Celebrating the Spiritual Levels of Torah

Torah is a teaching that continues to unfold, guiding us to appreciate the text more fully as our awareness evolves.

Weekly Torah Portion: Chukkat
(Numbers 19:1 -22:1)

Week of June 21 - 27, 2015

On not knowing

We are beings who yearn to know what is really going on in our world. In so many ways, our search for answers inspires scientific, historical, philosophical, and psychological pursuits, so without that drive for knowledge, we would be a far more impoverished species.

At the same time, our drive to know with certainty often leads us to cling to cherished beliefs no matter what evidence might be offered to the contrary. There are times when our need to know with our minds actually inhibits a deeper knowing.

This parashah provides us with one of the enduring mysteries in Torah. We were given an edict that seems to defy rational understanding. Here's the essence of that commandment.

This is the ordinance of the Torah which the Eternal has commanded, saying, Speak to the people of Israel, that they bring you a red heifer without spot, which has no blemish, and upon which never came a yoke; (19:2)

Tradition says that there have been a total of 9 of these perfect red heifers, with not even a single hair of a different color. It also tells us that there is only one more to come. The red heifer was to be ritually killed and totally burned, its ashes then mixed with pure spring water. That mixture was to be sprinkled on a person who had been rendered ritually unclean because of coming into contact with a dead body. Only after that sprinkling can that person again partake of the Temple service and the sacrificial offerings.

But everyone who dealt with the red heifer, from the original priest who killed it to the one who took the ashes to a clean place outside the camp, and the one later who will use that ash-water for cleansing, becomes unclean. That which renders the death-tainted person clean makes everyone else associated with that ritual unclean.

No one seems to have a rational understanding of this paradox. Post-biblical literature even portrays King Solomon, the wisest of the wise, to be totally puzzled by the ordinance of the red heifer. Moses alone, the later Midrash states, knew the reason -- and he never passed that knowledge to another.

You might guess that there have been many over the centuries who have claimed to unravel the mystery of this ordinance, but perhaps this is really not the point. We do many things in our lives without knowing why we do them -- we just know that we must.

How many times do we tell our children, "Do it because I said so!" when we know an explanation won't make any sense to that child? Wandering in the wilderness, we are the Children of Israel, long before there was a religion called Judaism or people called Jews. Children often cannot know the reasons for things, but what about adults?

What if there is no red heifer?

Another challenge is presented by this ordinance. Without the ashes of the Red Heifer, ritual purity cannot be achieved, and the Temple service cannot proceed. Without a pure red heifer, the Temple cannot be rebuilt. From time to time, there have been reports of the sighting of a perfectly red cow, but, each time, the report turns out to be in error. Tradition holds that there is but one more red heifer to be found, and that one will herald the coming of Messiah, when the Temple can be rebuilt once again as the center of Jewish life.

For very traditional Jews, the reinstitution of the ancient Temple is still a cornerstone of prayer and yearning. Without that institution, they believe, we are always incomplete. But what if the ordinance actually guaranteed that the Temple would not again be built? What if the absence of the required red heifer is purposeful?

Judaism, as a process, is an evolving awakening to the more profound dimensions of Oneness. What helped us focus on that One in ancient times was bound to change, even though the essence of our quest does not. We are awakening to more inclusive appreciations of the reality of Oneness, celebrating our interconnectedness to the heart of all Being. Oneness now encompasses a Multiverse, complete with parallel universes, string theories, and quantum realities.

In the wilderness between an ancient land of enslavement, as well as in the formative stages of our life in the Land, the institution of the Tabernacle served to center our community. But as the centuries rolled on, animal sacrifice could not serve an urban community in the same ways it could an agrarian society. Yes, we could purchase birds to sacrifice, but that was hardly the connection that once existed.

Understanding death in a larger context

The ritual of the ashes focuses on matters of life and death. Death is not the end of life, but a part of life; everything that is born is going to die. But we are impacted most strongly through the sudden exposure to the death of someone close to us, or meeting death caused by violence. It is common in such moments to feel alone, to be suddenly plunged into a different reality.

While exposure to a particular death threatens to separate us from others, to alienate us from the rest of life, the ritual was meant to reach beyond that separation to affirm connection. Through the sprinkling of the ashes of death, our separate experience is incorporated into the context of a larger community. Each death is understood in a larger context. We are not alone.

But for the ones performing the ritual, contact with those ashes of death is totally different. In a sense, those dealing with the ashes are themselves exposed to death through the ritual. Their need to be cleansed reminds them that they, too, are affected. The priest was not meant to close himself off from the natural feelings of fear and loss that are part of the human experience.

A death, a drought, and a punishment

The text returns to the drama of the journey in the wilderness, and there is another death in the community.

Then came the people of Israel, the whole congregation, into the desert of Zin in the first month; and the people abode in Kadesh; and Miriam died there, and was buried there. And there was no water for the congregation; and they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. (20:1,2)

Miriam was the sister of Aaron and Moses, yet the report of her death is abrupt and sparse. She dies, and the people are upset that there is no water. This makes sense since legend stated that the proliferation of well water during the journey was due to the merit of Miriam. And once again, the community is angry with Moses and Aaron because of the lack of water.

Moses received very specific instructions when he brought the issue to God. He was to take the rod that is before him, go out to the people, speak to the rock, and it would bring forth water for the community. But Moses is upset, he gets caught up in his anger at the community, and doesn't quite obey.

And Moses and Aaron gathered the congregation together before the rock, and he said to them, Hear now, you rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock? And Moses lifted up his hand, and with his rod he struck the rock twice; and the water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their beasts also. (20:10, 11)

Moses is punished because he struck the rock, rather than speaking to it as he had been commanded.

And the Eternal spoke to Moses and Aaron, Because you did not believe me to sanctify me in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them. (20:12)

With brevity echoing that of Miriam's death, Moses is told that he will not be able to enter the land to which they are traveling. After more than a 40-year journey, with all its trials and tribulations, Moses will be barred from its completion.

What does the punishment of Moses have to do with the Red Heifer?

Perhaps this was the destiny Moses himself would have chosen. His work is his life, and his calling was to take a people enslaved in body and in mind on a journey of awakening toward a Promised Land. That work would be complete at the end of that journey; entering the land is the beginning of the next chapter in the life of the people, and there was no place for a Moses Emeritus. Perhaps this is one of the consequences of being a strong leader.

There will never be another Moses, even though his leadership and his teachings have inspired many generations of teachers, teachings, and communities worldwide. And it is likely that there will never again be a Red Heifer, at least not on this level of reality. They have both served their very special functions for a community growing through its childhood into what continues to be an emerging adulthood.

We still need guidance on our journey, and we still need rituals to help us deal with the realities of death and dying. Torah comes as a teaching that continues to unfold, guiding us to appreciate the text more fully as our awareness evolves.

Focus Phrases

In each moment, I choose life.
I am grateful for all that I receive.
I open to my own calling now.

Writing Prompts

The last time I was around death, I discovered. . .
Beliefs that no longer work for me include. . .
When I am true to my calling, I find. . .

Photo: Mark Reden