimen that the Israelites needed to find and offer to the Almighty in order to receive purification. According to Talmudic legend, the discovery of this perfect heifer, which has happened a number of times in the past, will only occur once the Messiah comes.

Included among the various activities that took place at the Liberal Judaism Biennial conference was a service that introduced worshippers to the different ways that Jews have prayed through the ages. One of those ways was the bringing of sacrifices, though the ones on offer at the hotel in Solihull were small bundles of wheat, not red heifers.

The complexity of human life, the variety of needs and experiences that human beings have, whether they were the difficult and challenging ones described in this week’s portion or the joyful and thought-provoking ones available at the Biennial, take up most of our time and occupy most of our waking thoughts. Somewhere beyond those thoughts, however, there lurks a mystery. In the Torah portion that mystery was embodied in the red heifer. At the Liberal Judaism Biennial it was a sense of community, of shared yearning that hovered invisibly over proceedings. For those now back in their homes, that sense may now seem as intangible and unattainable as the finding of a perfect red heifer. But it is the spirit of our Liberal approach to and celebration of our joint heritage, our way of adapting our ancient faith to bring meaning to our lives. That is more readily available and certainly more use than a perfect red cow.

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