Parasha Chukat — Building Up or Tearing Down?

This week’s parasha is beloved by rabbis around the world because is so much in it to sermonize about! The parasha opens with the ritual of the red heifer. It is a mysterious Biblical sacrifice that has the power to purify a person who comes into contact with the dead.  Nobody understands how this mitzvah works. How can the ashes of a red cow, mixed with water, hyssop and red dye, have the power to purify? There is a great story about this in the Talmud. An idolater once challenged R. Johanan b. Zakkai, “These rites that you perform look like witchcraft,” he said.  “You bring a heifer, burn it, pound it, and take its ashes.  If one of you is defiled by a dead body, you sprinkle upon him two or three drops and you say to him, ‘Thou art clean!’ I never heard of a more ridiculous thing in my life. ”

  1. Johanan asked him, “What do you do in your religion when a person is seized by madness?” “Well,” replied the idolater, “We need to get rid of the demon that has possessed him. So, we bring roots and make them smoke under him. Then we sprinkle water upon the person and the demon flees.’ Said R. Johanan to him, “Did you hear what you just said! This is precisely what we are doing. The Water of Purification is sprinkled upon the person and the unclean spirit flees.’ The idolater was satisfied with the answer and departed. When he had gone, R. Johanan’s disciples said to their master, ‘Master! That was a good story to tell him, but what explanation will you give to us?’ Said he to them, “There is no rational explanation. It is simply G-d’s law.”

Such a law in Hebrew is called a “Chok” or a mitzvah that defies understanding. We just do it because it is a divine law. It is written that even King Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, could not discern how this ritual could possibly be effective. In this week’s parasha, in addition to the death of Miriam and the death of Aaron, we have G-d’s decree that Moses will not live to enter the Land of Canaan. Commentators have puzzled for literally millennia to figure out what great sin Moses committed to warrant such punishment. If a “chok” is a law without a reason, this seems like a punishment without rhyme.  Some commentators point out that Moses was commanded by G-d to speak to the rock to bring forth water and satisfy the people’s thirst. Instead, he struck the rock with his rod. Others say that he took credit for bringing forth water from the rock, instead of giving G-d credit. The 17th century Italian rabbi Shmuel David Luzatto writes that listing all the commentaries on this yield thirteen sins that Moses may have committed. He himself declined to investigate the matter further lest he find even more sins committed by Moses and further besmirch his reputation.

My own thoughts on this matter are that Moses most likely suffered from what we would call today “burnout”. He has become angry and frustrated by a people that he has been carrying on his back for forty years. He is not longer able to encourage them, to inspire them, to support them. “Listen, you rebels,” he says to the people of Israel, “You want me to get water out of a rock?” G-d needs a leader who will reinforce the good in people, who will emphasize their strengths rather than remind them of their faults as they face the enormous challenge of conquering the Land of Canaan.
Consider this poem, titled “The Wrecking Crew”. It asks us to look at ourselves honestly and answer the question — do we build others up, or do we tear others down?

“I stood on the streets of a busy town,

Watching men tearing the building down;

With a ‘ho heave ho,’ and a lusty yell,

They swung a beam—and a sidewall fell.

I asked the foreman of the crew,

‘Are those men as skilled

As those you’d hire if you wanted to build?’

‘Ah no,’ he said, ‘no indeed,

‘Just common labor is all I would need.’

‘I can tear down in a day or two

‘As would take skilled men a year to do.’

And then I thought as I went on my way,

Just which of the two roles am I trying to play.

Have I walked life’s road with care?

Measuring each deed with rule and square?

Or am I one of those who roam the town,

Intent with the labor of tearing down?”

Which are we?  Do we encourage and support others, or do we bring a critical and negative attitude to our relationships?  Are our remarks fashioned to help others to grow, or do our conversations with them belie our envy of their success and their ambitions? Do we bring an optimistic disposition to our interactions with others, or is our mindset cynical and disparaging? I am afraid Moses had tipped to the negative pole of these opposite traits, and that is why he was not allowed to enter the Promised Land.

Shabbat Shalom