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Graceful Acceptance / Graceful Masculinity: Chukas

Part of a periodic Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

זֹאת חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה, אֲשֶׁר-צִוָּה יְהוָה לֵאמֹר:  דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ פָרָה אֲדֻמָּה תְּמִימָה אֲשֶׁר אֵין-בָּהּ מוּם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-עָלָה עָלֶיהָ, עֹל.

This is the statute of the Torah, which Hashem has commanded saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and they shall take to you a perfectly red cow, which has no blemish, which hasn’t had a yoke on it. (Numbers 19:2)

An interesting, if counterintuitive, aspect of the laws of the red heifer is that while the ritual of sprinkling its ashes purifies one who is impure, the pure person performing the ritual becomes impure. The Talmud (Nidda 9a)  asserts that even King Solomon, the wisest of all people, was baffled by this law. The verse “All this I tested with wisdom, I thought I could fathom it [through wisdom], but it eludes me – כּל־זֹ֖ה נִסִּ֣יתִי בַֽחכְמָ֑ה אָמַ֣רְתִּי אֶחְכָּ֔מָה וְהִ֖יא רְחוֹקָ֥ה מִמֶּֽנִּי” is understood by the Tamud as King’s Solomon’s acknowledgement that wisdom alone could not assist him to comprehend these precepts.

We often have a hard time understanding identities or experiences that are not our own. The rabbis observe this lack of first person engagement as an inhibitor to completely grasping Torah concepts.  A person doesn’t understand words of Torah until they have stumbled [in them] – אין אדם עומד על דברי תורה אלא אם כן נכשל (Gittin 43a).

The Ohev Yisrael explains that we naturally think of ourselves as having a proper perspective on things and therefore assume we are going on the right path. However, when life happens and we fall down, we have an opportunity to acknowledge our mistakes, in light of the revealed truth of the matter, and to reorient accordingly. This is particularly true of folks who see themselves as “having no blemish.”

This, says the Chozeh Lublin, can only happen when a person “hasn’t had a yoke [of Torah] on them”. In other words, only a person who is unaware of the work that needs to be done in the world, and their role in it, can think that they have attained perfection.

Simply learning about a concept or idea doesn’t necessarily deliver the impact or proximity as a heart connection to those affected by the teaching. This is alluded to in the verse (Psalms 119:165) “There is an abundant peace to the lovers of your Torah, and they don’t have a stumbling block – שָׁל֣וֹם רָ֭ב לְאֹהֲבֵ֣י תוֹרָתֶ֑ךָ וְאֵֽין־לָ֥מוֹ מִכְשֽׁוֹל.” There is a particular grace and care that is achieved through the love that one has for another as a result of the investment of deep listening and learning. 

In Hebrew, the word for ear is ozen / אזן which has the same numerical value as grace, chein / חן  (AriZ”l). Listening is essential in learning the oral law and by toiling in it, we can broaden and develop our sensitivities to society. The role of grace in this is alluded to in the number of chapters of Mishnayos, 524, equaling the full spelling of the two letters in grace -חן-chein: חי”ת נו”ן. Additionally, תלמוד בבלי – Babylonian Talmud also has the numerical value of 524 (Seforim Hakedoshim). Through a deep engagement with the oral law, we train ourselves to listen carefully and internalize teachings, even when we do not completely understand them.

We always read and study this portion in preparation for the saddest time of the year, the three weeks leading up to the destruction of the Temple. Our rabbis teach that the Temple was destroyed, and we remain in exile, because of sinas chinam – meaning hating people without reason. One of the lessons from studying a law that we can’t understand, but nevertheless accept, is that it models how to do the same with people. 

We don’t need to understand another person in order to accept them. One shouldn’t have to get to know someone, and then find something positive in them to justify caring about them. We don’t need reasons to love people. G-d’s love for us isn’t dependent on anything. The unconditional love that G-d has for us as children should motivate us to extend that ahavas chinam – free love – to all of our siblings.

That which is seen as perfect, perhaps conveys impurity to remind us that our path towards perfection necessitates struggle, and that struggle is itself purifying.

By R. Mike Moskowitz.

Water and Words

 

Part of a yearlong Torah series on spiritual building and builders in Jewish life.

Words have power. They have the power to create, and the power to destroy. Think of any human creation, from the Brooklyn Bridge to Harry Potter World: they were all created through words. On the other side of the coin, think of any human act of destruction, from World War II to the devastating effects of microplastics on the environment, all put into effect through words. 

Language is arguably the most powerful tool that humans possess. It is no coincidence that we call the process of creating magic a “spell”– literally from the word “to spell.” In Parshat Chukat we see an incident that seems somewhat inexplicable unless we take into account the awesome power of our words.

In Numbers 20 we read of the death of Miriam, the sister of Moses. More than just the sister of Moses, Miriam was a leader in her own right. One of her most important functions was to find the water in the Wilderness. In the Wilderness, finding water was literally a life or death matter. So it is not surprising that right after Miriam dies, and there is no one to find water, the people begin to complain: 

“The community was without water, and they joined against Moses and Aaron.The people quarreled with Moses, saying, ‘If only we had perished when our brothers perished at the instance of the LORD!’”

Moses goes to G!d who tells him ““You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes speak to the rock and tell it to yield its water.” (Numbers 20:8) However, Moses’ anger gets the better of him, and instead of speaking to the rock, he hits the rock with his staff and says to the people: “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” The water comes from the rock, but G!d’s response to Moses is that because he hit the rock rather than speaking to it, and because “you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people,” Moses is prohibited from entering the land of Israel and seeing the fulfillment of his life’s journey. In fact, according to the medieval commentator Rashi, “Scripture discloses the fact that but for this sin alone, they would have entered the land of Canaan.” 

What was so wrong with what Moses did? Was it such a horrible sin that he should deserve such an extreme punishment? For me, this divine punishment of Moses reflects Chukat’s core message for us as builders: words have power to create or destroy. Therefore we must choose our words carefully. By hitting the rock rather than speaking to it, and by speaking out of anger to the Israelites calling them rebels, Moses was engaged in destructive rather than creative speech. 

In stark contrast, according to Midrash Rabbah, Miriam’s ability to find water was deeply connected to her positive speech. The Midrash connects Miriam’s special relationship with water to Miriam’s leading the women in a song of gratitude after the Splitting of the Sea. Because she expressed gratitude through song for a miracle that occurred through water, she was rewarded with water (Bamidbar Rabbah 1:2). In addition, the Midrash says that the well of water came out of a rock that would follow the Israelites through the desert, and that when people wanted the water to come out of the rock, they would come and stand by it, saying: “Rise up, O well,” and it would rise. According to the Midrash, this was the same rock that Moses struck. 

The method of Moses and that of Miriam to draw water from the rock represent two opposite ways of building and leading. We can speak with anger and authority and command as Moses did, or we can sing with gratitude and encouragement as Miriam did. What Chukat tells us is that both methods may produce “water,” but Moses’ method is not sustainable in the long term. The ends may seem to justify the means, but in truth, in the process of building, the ends are the means. As science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin wrote: “The end justifies the means. But what if there never is an end? All we have is means.” In building the Jewish future, how we build is as important as what we build. No Jewish leader worth their salt should use hurtful or wrongful speech. Better to emulate Miriam who built gratitude with her song.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Rabbi Ben Newman. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.