Spiritual Acts of Faith

Parsha Chukat Drash by Donald Armstrong

I have always enjoyed the poetry of Ogden Nash. He wrote:

The cow is of the bovine ilk. One end is moo, the other milk.

A short, clean and humorous poem that is so unlike today’s parsha, Chukat.

Not to be out done, King David composed the following haiku (try saying Chukat haiku fast three times):

 

Heifer red so fine

whose ashes make tamei tahor

so inscrutable.

 

Now I channel Ogden Nash:

 

No matter how I try to grasp her

this decree is greased like butter.

Cleansing cow ash is some part udder

but Chukat haiku makes me shudder.

 

Finally Rashi weighs in on the relevance of this purification procedure, given that the red heifer no longer exists:

How now, brown cow?

But on a more serious note, I kid because today’s parsha makes me nervous. The message of the parsha seems to be that in matters of obedience to and faith in Hashem, if you don’t get it right then you die in the wilderness like Moshe, Aaron and Miriam.

Commandments in the Torah are divided into three groups:

  1. Mishpatim are those which make common sense, like the 10 Commandments.
  2. Edot are testimonies that are reasonable but not logically compelling, e.g., eat matzoh to commemorate our exodus from Egypt, celebrate Shabbat to remember Hashem’s creation etc.
  3. Chukim are decrees that may not be logical or even knowable but they are followed because they are the will of Hashem.

Interestingly,  a pentecostal preacher/cattle breeder named Clyde Lott contacted Israelis who were interested in rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem. He proposed that they use his red angus cattle to breed red heifers. The Israelis used his livestock to breed a perfect red calf named Melody. Unfortunately, as she matured Melody sang off-key when she grew a white tail.

So what else is going on in today’s parsha? Miriam dies in the wilderness. The Jews complain, asking Moshe “Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness?” Moshe strikes the rock for water and is condemned by Hashem to die in the wilderness. Aaron fails to stop Moshe from striking the rock and he also is condemned to die in the wilderness. Yet again the Jews complain about leaving Egypt. Angered, Hashem sends serpents to kill the ingrates, but Moshe uses a cadeusus to save them and to restore their faith in God’s directions.

Chukat marks a generational transition of the Jewish people. Born out of slavery in Egypt, delivered to Hashem at Sinai, banished to the wilderness for their idolatry and the spies lack of faith in Hashem, all of the older generation except Caleb and Joshua will die in the wilderness outside the the Promised Land. But the new generation is like the acorn that does not fall far from the prior generation’s tree.  Like the tree of life itself, the Torah and the challenge of faith in its commandments provides continuity throughout the generations of Hashem’s chosen people.

On a more personal note, faith makes sense to me. Just because I can’t find my glasses doesn’t mean they are lost and I should stop trying to find them. Or just because I have refrigerator blindness doesn’t mean that my favorite foods aren’t in there or that I should give them up. With the communal effort of my wife and family, I know that we can make things right. And so it is with our more serious, spiritual acts of faith.

It is no accident that parsha Chukat follows parsha Korach. Korach’s rebellious arguments were rational, but he lacked humility before Hashem. His logic did not fail him; it was his lack of faith in God’s will. Korach and his people were entirely consumed by fire or swallowed whole by the earth. No red heifer was needed because no bodies (or parts) were left to contaminate the Jewish people.

The Gemara notes that the deaths of Aaron and Miriam are juxtaposed to the decree of the red heifer. What does this mean? Just as the ashes of the red heifer cleanse  contamination caused by contact with the dead, so do the deaths of the tzaddikim atone for the sins of their people. When  tzaddikim are in our midst we feel closer to Hashem. Their holiness inspires us and their faith creates a stronger awareness of Hashem’s presence. When they depart from this world, their absence reminds  us to carry on our faith in and service to Hashem in their memory. I’m sure that Rabbi Goldfarb of blessed memory continues to inspire many members of our congregation.

We must have faith in Hashem and his commandments, just as God trusts us to follow Torah. But having faith and acting on it can be hard because faith often isn’t rational, scientific, modern or trendy. It may not even seem fair or relevant in the face of evil like the Holocaust. Our struggle with faith is an ancient one that goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve lost their faith in Hashem’s will with life altering consequences for all of humanity.

So what is faith and why are chukim important? Faith is doing God’s will, living a righteous life of Torah, even and especially when it is hard to do so. Observing chukim is important because it requires faith in Hashem’s will. By observing Hashem’s commandments we become more holy and we come to know Hashem better as we improve ourselves, our communities and so that we can be a shining example for all the peoples of our world.

But like the Zen master says, you can’t get fit by visualising push-ups. Similarly to be Jewish you have to do Judaism, even the chukim. Transcendence is in the doing, not the contemplation. I pray that each of us will do Hashem’s will and follow his commandments.

Shabbat Shalom

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