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Transitions and transformations

When Moses hit the rock to bring forth water, he provided an explanation for the transformative power of the incomprehensible (Hukat)
Illuminated Bible, miniature of Moses hitting the rock in the desert to bring forth water with two Israelites behind his back. 13th century, France.
Illuminated Bible, miniature of Moses hitting the rock in the desert to bring forth water with two Israelites behind his back. 13th century, France.

Parshat Hukat is the story of transitions. The narrative begins in Chapter 20, with the death of Miriam and Aaron, after the Children of Israel have completed 40 years in the desert. But the parsha itself begins in chapter 19, with the statute (hok) of the Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer. The law describes the process a person undergoes to transition from being tameh (impure) to tahor (pure), after coming in contact with a dead body. The process itself makes little sense. The kohanim (priests) prepare the Red Heifer’s ashes outside of the camp or Temple (Middot 2:4). During its preparation, those kohanim who burn the cow or gather its ashes become impure,  and must wash their clothes and ritually immerse themselves in a mikveh. The kohen who sprinkles the ash water remains pure. The paradox of this ritual is best seen in Chapter 19 verse 19:

19. The ritually clean person shall sprinkle on the unclean person on the third day and on the seventh day, and he shall cleanse him on the seventh day, and he shall wash his clothes and bathe in water, and he shall become ritually clean in the evening.   יט וְהִזָּ֤ה הַטָּהֹר֙ עַל־הַטָּמֵ֔א בַּיּ֥וֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֖י וּבַיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֑י וְחִטְּאוֹ֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י וְכִבֶּ֧ס בְּגָדָ֛יו וְרָחַ֥ץ בַּמַּ֖יִם וְטָהֵ֥ר בָּעָֽרֶב:

A pure person sprinkles the impure person with the ash water of the Red Heifer and somehow the impure person becomes pure. But what exactly does this water do? What does this ash water do for the Tameh person?

This is explored in Bamidbar Rabbah 19:8. The midrash recounts that Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai was approached by a non-Jew who asked for an explanation of the Red Heifer:

A gentile asked Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, “These rituals you do, they seem like witchcraft! You bring a heifer, burn it, crush it up, and take its ashes. [If] one of you is impure by the dead [the highest type impurity], two or three drops are sprinkled on him, and you declare him pure?!” He said to him, “Has a restless spirit ever entered you?” He said to him, “No!” “Have you ever seen a man where a restless spirit entered him?” He said to him, “Yes!” [Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai] said to him, “And what did you do for him?” He sad to him, “We brought roots and made them smoke beneath him, and pour water and it flees.” He said to him, “Your ears should hear what leaves from your mouth! The same thing is true for this spirit, the spirit of impurity, as it is written, (Zachariah 13:2) ‘Even the prophets and the spirit of impurity will I remove from the land.’ They sprinkle upon him purifying waters, and it [the spirit of impurity] flees.” After he left, our rabbi’s students said, “You pushed him off with a reed. What will you say to us?” He said to them, “By your lives, a dead person doesn’t make things impure, and the water doesn’t make things pure. Rather, God said, ‘I have engraved a rule, I have decreed a decree (hukah hakakti, gezeira gazarti), and you have no permission to transgress what I decreed, as it says ‘This is a hok (rule) of the Torah.’

Rabbi Yochanan explains that there is no magic to the ritual of the Red Heifer.  It simply is a way to transition and transform from one state of being (impure) into another (pure) and is not something that can be explained since it is a hok, a statute. It just is.

But why does this law appear here, at this place in the Torah’s narrative?

On a simple level, it is the chapter that jumps the narrative from the punishment of the Spies to the 40th year. Presumably this ritual would have been needed, as the generation of the Spies all died before the Children of Israel could enter the Land of Israel, and all who had come into contact with dead bodies would have been impure. Still, this law could have appeared elsewhere, and the story that follows is the death of Miriam, which in turn is followed by Moses hitting the rock instead of speaking to it.

After the law of the Red Heifer appears in chapter 19, chapter 20 opens with the death of Miriam and then the Israelites complain that they had no water. God instructs Moses and Aaron to take Moses’ staff and speak to the rock. Instead, Moses hits the rock and the rest is history.

What, then, is the connection between the Red Heifer and Moshe hitting the rock?

Commentators throughout have tried to explain what exactly was so bad about Moses and Aaron’s actions. The key is in the verse that follows the hitting of the rock (20:12):

12. The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Since you did not have faith in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the Land which I have given them.  

יב וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהֹוָה֘ אֶל־משֶׁ֣ה וְאֶל־אַֽהֲרֹן֒ יַ֚עַן לֹא־הֶֽאֱמַנְתֶּ֣ם בִּ֔י לְהַ֨קְדִּישֵׁ֔נִי לְעֵינֵ֖י בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל לָכֵ֗ן לֹ֤א תָבִ֨יאוּ֙ אֶת־הַקָּהָ֣ל הַזֶּ֔ה אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־נָתַ֥תִּי לָהֶֽם

God rebukes Moses for not having enough faith that the act of bringing water to the Children of Israel would be done by sanctifying Him.  

What is God’s criticism?  What should Moses and Aaron have done differently?  

Moses and Aaron could not control how the Israelites reacted to not having water, but they could control how they themselves reacted to the situation. The question they needed to ask was: given any set of circumstances, what could they do to bring the Divine into the present, and create a moment where God is sanctified? What do we do with difficult and incomprehensible situations? Do we infuse them with kedushah (sanctity) or not? Do we say we see God’s presence at that time or not?

Indeed, in defying God’s instructions to speak to the rock, Moses does not use the situation to sanctify the Divine or elevate Him in the waiting eyes of the Children of Israel.

That is the lesson of the Red Heifer. When a person experiences the death of a dear one, the world may well seem incomprehensible and the mourner may feel most distant from his or her community. How does that person re-enter the social milieu? Being sprinkled with the ash water of the Red Heifer does not magically lift impurity or bring understanding or comfort. But that moment when a pure person (one who is not on the outskirts of the community) interacts with an impure person (who has been outside the community from the moment of impurity) brings sanctity into the world because both people have participated in this statute, this mitzvah that has no known explanation and no understanding. Performing this hok is a mitzvah that brings sanctity into the world, which makes it a transformative experience. 

And this is what Rabbi Yochanan tried to explain to his students. There is no independent power in the ash water of the Red Heifer. Rather, it is the belief that the performance of a mitzvah changes our relationship with ourselves, with each other, with the community, and with God. That transformation brings sanctity. Furthermore, this is what Moses and Aaron failed to do at the rock. Moses could have brought sanctity to a moment they could not understand — namely, how the Israelites could complain, given the glory of God. Instead, he let his emotions get the better of him and the event passed, unsanctified.

May we all be blessed to bring sanctity and transformation to the moments in our lives that are beyond comprehension and understanding.

Shabbat shalom.

About the Author
Yardaena Osband, MD is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at New York Medical College in Valhalla, New York. She hails from Boston, and studied for two years in Midreshet Lindenbaum, received her BA in Jewish Studies and Music at Stern College for Women, and attended medical school at the Sackler School for Medicine. She has taught in many schools and synagogues, lecturing in Tanach, Halacha, and Talmud with a specific interest in the biographies of the Taanim and Amoraim. Yardaena also serves on the board of ORA - Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, The Riverdale Minyan and is a founder of the Orthodox Leadership Project. She currently resides in New York with her husband and children.
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