TORAH PORTION of “CHUKAT” Numbers 19:1–22:1)
Mortality has been seen by some as a curse and a punishment. Yet from a Torah perspective death though painful and sad, is described in an almost “by the way ” type of statement .In the midst of describing the punishments Adam and Eve and their descendants would “inherit” we read ;
“With the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground, for you were taken therefrom, for dust you are, and to dust you will return.“( Genesis 3:19)
While it is true that Death became inevitable after the sin in the Garden of Eden it is almost described as condition or state of affairs that enables the “fixing of the sin” to occur.
Modern civilization rushes forward at a feverish pitch . Instant gratification and disembodied relationships tear away at the essence of all classical human interaction. The result is a deep and dangerous sense of hopelessness.
While historically mortality rates had been declining consistently by about two percent annually, there have been recent studies that have shown that the mortality rate due to suicides, overdoses and the repercussions of depression has actually increased by 1/2% in the last decade.
Hope and faith is the lifeboat in this raging “river of life” and when that becomes absent the “river” takes its toll. The prevailing specter of loneliness and sadness are all a function of losing hope and faith. Losing that sense in ourselves and results in also losing that sense of life’s purpose in general. The loss of hope is destructive and deadly.
The Torah tells us that when one encounters a dead body he or she enters into a state of TUMAH-defined as impurity. The Torah also describes the impact of the natural monthly discharge NIDDAH of a woman is an entry into a period of TUMAH. Is TUMAH then a state of uncleanliness, or perhaps some deeper state of un-holiness.
That clearly cannot be the case.
Yet when an individual encounters “death”, his or her soul is scarred. The state of Impurity or TUMAH is the result of our confrontation with the fact of our own mortality, and of our physicality. It is the result our dealing with specter of losing potential and ending the power to grow. That is true of death and in many ways is also true of an ovum that will not produce life. That too is a state of un-fulfilled possibility, of deferred potential.
That is the essence of “Death”. The curtailment of growth and potential.
That is also the difficulty that the Torah portion of Chukat attempts to deal with. In that Torah portion we read of the laws of the red heifer, whose ashes purify a person who has been “made impure “by contact with a dead body.
We read the following;
“G‑d spoke to Moshe and to Aaron, saying: This is the” Chok “of the Torah which G‑d has commanded.” ( Numbers 19:2)
The word “Chok” alludes to the segment of commandments that are supra-rational. That is to say that they come from a place that is beyond logic and reason.
Our sages describe the laws of the red heifer as being the most supra-rational of all the commandments. This may be so because it is connected to Death. Death and the impurity that accompanies it are of the most supra-rational of our life experiences.
When an individual encounters death his or her soul is scarred. The state of Impurity or Tumah is the result of our confrontation with the specter of losing potential and ending the power to grow. It is the curtailment of “hope”.
The ceremony of the ashes of the Red Heifer is intended to return the yearning and the hope into the soul wounded by that encounter with death.
The items added to the ashes of the Red Heifer include Cedar wood. Crimson wool and Hyssop branch .The use of these items in the words of Rashi is symbolic of the vanity and haughtiness that brought about the sin in the first place He explains, quoting Midrash Tanchuma, that ” because he has exalted himself like a cedar… he should humble himself like a grass ( the hyssop bush). It is that humility that opens the way into new opportunities for growth. The red color represents our failures that yet need to be remedied.
The “living waters” represent the word of Hashem and His life giving powers. “They have forsaken Hashem, the fountain of living water,” ( Jeremiah 17: 13). The living waters represent both a cleansing and most importantly, a return to the womb and the unlimited potential that follows. That is also the power of a Mikveh
The ensuing Taharah or Purity represents the reaffirmation of our connection to the infinite. It represents the rebirth of Hope. Yet most importantly it involves process and movement.
So let us return to Adam and Eve. When G-d created Adam and Eve he described to them their purpose. That purpose was to work the garden and therein learn the importance of process and of growth.
By so doing to learn “G-d” .
“Now Hashem G-d took the man, and He placed him in the Garden of Eden to work it and to guard it.”(ibid:15) .
Regrettably Adam and Eve craved the fruit immediately. The purpose of the creation was the walk and the journey, but mankind was to forever struggle with destination and shortcuts .When shortcuts are considered a virtue then the journey becomes distorted. When the destination is the only focus then the process of growth and understanding becomes stymied.
That in essence characterizes all the punishment/instruction that Hashem decrees upon mankind, “I shall surely increase your sorrow and your pregnancy; in pain you shall bear children. ” and “cursed be the ground for your sake; with toil shall you eat of it all the days of your life. …With the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground, for you were taken therefrom, for dust you are, and to dust you will return.”(Genesis 3:16-19)
Mankind’s ultimate purpose , then ,is to comprehend and embark on the “Journey of Growing” .The process of learning that truth cannot be infinite because then it may not happen. The ticking clock of mortality is the enabling tool to empower, push or convince us of the necessity of the process.
Just as we know the inevitability of death, we also need to comprehend the redeeming inevitability of growth and change. That is the “hope” that breaks through the chains of mortality.
Since Hope after all is both the root and the fruit of the growing Tree of Life.
He shall be as a tree planted beside rivulets of water, which brings forth its fruit in its season, and its leaves do not wilt; and whatever he does prospers.(psalm 1:3)
Lerefuat Kol HaPtzuim ve Hacholim
Lerefuat Yehudit bat Golda Yocheved and Yehudit bat Chaya Esther