Yom Rivii, 12 AdarI 5781
Wednesday, 24 February 2021
Parashat Chukkat 2012

Parashat Chukkat: Cantor Gershon Silins
30th June 2012

Our Torah portion for this week, Chukkat, opens with the mysterious ritual of the red heifer, whose ashes are used by the priest to purify someone who has been rendered impure by contact with the dead; however, during the ritual, the ashes render the priest himself impure. The restrictions on the characteristics of the red heifer (without a spot, unblemished, never wore a yoke, and so forth) are so detailed and intricate that it seems virtually impossible actually to perform the ritual, and that, together with its strangeness, combine to make it inexplicable. Our sages identified this passage as mystifying even to the wisest. They suggest, and reject, some obvious explanations – the ritual is designed to be so unwieldy as to discourage our people from contact with the dead; it works in the same way that an exorcism or casting out of demons would work – and so it remains an eternal mystery. It is considered to be the prime example of the “chok,” a biblical law for which there is no explanation and therefore, counter-intuitively, necessarily of divine origin. And precisely because it makes no sense, we are absolutely required to do it. And yet, its divine origin notwithstanding, it is not done, not even by the most traditional Jews. That is because, perhaps ironically, this is one of the commandments that are no longer observed because they relate to the sacrificial cult surrounding the Temple in Jerusalem. Without the Temple, such commandments are moot.

In this same portion, we learn of the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, and we can see that soon that entire generation who witnessed the miracle of redemption from Egypt and the miracle of the giving of the Torah, will die out. We might assume that, having seen God’s power and redemption at first hand, this generation would have been the most pious, God-fearing people who ever lived.· And yet, the story of the biblical generation is just the opposite. Not even Moses, to whom the Torah gives a privileged position in the narrative, had perfect faith; God castigates him four times, twice in this portion, for rebellion, and it is for his failure of faith that Moses must die before the Children of Israel enter the land promised to them.

Perhaps we should find it comforting that there have been no perfect people in the world. The Torah is not a story of our courageous ancestors who were redeemed by God, led by a shining and triumphant hero to a stunning victory over their foes, and led blameless lives ever after. The story as the Torah tells it is difficult and contentious. Everyone loses patience with each other, many people die at the hands of the same God who rescued them from slavery, and there aren’t many happy moments. That generation was neither blameless nor righteous. There has never been a righteous generation, and neither is ours. And yet, the Jewish people have been defined by engagement with these texts, and have been turning them over and over for thousands of years.

The complexity and irrationality of the ritual of the red heifer, and contradictions inherent in the story of our people’s redemption, are not signs of a divine hand that guides us to an assured redemptive future, but are characteristic rather of the human enterprise with all its flaws. This portion reminds us that we cannot set aside our critical faculties and put our faith in miracles; the miracles we study did not persuade even the generation that witnessed them. The philosopher Immanuel Kant said, “out of the crooked timber of humanity can nothing straight be built.” Our faith in a better world must be established on a foundation that is no firmer than our imperfections have ever allowed it to be. The greatest faith is that faith which sends us forward, without any certainty that we are right, or any guarantee of success, to work to make the world a better place.