Hukkat: People’s Power to Frame Life

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

The events of Parshat Hukkat remind us of our significant role in shaping our experience of what happens, and therefore how we react to it. The parsha opens with rules of the parah adumah, the red heifer whose ashes would be mixed with water and then could be the way to remove the ritual impurity associated with contact with the deceased.

The Meaning and Referents of the Parah Adumah

Rashi records a Midrashic view the ceremony atoned for the het ha-egel, the sin of the Golden Calf. Just as the Jews enthusiastically donated the materials for the Calf, they had to be the ones to donate the heifer; just as they congregated around Aharon to demand he build it for them, they were to come to Elazar (the second in command) to give the money for the heifer. To me most surprising, he says the Kohen Gadol could not perform the ceremony (a matter of debate in the Gemara) because Aharon was part of the sin of the Calf, and therefore could not be part of the solution, an example of ein kategor na’aseh saneigor, a prosecuting attorney cannot become a defense attorney.

Two framing issues in one: choosing to see the parah adumah as a reaction to the Golden Calf (the Torah does not say that), and insisting some past actions stay alive too fully to be ignored, such that the Kohen Gadol is always seen as in Aharon’s stead and therefore unfit for the parah adumah service.

Ramban shows Rashi’s frame was a choice, because he presents it differently, reaching back to the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve’s interaction with the nahash, the serpent, led to their being doomed to death. For him, the parah adumah removes the smell of death brought by the nahash, in ways he does not explain more clearly. He does note the death of the righteous takes another path, because they had proved themselves immune to the serpent’s lure to improper pleasures, the reason halachah thinks the righteous do not convey ritual impurity in their death.

Ramban also reminds us of the sword, which the Torah equated to a corpse for some ritual impurity rules, yet does not create tum’at ohel, the impurity conveyed by sharing a space with a corpse, nor does someone rendered ritually impure by a sword need parah adumah water to leave his/her status, a mikveh suffices.

Ramban does not offer a framework for the two tracks, but seems to me to imply there are different versions of death, for ritual impurity purposes. Natural death reminds us of our failure in Eden; sharing a space with an example of that creates ritual impurity, removable only by parah adumah water. Death by the sword has fewer Edenic overtones, I would guess because there was some new human input into it. Rather than a punishment for what we did back then, it is people being unable to get along.

Human Fights Have a More Direct Impact on the World

After the Jews leave Hor HaHar (where Aharon had passed away), they tire of the journey, we learn in 21;4. They speak against Gd and Moshe, the next verse says, Gd punishes them with an infestation of poisonous serpents, and they apologize to Moshe for speaking against Gd and him, again grouping the two with one verb, dibbur.

Onkelos separates them, writes they complained before Gd and quarreled with Moshe. ArtScroll notes (based on several of Onkelos’ explainers), Onkelos often takes care to avoid any implication the speaking against Gd could be the same as speaking against Moshe. Oddly for that view, Onkelos seems unbothered by the people’s grouping Moshe with Gd in terms of bringing them out of Egypt. If he determinedly avoids linking Gd directly to people, it should have showed up there as well [the first part of the verse said they spoke against Gd and Moshe, and Onkelos split them; when the verse says “why did you bring us up, Onkelos could have split them nonetheless, as he did earlier].

I think Onkelos here was reminding us we argue/fight with Gd differently than with a real person. With Gd, the most we can do is register our dissatisfaction before Gd, as it were, and Gd can choose whether and how to respond. With Moshe, the people could and did speak up in person, could push the matter until he responded to their satisfaction.

It’s wrong to complain about Gd, it affects society when we take on a human leader.

Mistaking the Good for the Bad

One of their gripes was about the mannathe food Gd rained down daily in their time in the desert. They refer to it as lehem ha-kelokel, according to English translations a derisive term, the bread was horrible, miserable, or worthless food. Rashi picks up on the root kal in the world, says they had noticed it was light in their bodies, spared them the need to defecate.

Instead of being grateful, they assumed it was building up in their intestines and would explode one day. Beset by a narrow view of the possible, the were sure lack of elimination must be bad, where if they had been more open to new possibilities, they might have celebrated being freed of a dirty chore. [I notice it more than others, perhaps, because I am often struck by people’s certainty that change must be bad. Sometimes, it’s good.]

Puns Help

Beset by the poisonous serpents, the Jews apologize to Moshe, who prays on their behalf. Gd tells him to make an image of a seraph, a destructive angel, to heal the bitten (looking up at it, they would be reminded of Gd, and thoughts of Gd would restore them to a place where they did not need to be punished anymore, mRosh HaShanah 3;8 seems to say).

Moshe decides to make a nahash nehoshet, according to Rashi to double the language. He does not explain the value in it, so I can only speculate. As I do, I note Rashi to Bamidbar 20;1 was certain Miriam passed away with mitat neshikah, a phrase that literally means death by a [Divine] kiss. In Aharon’s case, tradition understood it was mitat neshikah because the verse says he passed away al pi Hashem, by the mouth of Gd 33;38. For all there is nothing physical about this kind of death—Gd has no mouth, so there is no “kiss” of any human sort—Rashi thought the Torah left the words out regarding Miriam because it would be indelicate to refer to a woman and Gd’s mouth.

Rashi does not connect the two examples of a concern with human language, nor to the many powers the Torah grants speech (such as to create Torah-level prohibitions, with oaths or vows, and/or to wipe away past failures with the words of repentance). Human language shapes the world, I think the Torah wants us to know, so Mosh’es doubling of the language strengthens whatever was being accomplished, and an indelicate reference remains indelicate even if it is only the language that creates the indelicacy.

Screaming to Gd, or Praying

I think Onkelos gives us an excellent example of the power of framing when the Jewish people encounter Edom, and Moshe tries to convince them to grant the Jewish people passage. Telling the Exodus story, 20;16, he says va-nitz’ak, we cried out to Gd. Onkelos writes ve-tzaleina, we prayed. While Onkelos does often translate the verb as prayer, he often also translates it as tzavah, to shout, or kovel, to grumble or protest.

Back in Shemot 5;8, when Gd told Moshe He had heard the Jews’ tze’akot, Onkelos had translated it as kovleitehon, so we have reason to expect to see the same word here. Moshe seems to be re-framing what happened, putting a more explicitly religious spin on what at the time might have been only latently so. Gd told Moshe what the Jewish people did consciously, crying out, Moshe told the king of Edom what the Jewish soul is always doing, turning to Gd in times of trouble.

The reframing seems to have worked, because when the Torah prescribes the formula to recite when bringing first-fruits to the Temple (verses we use as the backbone of our Seder night Haggadot), Devarim 26;7, the verse tells us to say va-nitz’ak, we cried out, and Onkelos translates it as prayed.

The Permission and Peril of Free Framing

Ramban gives a remarkable example of how much room Gd granted Moshe to define life. As the Jews approach the territory of Sihon, they send for permission to pass through, starting at 21;21. Ramban points out their message did not include the requirements for a non-Jewish nation to be allowed to stay in Israel; they seem to be asking for safe passage, with Sihon at no threat of removal, although his land was within the borders of the Land of Israel, and he and his people would therefore have had to make significant concessions to be able to stay.

Ramban claims Moshe was asking Sihon only to avoid war now, because he had decided it was a better idea to conquer the Land of Israel west of the Jordan first, to have space for the entire Jewish people to live together, and then finish up the conquest on the east side of the Jordan. For Ramban, we see, Moshe had the right to choose the order of how the Jews took the Land, Gd staying out of the way.

The same laissez-faire attitude might have contributed to Moshe and Aharon’s great downfall at Mei Merivah. Rashi to 20;10-11 says the rock that gave water to the people disappeared among other ordinary rocks after Miriam passed away, and Moshe and Aharon had a hard time finding it. They did speak to a rock, as Gd commanded, but the wrong one. Thinking they had misunderstood Gd’s directions, they hit the next rock, and got punished for their failure to demonstrate a rock’s obedience to Gd’s verbal command.

The multifaceted world Gd created for us is amenable, in many but not all places, to what we say about it, Parshat Hukkat shows us. A power we can use to put ourselves in a better light, to save ourselves from troubles, or, sadly, sometimes to get ourselves into it. A power we should be sure to use for good and not for evil, Batman.

About Gidon Rothstein

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