Parashat Chukat

Birmingham Liberal Community
Esther Hugenholtz

Parashat Chukkat


Do you remember that game in school where you had to close your eyes and allow yourself fall backwards in the arms of your classmates? This exercise was geared to build trust, one of the most elusive and difficult human emotions.

Why is it so hard to trust? We can be prideful and angry, lazy and greedy. But somehow, these are aspects of ourselves that we can chisel away at to improve. Slowly but surely we can resolve to become better individuals by turning inwards and finding the strength to implement our highest ideals about ourselves. But trusting is hard.
In the ocean of trust, no man is an island. We always trust in relation to another. We need each other to trust.

This week’s parashah is all about trust. On the surface, this week’s reading appears to deal with disparate themes: the odd purification rituals involving the ashes of the red heifer, Moses striking the rock, the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, the refusal of the Edomites and Amorites to let the Children of Israel pass peacefully through their territory and the strange episode of the attack of the snakes. But the issue of trust is an undercurrent that flows through the text like a secret river.

The very name of the parashah wrestles with trust. ‘Zot chukkat hatorah tzivah Adonai’ – ‘this is the ritual law that the Eternal has commanded.’ (Num. 19:2) A ‘chok’ is a ritual law that has no known rational basis. In other words, we are commanded to obey a law we don’t understand such as the purification from death through the ashes of the red heifer. Blind obedience seems counterintuitive by today’s standards and it is true that these chukim tend to be Judaism’s weirder requirements: to abstain from forbidden foods, to not mix linen and wool in one garment and to circumcise 8 day old boys.

The chukim stand in contrast to the mishpatim – the laws that are rational and just, such as the commandments against murder, theft and oppressing the stranger – and the eidut – the laws that commemorate the historical experience and common identity of our people, such as Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot.

Over the centuries, there has been a fierce debate between Jewish thinkers over the meaning and significance of the chukim. One camp, championed by Maimonides engaged in a philosophical mission called ‘ta’amei mitzvot’ – the reasons for the commandmentss. According to Maimonides, every commandment needed to have a rational explanation, even the ones we did not comprehend. This position was in turn challenged by Nachmanides who countered that we were given chukim as an act of faith. The sole purpose of the chukim was to teach us unquestioning obedience to God’s Torah.

Perhaps both positions are flawed. If we see our Torah as strictly rationalist, we can explain everything away and everything loses its value. Then why should we continue to uphold many of our beloved traditions? We would be left with a Judaism that is rational and philosophically-coherent Judaism but also devoid of its vibrant warmth and edifying rituals.
On the other hand, if we accept those aspects of our traditions without question or investigation, God becomes nothing more than a Dictator in the Sky. Is this how we want to view our faith? I would argue that such an authoritarian theology is hopelessly self-defeating. If that is how faith works, then perhaps Richard Dawkins is right and we are better off without it.

But there might be a third way. This week’s parashah trembles with the question of trust. Maybe the chukim are not given to us to callously discard or to zealously keep but maybe it is all about entering into a relationship. A relationship with God, with our community and ultimately with ourselves. And parashat Chukkat stands as an eternal warning to what happens when this delicate trust is violated.

We read the story of Moses striking the rock. The Israelites have run out of water and are grumbling (as usual). God commands Moses to speak to it but Moses loses his patience and according to Rashi, he strikes the rock instead. The price Moses pays for his outburst is grave: he is denied entry to the Promised Land. This story seems senseless and cruel if we read it as a callous God punishing Moses for an understandable outburst of frustration. But interestingly, God Himself says: ‘ya’an lo he’emantem bi...’ – ‘because you did not trust Me’ (Num. 20:12) God did not say, ‘because you disobeyed Me’. There had been a crucial rupture in the relationship between Moses and God. Moses could no longer trust God and with that, the relationship stopped being genuine. Is it surprising that the waters which sprang forth from the rock were called ‘mei meribah’, the waters of strife? A lack of trust in any relationship will sooner or later lead to conflict.

The theme of trust resurfaces also in the episode with the king of Edom. The Israelites want to take a shortcut during their desert sojourning and petition the king of Edom permission to pass through his territory. The Israelites appeal to him respectfully, remembering the sibling bond between their patriarch Jacob and his twin Esau, saying, ‘koh amar achicha Yisrael ata yadata et kol hatela’ah asher me’tzat’nu’- ‘thus said your brother Israel, you know the hardships that have befallen us.’ But their request is denied as the Edomites do not trust their estranged kinsmen. The consequences are open war.

Trust may be a difficult emotion but it appeals to our higher selves. Trust cultivates love and from trust, hope springs eternal. The dark side of trust is the fear that this trust may be violated but the alternative is far worse. Do we really want to go through life not trusting others? Every relationship will bleed to death and every spiritual endeavour will be fruitless. Live courageously and dare trust—and the love and hope and mystery of a truthful and enduring relationship will follow.

Shabbat shalom.


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