Torah: Chukkat (Numbers 19:1-22:1) Haftarah: (Judges 11:1-33)
This Shabbat continues with the Torah portion that has the laws of the red heifer, the death of Miriam, the sin of Moses and Aaron, and its punishment. The parsha also has the king of Edom refuses the children of Israel permission to pass through his land, the death of Aaron, the rebellion and the resulting plague and its cure. Lastly, the war with the Canaanites and the defeat of Og, the king of Bashan.
The story of the red heifer provides for the removal of defilement resulting from contact with the dead. A red cow, free from blemish and not yet broken to the yoke, was to be slain outside the camp. It was then to be burned on a pyre with cedarwood, hyssop, and scarlet thread. The gathered ashes were dissolved in fresh water and sprinkled on those that had become contaminated through contact with a dead body. Ironically, those who prepared the ashes of purification were defiled in the act of preparation.
Many commentators discuss this seemingly irrational law. The Targum Yerushalmi and the Midrash Numbers Rabbah (chap. 2) held that the red heifer was intended to atone for idolatry of the golden calf. Obadiah Sforono, the Italian commentator, offered a symbolic explanation for the red heifer. He points out that each element in the preparation is symbolic: the cedarwood stands tall, representing pride; the hyssop, a low growing bush, represents humility, and the scarlet thread represents sinfulness. Thus, the ashes of the heifer combine pride, humility, and sinfulness. The sinner, who has allowed pride to rule, is purified and reminded to pursue humility and more moderate paths.
In ancient times, a person who touched a corpse became defiled for seven days (Numbers 19:14). Today, too, it is customary to wash your hands with water before entering your home after visiting a cemetery. The commentator known as Chinnuch explains that a person’s only claim to sanctity, while alive, is in possession of a soul. Without the soul, the body is mere waste matter. At death, when the soul departs, the body sinks to a degree of impurity. (Sefer HaChinnuch, mitzvah no. 398).
While the Torah states the ceremony and actions concerning the red heifer, many people do not comprehend the lesson. The lesson of the ceremony is a powerful object-lesson, teaching the eternal truth that a holy G-d can be served by a holy People.
Once again the Lord would like each of us to follow the commandments even though we cannot understand all the meanings behind the actions. By doing righteous actions each individual will be bringing light into the darkness and we continue to repair the world.
Rabbi Helene Ainbinder