[JOI Word of Torah] Big Tent Judaism: Chukat
Kerry M. Olitzky
KOlitzky at joi.org
Mon Jun 18 13:30:11 GMT 2007
"Big Tent Judaism" Word of Torah
June 23, 2007 / 7 Tamuz, 5767
Numbers 19:1 - 22:1
A major challenge of Jewish education-for all ages-in the 21st century is
providing access to the original texts of Jewish sacred literature, even in
English translation. Influenced by the educational reform of the early 20th
century that was applied to the chaos that had previously overtaken Jewish
education, the Jewish community invested its resources to develop study
materials that were age appropriate, digesting the text in small segments.
Educators were convinced that such an approach would allow for a better
understanding of the text and its message. And the more textbooks that were
created, the less familiar people became with texts.
Nevertheless, there are some sections of the Torah that remain elusive. If
these sections are difficult to access for those on the so-called inside of
the Jewish community, imagine how impenetrable they are for those on the
outside. These texts are pivotal in the spiritual life of the Jewish people,
however; thus, providing access to them is important.
One such text is this week's portion, which contains rules concerning the
red heifer. It should come as no surprise, of course, that this portion
deals with rules or laws. As we have seen in previous weeks, the title warns
us ahead of time (chukat is derived from chok, the Hebrew word for law). In
handing down the laws, the Torah reveals its inclusive nature: ".This shall
be a permanent law for the Israelites and for the strangers who reside among
you" (Numbers 19:10).
One of the things that makes the red heifer so esoteric-besides not knowing
exactly the nature of the animal-is that it is one of the few sacrifices
that is completely burned on the altar. While the other sacrifices are
shared as food, (only the parts that make the most flame and smoke and are
inedible are allowed to be totally consumed by fire) this one is completely
turned into ash. Contact with the ashes is so powerful that it renders those
who handle them ritually impure until evening. The animal's life is taken.
It is burnt, utterly destroyed, leaving no remnants. But to what end? Is
the Torah giving us a formula for ritual purification because it anticipates
the next episode?
Toward the end of this week's Torah reading, Miriam dies. The woman who
brings spiritual nourishment and sustenance with her (represented by
Miriam's well that travels with the people) during the entire desert journey
dies. The Torah seems to pass over the incident without remark-simple and
straightforward: "The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin
on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there
and was buried there" (Numbers 20:1). But the next verse reveals to us the
impact of her death. Not only are the people diminished by her loss but the
absence of her calming presence gives way to another uprising against Moses
If the Torah law about the red heifer was given because it anticipated the
temporal nature and limitation of what Miriam had to offer, then we have to
dig deeper for the mega lesson: the Torah will always give us the insight to
prepare for the future even when the current approach seems to suffice and
there is no need for a change. And how do we know that the lesson works? We
look to the next section of text for affirmation.
The people reclaimed their resolve and marched forward. "The Israelites then
marched on and encamped in the steppes of Moab, across the Jordan from
Jericho" (Numbers 22:1). They not only readied themselves to enter the land
and settle there, their stance also served to reflect a renewed attitude
about the future that stands before them. They do not want to return to
Egypt. Rather they want to enter the land of promise that lies ahead-even
with all that is unknown about it.
We have to be willing to do the same.
Rabbi Kerry Olitzky is the author of many inspiring books that bring the
Jewish wisdom tradition into everyday life, and is most recently the
co-author of 20 Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren to Do
(And Not Do) to Nurture Jewish Identity in Their Grandchildren and Jewish
Holidays: A Brief Introduction for Christians.
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You are welcome to use these ideas in your own work and writings as long as
you would be so kind as to credit Rabbi Kerry Olitzky and the Jewish
Outreach Institute, thank you.
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