This week’s portion Chukat, begins in Numbers 19 with the description of one of the more famous rituals of purification, the “red heifer/cow”. (“para adumah”). We read agin of the need to bring to God something without blemish. Rituals of purification and cleanliness, and the themes of being unclean when in contact with certain things, appear often in Torah. The portion continues with another famous passage in Chapter 20 where again, the people find themselves without water, complain to Moses and Aaron and, as a result, a ritual at the rock takes place where Moses deviates from the plan, strikes the rock for water instead of “trusting” in God and is punished by not being allowed to enter Canaan. (20: 6-13).
At the very end of 20, however, is a brief, but vivid series of verses in which Aaron is “gathered to his kin” (20:24). Moses takes the vestments of office from Aaron, places them on Eleazar, Aaron’s son. Aaron dies and the community mourns for his 30 days. (20:27-29). We will see a similar story of transition later between Moses and Joshua. What is so challenging about this brief series of verses? I think it reminds us of what so many of us are going through. We are living in a stage of life that is filled with transitions. In many ways, or some ways, they may be little deaths. At times, physical limitations arise that mean we have to learn how to live in a different circumstance, and that challenge impacts everything we feel and may be able to do. Not everyone meets these challenges equally. We all know people who deal with the changes of aging in a positive way, and some who see it as an end of active life.
We are also at as stage when we, if we are so blessed, have the opportunity to transition to new life stages. We literally say goodbye to a part of our life that was, and transition to the new. For some it may be a new career, for some, an active leaving of full time work, for others, the embrace of a new life challenge as the children grow and become independent. These are all transitions and, with each one, challenges and changes will emerge. Likewise, those of our generation who face transitions that are not expected. These are the challenges that emerge as a result of life’s randomness; a job loss, a sudden death of a loved one. One of the things that Chukat may be trying to teach us is that nothing in life remains the same; that change is constant and what we need to be aware is that these changes in life situations become more powerful and challenging as we age. And, that many of these transitional moments are out of our control. Again, we are faced with one of Judaism’s great gifts to us: we get to choose how we respond to these challenges. We hope, and pray, that those responses with be those that sanctify and honor life.
Rabbi Richard F Address