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R' Feldman's Derasha - Parashat Chukat

07/16/2019 11:59:40 AM


One of the ways to figure out the significance of the beginning of this Parasha is to look, as with real estate, at its location.  The Mitzva of the red heifer seems quite out of place. It should be among the other atonement sacrifices in the book of Vayikra and not here.  There are barely any Halachic pronouncements in the book of Bamidbar, and certainly even fewer which don’t seem to be linked to anything that is happening in the text.

To understand why this has been placed here, one must first figure out where we are in terms of time.  There was no date-stamp on Parashat Korach, nor does one appear at the beginning of this week’s Parasha.  But Chazal link the beginning of Korach to the end of Shlach. They point out that the challenges against Moshe Rabenu proliferate immediately after the disaster of the spies.  We also know that after the Mitzva of the red heifer, there is a date stamp connected to the death of Miriam. That stamp tells us that we have skipped ahead 37 years to year 40 in the desert.  We can now see that the book of Bamidbar divides evenly into two parts -- five Parashiot during the beginning of the journey and then five Parashiot connected to year 40.  

If so, where does that leave the Mitzva of the red heifer?  Its role seems to be to form a buffer between the disasters of the B’ha’alot’cha, Shlach and Korach and the future.  But it does more than simply clean up the past.  Especially because it is placed at the beginning of this Parasha, It is really about pushing ahead to the future.

The red heifer is what the Torah calls a Chok, a law whose essence defies explanation. There are many Chukim in the Torah but this one stands out.  We know that the distinction between Chukim and Mishpatim is often fluid.  Laws which are clear to one generation can become obscure in another time.  This we can see in the various lists through the ages of what is a Chok and what is a Mishpat.  What makes the red heifer stand out is that it will always be a Chok.  It evades all attempts to explain it.  Moshe Rabenu is said to have had some sense of it, but he has special status in these matters.  No less than Shlomo HaMelech, the wisest of all men, declared it beyond his ken.

Why place such a Chok here?  It acts as a kind of gateway to the second half of the Sefer, the stories of the 40th year.  Miriam will die here, as will Aharon, and the nation will mourn. Their deaths will be followed by wars, as the surrounding nations sense a vulnerability around the Jews.  The red heifer declares that the way forward is to accept that there must be a sense of Chok.  

R’ Soloveitchik related that as a boy he was bothered by the fact that some Talmudic arguments ended in what is called “Teiku.”  The word means “tie” in modern Hebrew, as in a soccer game that ends in a tie.  The Talmud uses it to denote that the argument is unresolved. R’ Soloveitchik was frustrated by this concept and complained to his father about it.  His father told him that there must be Teiku in the Talmud because there is Teiku in life.  There are all kinds of things that escape understanding and which therefore leave us unresolved.  Understanding that, processing that, and accepting that, allows one to move forward rather than be paralyzed by what can’t be understood.

In this way, the red heifer does for us in understanding what it also did in deed.  It was the way forward after someone had encountered the seeming cul de sac of death.  It promises the defeat of the Tum’a, the strongest ritual impurity, that is associated with death.  It is the way to transcend these seeming dead ends. With it, we can move forward toward whatever we might encounter on the way to the land.

Thu, July 9 2020 17 Tammuz 5780