D’var Torah – Chukat (5771 / 2011)

D’var Torah: Parashat Chukat – 5771 – July 1, 2011 – Temple Beth Israel (Eugene, OR, USA)

By Rabbi Maurice Harris

This week’s Torah portion, Chukat [Num 19:1 – 21:2], is fascinating. We open the parashah still in the second year of the Israelites’ wanderings in the desert following their exodus from Egypt, but by the time we reach the end of the parashah we’re in year number 40. There are strange laws and unusual episodes, the deaths of leaders and of dreams, pitched battles, winged serpents, temper tantrums, water miracles, and leadership transitions, all within the contours of a single week’s reading from the Torah.

Chukat starts with a description of the priestly ritual that the Israelites are to follow whenever they come into contact with a corpse. The priests are instructed to take the ashes of a red cow and use them as part of a purification ritual. The laws of the parah adumah, or red heifer, have perplexed rabbis for thousands of years, and continue to be the subject of speculation to this day.

Then, the Torah portion jumps forward 38 years in time, leaving us to wonder what happened to Moses, Aaron, Miriam, and the Israelites during all those long years in the desert. When the story resumes, we read about the death of the prophet, Miriam. Shortly after losing his sister, Moses and Aaron face a grumbling, thirsty population of Israelites clamoring for water. God instructs Moses to take his rod, approach a particular rock, and speak to the rock to give forth water for the people. Amidst the peoples’ complaints, however, an over-stressed Moses finally comes unglued. With Aaron watching helplessly, Moses throws a fit in front of the entire assembly, yelling at them for their endless rebelliousness and striking the rock repeatedly with his rod. Water gushes forth, but in the aftermath of this drama God informs Moses that he and Aaron will not be accompanying the Israelites into the Promised Land. It’s a shattered dream following almost 40 years of shepherding this difficult flock.

 

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D’var Torah – Chukat/Balak

Chukat-Balak D’var Torah 5769 / July 3, 2009

Rabbi Maurice Harris

This week we’ve come to a double Torah portion, pairing Chukat and Balak, two of the portions that bring us to the final chapters of the Israelites’ forty year saga of journeying through the wilderness.  

The parasha opens with a famously intriguing description of a ritual of purification involving the ashes of a red heifer.  The priests are to take an unblemished red cow and burn it along with cedar wood, hyssop and crimson stuff. The ashes are then gathered up and used to create sacred waters which are sprinkled on individuals who have come in contact with the dead to ritually cleanse them.  

Until now, the book of the Torah we are in – the Book of Numbers – has told us stories that have taken place during the first two years of the Israelites’ exodus from slavery in Egypt.  But now the narrative takes a sudden 38 year jump forward. The generation that witnessed the 10 plagues, that left Egypt, that miraculously crossed the Sea of Reeds on dry land, and that experienced the thundering presence of God at Mount Sinai has died now in the wilderness.  With the exception of just a few elders like Moses, his brother Aaron, and his sister, Miriam, a new generation born in the wilderness has now taken the previous generation’s place. With this 38 year jump, our Torah portion presents us with, in fact, a new nation of Israelites with a new mission.  The previous generation’s mission was escape from slavery and the receiving and incorporating of the laws that God provided the nation at Mount Sinai. This generation’s mission will be to maintain those laws and traditions, and to enter and establish themselves in the Promised Land. So our story presents us with a new generation still led by the previous generation’s elders.

But that changes quickly.  Quickly we learn about the death of Miriam as the people are encamped at Kadesh.  Following her death, Moses and Aaron are faced with a crisis. Here’s how the passage reads in translation: Continue reading “D’var Torah – Chukat/Balak”

D’var Torah – Shabbat Hol Hamoed Pesach 5769

D’var Torah – Shabbat Hol Hamoed Pesach 5769 (2009)

Rabbi Maurice Harris

On Thursday morning this week we read from the Torah verses assigned by the sages to the first day of Passover. The scene is the slave ghettos of Pharaoh’s Egypt just before the arrival of the 10th and final plague, the slaying of the first born of Egypt. Moses calls together the elders of the people and says to them, “Go, pick out lambs for your families, and slaughter the Passover offering. Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and apply some of the blood that is in the basin to the lintel and to the two doorposts. None of you shall go outside the door of your homes until morning. For when the Eternal goes through to smite the Egyptian first born sons, God will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and God will pass over the door and not let the Destroyer enter and smite your home.”

In recent years much has been written about how the Passover story begins and ends with birth imagery, and I’ve talked about this here in the past as well. In the haggadah we used yesterday at the community seder, we read the following (and I paraphrase):

How was the desire for freedom first aroused? By the midwives, Shifrah and Puah, who resisted Pharaoh’s decree to kill every Israelite boy. By Miriam, who watched over her brother Moses to insure his safety as he floated in a basket down the Nile. … In the birth waters and in the Nile, these extraordinary women saw life and liberation. … The waters of freedom open and close the Passover story, taking us from the Nile to the Sea of Reeds.

A baby, Moses, is given life thanks to midwives and then pulled from the water by a princess – the birth imagery is striking. A nation passes through the narrow cavity of the path that God opens through the Sea of Reeds and emerges out the other side, alive and free. Birth imagery again. What struck me as I took a closer look at the Torah verses we read Thursday morning was that I was reminded that we have more birth imagery here in the middle of the story, at this crucial moment, just before the 10th plague brings grief and sorrow to so many in ancient Egypt, just before the Pharaoh finally summons Moses and Aaron and spits out the words, “Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you. Go, worship the Eternal as you said! Take also your flocks and your herds, as you said, and begone! And may you bring a blessing upon me also!”

In that moment when Moses instructed the Israelites to take a lamb, slaughter it as an offering, put its blood in a basin, and then paint the blood on the top and on the side posts of the doors of their homes, we are confronted yet again with a visual image of a people getting ready to pass through a birth canal, out of a holding chamber and into a new existence.

The Torah is full of literary links that tie together these thematic echoes – this is part of 

Hebrew_Samekh
The Hebrew letter Samech

its artfulness and beauty. The text that describes the placing of the lamb’s blood on the doorposts offers us one of these marvelous literary links. The key word is the Hebrew word for basin – saf – spelled with a samech and a final fay. This is the basin that Moses tells the people to put the lamb’s blood in, and out of which they will take up the blood to paint it on their doorposts.

Saf is a somewhat unusual word, and it calls our attention to a key word in the other two moments of birth that I spoke of. In the first instance, which describes baby Moses being placed into the Nile and then drawn out of the water by the Pharaoh’s daughter, the text tells us that Moses’ mother placed the basket containing her beloved child in the reeds of the river. The Hebrew word for reeds is soof, spelled almost identically to saf. In the second instance – the liberation of the Israelites after they cross the divided Sea of Reeds – the word soof appears again – this time as part of the name of the body of water from which they emerged.

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