Thursday, July 07, 2005

Parashat Chukat - Share Water, Sister


Parashat Chukat marks the beginning of the end of the story of the Chumash. It is the prologue to our entry into the Land, the denouement of the wanderings in the Midbar and thus, in a very tangible sense, the winding-up of the story of Abraham.

Recall the very first Rashi on the first Pasuk of Parashat Bereshit: The Torah as a book is a work of propaganda, as well as a book of laws. The Lashon - the use of language - in Rashi's statement is curious. Rabbi Yitzhak, whom Rashi quotes, states that "it is not necessary to begin the Torah here" ("Lo haya tzrich lehatchil et ha-Torah...") He does not state "The Torah did not need to start..." but by placing the word Torah in the objective / accusative, this statement is more an editorial comment to the Author. Why did You write it this way?

"Propaganda"? All right. Let us just say that the Torah is a literary work. But Rashi states plainly that the whole purpose of all of Sefer Bereshit, as well as of the opening chapters of Shemot, right up to the Pesach, is to make it clear that we have an absolute right to inhabit the Land of Canaan / Eretz Israel. This is strong stuff, and we overlook it or minimize it at our peril.

And now the lesson of those opening Psukim is being brought home, for we are on the verge of entering the Land. And the text of our Parasha magnifies and drives this lesson home with a vast, and yet subtle poetic metaphor. For these closing days of our wanderings in the Midbar truly are the culmination of the story of Abraham. If the book of Genesis was written for the purpose of clarifying that the world runs according to G-d's will, and not our own, then the Karmic working-out of the promise to Abraham, the Covenant between G-d and Abraham, and the full destiny of Abraham's chosen descendents, all this emerges in the literary structure of this Parasha.

As so frequently happens in the Torah's text, the clue to our analysis rests with a single word. In chapter 20, verse 12, G-d tells Moshe and Aharon that they shall not enter the Land, "because you did not have faith in me, to sanctify me in the eyes of Bnei Israel..." The word introducing this clause is "YA'AN" - an intensified way of stating "because". Again: when words crop up in our text, it is always instructive to search out the first occurrence of that word, for the context of the first occurrence colors successive appearances of the word.

The word YA'AN first appears in Bereshit 22:16 in the immediate aftermath of the Akeida. There, the Angel of G-d tells Abraham: "because [YA'AN] that you did this thing, and did not withhold your son, your only one." The promised blessings that flow from Abraham's obedience include multiplication of Abraham's descendents, but also the curious blessings that his descendents shall inherit the "gate of their enemies", and that all nations of the Land shall bless themselves in Abraham's name. By the way, if we read the word "eretz" in the last phrase "ve-hitbarechu be-zaracha kol goyei ha-aretz" to mean "Land" (i.e. the Land of Canaan - Eretz Israel) rather than "World", the prophecy emerges in stunning clarity. For the peoples of the Land - and emanating from the Land to cover the Western World - do all trace their spiritual roots directly to Abraham.

To what does this use of the word YA'AN in our Parasha point? Notice, by the way, that in its first appearance, it refers to what we traditionally interpret as Abraham's ultimate act of faith. Today, it specifically relates to the moment of non-faith on the part of both Moshe and Aharon. And the cantillation on the word is identical in both passages.

Let us step back for a moment. The title of this week's Parasha - Chukat - applies to the Red Heifer, which is given in Halacha as the classic example of a Chok - a law for which there is no apparent logical reason. The laws of Torah generally are divided into Chukim and Mishpatim, the latter being laws which appear logical, such as: Don't murder, don't commit perjury. And the word Chok appears to derive from words such as CHOKEK, meaning To draw a circle / To establish a boundary, and CHUK, meaning, A circle / an engraving.

But is the Red Heifer truly the one law given in Torah that defies human logic? For there is one command given much earlier in the text that so troubles us to this day that people refuse to embrace Judaism because of it, and this is the instruction by G-d to Abraham to slaughter Yitzhak.

People are so troubled by the Akeidah that serious thinkers continue to come up with reasons why Abraham really knew that Yitzhak would survive, G-d didn't really mean that but Abraham misinterpreted, Abraham took three days to get there because he was hoping G-d would reconsider and countermand the order... all of which points to the crux of Halacha: We do not have to be comfortable with it, but we do have to struggle with it.

The time-line of our Parasha, too, is jarring. The first section, the Parah Adumah (Red Heifer) up through the end of chapter 19, constitute the final words of G-d to Moshe after the incident of the Meraglim, the erection and dedication of the Mishkan. From the end of chapter 19 to the opening Pasuk of chapter 20, thirty-eight years elapse. Thirty-eight years during which G-d remains silent, and Moshe must lead the Nation with only his own wisdom and the wisdom of the Seventy Elders to guide him.

The other thing that occurs during this period relates to the commandment of the Red Heifer. For the entire 38 years, the ritual of the Red Heifer was not performed. This means that Aharon maintained his condition of Tahorah - Ritual Purity - throughout the entire time we wandered in the Midbar. A hidden, silent tribute to this amazing man.

In Sefer Bereshit, Abraham enters the Land of Canaan. Once in the Land, he engages in the war in which he defeats the kings, and gains the blessing of Malkizedek. G-d's final communication to Abraham is the command to sacrifice Yitzhak. Abraham ascends the mountain where, through his action characterized by the word YA'AN, he saves his son's life and guarantees the future of Am Israel. The messages are conveyed to him by Angels, so it is not clear exactly at which moment G-d stops speaking to Abraham - it may be before the Akeidah itself, it may be that the final communication comes through the mouths of the Angels. (In textual interpretation the phrase "Angel of G-d" is often construed to mean a manifestation of G-d in actuality, rather than a messenger. Compare the Pesach Seder, for example, with its repeated "Ani ve-lo mal'ach... ani ve-lo seraph... ani ve-lo shaliach... ani HaShem." "I, and not an angel... I, and not a seraph... I, and not a deputy... I, HaShem.")

Finally, Abraham returns from the mountain to find that his Wife / sister, Sarah, has died. He lives out his life in comfort, as G-d had promised, even taking a wife in his old age and fathering more generations before being gathered to his ancestors.

Our Parasha sets a literary parallel, ultimately bringing up the entire Am as the inheritors of Abraham's blessing.

G-d has been silent for 38 years. Now, suddenly, on the verge of our entry into the Land, Miriam dies. This triggers a general quarreling over water, which has been one of the repeated themes of our wanderings. This is perfectly sensible, by the way. According to many counts, we were between 2.5 and 3.5 million people, all wandering large stretches of waterless desert. Imagine three million people lining up for a water fountain! You bet there would be some pushing and shoving! And water has been a major theme throughout Chumash. Remember, for example, Abraham's slave who, when sent to find a bride for Yitzhak, sets up a test to see whether the young lady is from a water-sharing clan, or a water-hoarding clan. This is the same as the dichotomy that plays out in the Odyssey, for example, which is all about the critical importance of hospitality to strangers as the foundation for civil society. And our Parasha has much to say on the topic of water as indicative of morality, of social stability, and of national identity.

In desperation, Moshe and Aharon go to the Tent. What is so poignant and wrenching is that we do not know how many times they have repeated this scene fruitlessly during the 38 years of G-d's silence. Yet, today, G-d speaks to than. G-d commands Moshe to take up his staff - a return to the symbolism of staff / hand that is so dominant in Sefer Shemot: the metaphor of leadership, of power and authority being conveyed from G-d to Moshe, from Moshe to Aharon, and to the Elders and the subsequent leadership of Klal Israel.

Moshe is now told that he will not be permitted to enter the Land, because of his actions introduced by the word YA'AN. Shortly afterwards, he is instructed to take his brother up to the top of Mt. Hor, where Aharon dies.

Immediately thereafter, Moshe leads the people in a war against several kings. The war is instigated by the King of Arad - 21:1 - who takes an Israelite captive. This echoes Abraham's involvement in the War of the Four Kings and the Five, because Abraham only entered the conflict after being told that his nephew, Lot, had been taken captive. Moshe, as leader, goes on to defeat the kings, and the Parasha ends with it looking very much as though we are hours away from entrance into the Promised Land - a journey that Moshe will not take.

To summarize:

Abraham: Gains the Land; Learns of a captive kinsman and defeats the Kings; Goes up the mountain where he saves his son because of YA'AN; G-d ceases communicating with Abraham; Abraham loses Sarah, his wife / sister.

Moshe: Loses his sister; G-d resumes communicating with Moshe, and will continue to the end of Moshe's life; Goes up the mountain where he loses his brother, all introduced by YA'AN; learns of a captive kinsman and defeats the kings; does not gain the Land personally.

This is one of the key literary parallel structures in Chumash. Other examples include Ya'akov's leaving Eretz Canaan and fleeing to Haran - the entire Parasha is a single long night, bracketed by sunset and sunrise. Also Yosef's being cast into the pit (Bor, in Hebrew) and being brought up to be sent into slavery in Mizraim where he rises high, only to be cast down into the dungeon (also called Bor, in the text - coincidence? I think not!) from whence he is brought up to rise still higher in Mizraim. In this case also, the story of Moshe is almost the exact reverse of the sequence of events in the Abraham narrative. Thus, the story of Abraham and that of Moshe may be said to bracket a narrative-within-the-narrative of Torah, a self-contained section in which the destiny of Klal Israel is enunciated, then brought to the cusp of fruition.

As though to tie this all together, the Midrash tells us that Og, King of Bashan, the last of the Kings to die in the series of engagements in this Parasha, was actually Abraham's slave Eliezer; that it was he whom Abraham sent to find a bride for Yitzhak (the text does not name the slave, yet our tradition assumes it was Eliezer, a problem we address in its own place). The Midrash goes on to state that Eliezer was the one who escaped from the war of the kings and brought to Abraham the report that Lot had been taken captive. Now, a mighty ruler in his own right, he is more than 500 years old. Because of his great age, and because of his status as a member of Abraham's household - indeed, an intimate of his Master - Moshe stands in reverent awe of Og. No, G-d instructs Moshe, go against him and defeat him.

How hard-won is spiritual stature! How delicate is it, and how easily lost! A mere striking of a staff against a rock. Was it petulance? And was the petulance on Moshe's part, or G-d's?

And now we are left wholly unprotected. With the death of Miriam, we have lost our water. With the death of Aharon, we lose the 'Ananei HaKavod - the Clouds of Glory. And now we know, too, that we shall lose Moshe. Bit by bit, we are being left to our own devices. For those who go forward - from the opening of chapter 20 onward - are the new generation. With the exception of Yehoshua and Caleb, these are those born in the Midbar, those who were not killed by the Sin of the Spies. Those who know of nothing but the Midbar - we have never seen a settled city, never seen multiple societies dwelling in villages across a valley, having to bargain with one another over farmlands, over grazing rights. Over water.

And to underscore just how precarious each moment is, each accomplishment, when we look like having won the day, we falter. Chapter 21, verse 4, says: "And they traveled from MT. Hor by way of Yam Suf, to go around the land of Edom; and the spirit of the people grew short on the way." The last part of the Pasuk in Hebrew "Va-tiktzar nefesh ha'am ba-derech..." recalls the moment of despair in Mizraim, at Shemot 6:9, where we did not listen to Moshe's exhortations, "mi-kotzer ruach". This pregnant phrase means, Because of shortness of breath. But it can also mean, Because of a cut-off spirit. Because of limited spiritual vision.

Now, just on the verge of our longed-for victory, we return by way of Yam Suf. We literally almost return to Mizraim - and this is supposed to be the generation that has no memory of Mizraim! Now, our "shortness" is not of breath and of spirit, but of NEFESH - we are now suffering from cut-off souls. Why do we waver? Reflect, then, on the powerful insight of the Ramban, who says that the Exodus remains the first experience of Exile, setting the stage for all our history to come. Indeed, it appears that it has done so, even to the extent of wishing to return to our "home"! Remember, too, our observation last week, that both Mizraim and Eretz Canaan are characterized as Lands Flowing with Milk and Honey. They are still, in our eyes, interchangeable.

Gevalt! We have so much to learn!


Moshe, as he has named his son, is to remain forever a Stranger In A Strange Land. His naming of Gershom also reflects his own exile from Mizraim: even as it prepares the way for the entry into Eretz Israel. Moshe, too, must perish in the Midbar, rather than lead the Nation with the sweet yearning for Mizraim clinging to his robes.

Meanwhile, the Midrash tells us that both Miriam and Aharon died, not through natural causes, but by the Divine Kiss.

Let us linger for a moment and say a sad farewell to Miriam, the silent sharer of water. Let us reflect on the incredible sweetness and the holiness of the death of Aharon, a death which was so sweet that, witnessing it, Moshe asked G-d that he might be granted the same death. A wish, the Midrash tells us, that G-d granted.

From the Midrash...

The day of a person's death is not known. Yet, G-d sometimes reveals it to the Righteous.

Early one morning, Moshe called Aharon to him. "I couldn't sleep all night," Moshe says. "I have passed the night trying to understand Sefer Bereshit. Please, come and help me." And so Aharon sits alongside his brother and together they begin reading Bereshit. (Sort of like the moment towards the end of Virginia Woolf's amazing "To The Lighthouse", where she describes the father as almost having finished reading the book... This is another of the powerful meta-literary images that resound throughout our texts and throughout our commentaries, all so intimately intertwined with one another. Torah as literature is nothing if not ultra-hyper-postmodern!)

At the end of each day of Creation, Moshe says, "How gevaltig! What amazing things G-d created on this day!" But after the sixth day, Moshe says, "How can I praise the creation of this day? For, on this day humans were created, and through humans, Death came into the world!"

Aharon responds, "Far be it from us to argue with the will of the Creator!"

Moshe: "Then, Aharon, I must tell you the will of the Creator." And Moshe leads Aharon and his son, Elazar, up the mountain.

Once on the mountaintop, Moshe undresses Aharon and places the garments on Elazar, transferring to him the Kahuna. Moshe then tells Aharon to enter the cave there before them. In the cave, a bed is prepared, a single candle burning next to it. Moshe instructs Aharon to lie down on the bed, and he does.

Moshe tells Aharon to spread his arms, and he does. Moshe tells Aharon to close his eyes and his mouth. And he does.

At the last Moment, Moshe asks Aharon to describe what he is experiencing.

Aharon - who, Hamlet-like ("the readiness is all") has lived his entire life in a state of Kedusha, or Tahora, of readiness to appear before G-d on behalf of all Israel - Aharon - the Man of Halacha, whose entire life was devoted to following the enunciated will of G-d, often to the exclusion of his own human needs - Aharon, as the Divine Kiss enfolds him, tells his brother, "I can not describe it. I only wish I could have come to this place long ago..."

Yours for a better world.


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