Parashat Chukat / פרשת חקת (Numbers 19:1-22:1; Judges 11:1–40)
YHWH instructed Mosha concerning the sacrifice of the red heifer – the offering of the purification which is made together with cedar, hyssop, and scarlet thread. Ritual purification is also required on the third and seventh day for anyone who touches a corpse – or for an individual who comes in contact with any article in a dwelling where a dead person was, or who touches a body slain in the field – or bones of a skeleton, or a grave. Anything touched by the one who is unclean – and likewise anyone touching him, is defiled similarly – and if the ritual of purification is not performed, he is subject tor excommunication.
When the Israelites encamped in Kadesh, in the desert of Tzin, Miriam died – and was buried there. At this time, there was a lack of water, and the people again rebelled. YHWH commanded Mosha and Aharon to speak to a certain rock, and water would flow therefrom. But Mosha, angered at his people’s lack of faith in God, impatiently struck the rock – and although the water was made available, he and Aharon were told that because of their lessening of the miracle, they would not be permitted to enter the Promised Land. That place was called Meribah – the “waters of quarrel.”
Mosha then sent emissaries to the king of Edom, asking fro peaceful passage through his land, promising payment for all damage caused thereby – but the Edomites refused to acquiesce to his plea. The Israelites therefore started to circle around Edom, and arrived at the mountain of Hor, where Aharon died and was buried – the High Priesthood being transferred to Elazar.
At this time, the Canaanite king of Arod attacked Israel, but was defeated at Chromah. Tired of the monotonous detour around Edom, some of the people again complained – and they were punished by a plague of poisonous serpents. They then repented – and Mosha, at YHWH’s command, fashioned a serpent of copper, and had it carried aloft, so that all who gazed Heavenward were cured.
They continued their march through the wilderness, arriving at the kingdom of the Emorites, who also refused passage through their land. Sichon, king of the Emorites, attacked the Israelites, but was vanquished, as was Og, king of Bashan – so that Israel took possession of their lands. They continued their journey, and finally arrived at the plains of Moab – opposite Jericho.
There is uncleanness of mind and soul, in addition to physical defilement. Because the body is God’s handiwork, it is a religious duty to keep it clean and healthy. But this is not our main subject today. We, fortunately, are acquainted with hygienic principles, and realize full well the value of soap and water.
Our Torah states that it will remain a statute forever – whatever the unclean one touches – shall become unclean; and whatever comes in contact with it, shall also become unclean. How true that simple declaration is! “Birds of a feather flock together,” says an old proverb. We cannot help but defile ourselves by coming in contact with those who are morally or spiritually unclean. We debase ourselves by associating with them, we actually allow them to dominate us – and we are subjugated to such a degree that we fall tot he same despicable level. Evil, filthy language becomes an integral part of our make-up; detestable actions grow habitual; perverted, convenient observance of our laws leads us astray.
Our hypocritical deeds in our homes, in our businesses, in our congregations, and in our institutions belie the words that come so glamorously from our tongues. We practice deceit – not only against our fellowmen, but against ourselves as well – patting ourselves on our backs in commendation for our swaggering braggadocio; while in our hearts we know too well how empty and vain is our boasting.
When will we awaken, O Israel? When we will arouse ourselves from our spiritual slumber, and live up to our claims and fulfill our duty and mission in life?
It is significant to note that immediately following the law for ritual purification, we are told the story of Miriam’s death – and then the fact that Israel grumbled, Israel rebelled, Israel was banded together for spiritual destruction – because there was no water for the congregation!
Torah is our stream of living, vital water. Isaiah cries out, ‘All you who thirst – come to the waters.’ Let us sip of the waters of Torah – sip sparingly because we are dying of thirst – but when our first-thirst is quenched, we can drink fully and satisfyingly. The waters of Torah are placid, sweet, curative. Let us not make them bitter like the waters of angry and quarrelsome like the waters of Meribah. But let us cast aside our selfish, egotistic, and conceited motives – enjoy the waters to the fullest – and truly become the nation we were destined to be!
Our Haftarah reading today, consisting of the eleventh chapter, verses one through forty of the book of Judges, links up with the Torah reading by Yiftach’s recounting of the conquest of Sichon and Og. His recital inspired his followers to perform mighty deeds – and they vanquished the Ammonites who had threatened to drive Israel from the land.
(Adapted by Rabbi Saul Katz from You That Thirst, Torah Commentaries 1940)