One of the more interesting and obscure rituals appears in this week’s portion. It concerns the red heifer, one without blemish which is to be sacrificed. An elaborate ritual ensues at the beginning of Numbers 19. We do not know where this ritual originated (some say within Cannanite culture). The red cow without blemish ritual also speaks to the concerns about being clean and unclean, especially, as commentaries have pointed out, regarding someone who would come in contact with death. especially a dead person.
“Chukat” stems from a word that is used to refer to a “law that defies rational explanation.” In the Plaut commentary there is a Midrash quoted (page 1149) that speaks of four laws that “cannot be explained by human reason but, being Divine, demand implicit obedience”. The ritual of the red cow is one. This of course, relates to a larger discussion of obedience to God’s word, even if you cannot see a rational explanation. One obeys just because it is God’s word. Indeed, Torah is a source of that God. The Wilderness experience is replete with instances where there is no toleration of questioning.
The idea of obedience to a law because it comes from God, the theme of this portion and others, has obviously been reviewed and redefined within our contemporary world. Indeed, the questioning of the Divine Revelation at Sinai and the restructuring of that belief, gave rise to modern forms of non revelatory Judaism.
As we get a little older and try to see the spiritual aspects of our own life, we often again come to questions of who or what is behind the laws of Torah.Faith, for many of us, becomes a subject of intense discussion and questioning. Once we begin this process of openly questioning what we believe, what we have been taught and how these “truths” can relate to our life, we often retreat from religion. So many of us carry with us a theology that was last debated when we were 13 or 16. It is THAT religion that we leave and, for so many of us, seek a more adult religious embrace.
I think one of the great gifts of passages such as Chukat is that is again allows us to confront what we believe in and know that Judaism allows us to questions these beliefs, and even question how we choose to define that concept we call God. Perhaps this strange ritual is really a symbol of the struggle we are permitted to engage in to come to a better, more mature understanding of who we are in relationship to God, how we choose to model that relationship and how we can seek a sense of purification of our soul in light of the reality of our own mortality.
Rabbi Richard F Address
Rabbi Richard F. Address, D.Min, is the Founder and Director of www.jewishsacredaging.com. Rabbi Address served for over three decades on staff of the Union for Reform Judaism; first as a Regional Director and then, beginning in 1997, as Founder and Director of the URJ’s Department of Jewish Family Concerns and served as a specialist and consultant for the North American Reform Movement in the areas of family related programming. Rabbi Address was ordained from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1972 and began his rabbinic career in Los Angeles congregations. He also served as a part time rabbi for Beth Hillel in Carmel, NJ while regional director and, after his URJ tenure, served as senior rabbi of Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, NJ from 2011-2014.