Chukat-Balak (Numbers 19:1-25:9) To Wash Away….What?

This week, the double portion of Chukat and Balak will present us with a myriad of discussion topics. We have the deaths of Miriam and Aaron (20), the wanderings and the curious story of Bilaam and Balak and  a talking donkey. We have the famous passage of mah tovu ohelecha (how good are the tents of Jacob) which is part of so many services. (24:5). And there is the opening passage that speaks of the ritual of the parah adumah (red cow/heifer). All of this and more, yet, within the portion is the presence of another theme that jumps out at us as we continue to make our way through the Pandemic. Water!

In 19:7 and 8 we see the priets assigned to the parah sacrifice needing to wash and bathe. Water again symbolizes a means of purification. Commentaries discusss this rite in the context of coming in contact with a  dead body which would make someone impure, and thus in need of a ritual or rite that counteracts this. The Etz Chayim commentary notes a psychological approach in that people “burdened by a sense of wrongdoing” may need some sort of ritual (in the Bible it is an animal sacrifice) to assuage that feeling. (p. 880). Water as a vehicle of transition/transformation is also with this portion in 20:13 as the “waters of Maribah” (mai m’ribah) or “strife”, which follow the Israelite’s once again complaining. This is the passage where Moses, according to traditional comments, looses his trust in God, strikes a rock to bring forth water, and is punished by being banned from entering Canaan. Water is an on-going symnol with Torah, and just as it is today.

The priests wash and bathe. The ritual of washing to be clean (physically and perhaps spiritually) is present in so mnay religious rites. Water is a means of purification. No less so than today. We are called upon to wash our hands continually so as to reduce the threat of infection. SO, we look to Talmud, tractate Yomah 77 where we find a discussion on the value of washing one’s hands  before eating and one of the reasons is that doing so lessens the spread of infectious diseases; in the talmudic world, through a demon. But, the point is that this act of washing one’s hands to insure cleanliness and health can be seen within our own tradition.

Likewise, we have seen modern interpretations on this act. In a recent webinar sponsored by Kavon V’Nichum’s Gamliel Institute, a discussion was held on the emergance of new rituals in light of the pandemic. Rabbi Shira Stern, one of the presenters, took us through some examples. One was on the act of washing one’s hands. It was a prayer-meditation on this act written by Rabbi Debra Hachen. Part of this “blessing” was: “Bless these hands. These are the hands that are longing to hold the hands of loved ones closed off in nursing homes or assisted living or memory care or hospitals. Bless these hands….bless our hands that when the time comes to emerge again into the world, we may extend them more gently to stroke the face of a grandparent or grandchild or partner or lover. Let our hands be instruments of your compassion and love in this imperfect world.”

Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Richard F Address

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