Parashat Chukkat 5779

Rabbi Danny Rich, 5 July 2019

Chukkat (Numbers 19:1-22:1) appears to be a transitional section, dealing with final matters in the desert before the Israelites will find themselves at the bank of the River Jordan, facing and having sight of the objective: Canaan, the Promised Land.

The parashah includes a stand-off with Edom (20: 14-21), an encounter with the Canaanites (21: 1-3), and the defeats of Sihon, king of the Amorites (21: 21-32) and his counterpart, Og of Bashan (21: 33-35).

Of much more significance are the deaths of Moses’ two siblings: Miriam and Aaron. In different ways both have played significant parts in Moses’ life, and one can only imagine how bereft these losses must have made Moses feel. It was Miriam, one of the few women given the epithet ‘prophetess’, who ensures Moses survival and eventual Egyptian upbringing with its Jewish flavour (Exodus 2: 4-10 ) and takes a leading role at the Sea of Reeds (Exodus 15: 20-22). She does, in concert with Aaron, make known their displeasure at Moses’ choice of an Ethiopian wife and his perceived lack of consultation with them (Numbers 12:1-2) but such is her symbolic or real importance that, on her isolation to recover from a skin disease, the Israelites did not resume their journey until she was fully recovered and present (Numbers 12:15).

Miriam’s death and burial at Kadesh is recorded in less than a single verse (Numbers 20:1), whereas Aaron’s demise includes a ritual ceremony by which his clothing is transferred to his son and successor, Eleazar, and a period of 30 days mourning is announced (Numbers 20: 24-29). Whilst Moses could not have remembered the efforts of Miriam when he was a baby, Aaron has been by his side during the major effort of his life. He served as Moses’ spokesperson in Egypt, and, on departure into the desert, Aaron assumed the cultic leadership of the Israelites as Moses took on the political and judicial mantles.

In addition to this Moses faces further disappointment as he learns that, following his disobedience in striking rather than talking to the rock in order to obtain drinking water, he is to be punished (Numbers 20: 2-13) with death on this side of the River Jordan. Of that which he must have dreamed – leading his people into the Promised Land – is removed from him in what is understandably seen as a harsh measure and bequeathed to his successor, Joshua.

This gloomy mood is reflected in the traditional haftarah for this week (Judges 11: 1-33). Other than parallel diplomatic requests to pass through land (that of the Edomites in Numbers 20: 14-21 and to the Ammonite king in Judges 11: 12-28) the connection is unclear and unfortunately the full story of Yiftach, the Gileadite judge who ruled Israel for six years, is in the second half of the chapter which does not form the haftarah. In verse 30 of the haftarah, Yiftach makes the following promises, “If God delivers the Ammonites into my hands, then whatever comes out of the door of my house to greet me on my safe return form the Ammonites shall be the Eternal’s and shall be offered to be as a burnt offering”. Yiftach presumably has in mind one of his loyal animals. The haftarah concludes with Yiftach’s victory over the Ammonites but the unread text (Judges 11: 34-40) reports that he is greeted by his daughter and must fulfil the promise he has made.

With all this fascinating, if deadly or gruesome, narrative I want unusually to turn to the major ritual piece of this parashah, the purification from ritual contamination by a corpse by means of the ashes of a red heifer (Numbers 19: 1-22). Even in a catalogue of bizarre rituals, the purification by the ashes of a red heifer takes some beating! One is required to take a perfect heifer (one with a uniform coloured skin which has never been yoked or used for work) and burn it with aromatic spices. The ashes are divided into three (one part for storage, one part for mixing with the ashes of the next red heifer) and the final part is utilised by persons contaminated by contact with a corpse who are sprinkled with the ashes and fresh water on the third or seventh day of impurity, regaining their purity after a period of isolation.

Jews and non-Jews have been baffled by the process including the enquirer and students of first century Yochanon ben Zakkai and the 19th century Samson Raphael Hirsch who suggests that the cow itself represents human ‘animal nature’ and the absence of the yoke hints at the control of such passions. The human ability to overcome both the contamination and its parallel ‘animal nature’ enables a person to face death and yet overcome it by immortality.

Bizarre rituals, promises with unfortunate consequences, possibly excessive punishment, and the death of loved ones are all indeed part of the human condition and find expression in Parashat Chukkat.

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