Numbers XIX to XXV

The Last Stages of the Israelites’ Journey to the Promised Land

By Morty Breier

June 26, 1999

Today’s portion of the Torah is  Chukat and Balak” (Numbers XIX to XXII, 1 and XXII, 2 to XXV, 9). To quote Barry’s press release: “Chukat” deals with the concept of ritual purification and in particular describes the Red Heifer regulation, so mysterious that even King Solomon was said to despair of learning its meaning. “Balak” describes the last stages of the Israelites’ journey to the Promised Land. It discusses Balaam, an enigmatic character in the Bible, who, along with Melchizidek, Job and Jethro were ancient worshipers of the One God, yet were not themselves Israelites.

Reading the Torah, the translation I have is by Everette Fox, is at times difficult for me. It is a venerably ancient document, a hoary tale, made even more grizzled by the rawness of Fox’s translation. He renders the Hebrew more directly into its English equivalents without using the nuances of language that has since developed over the past 2000 years. The terms are powerful, at the simpler base of our understanding, and not at their resultant sophisticated complexities. Characters and events that themselves could keep 10 modern novelists writing thousands of pages on, are here delivered in 40 or 50 verses.

In our present world view we must deal with the Torah as parable. The story told is about something more than the obvious, the literal. It is about something more than a piece of history, more than a family legacy, more than a self congratulatory celebration of our uniqueness. For the Torah to have sacred meaning to us it must enlighten us, it must raise us up, it must bring spirit into view. Often I find that I have to bring more to it than I take away. I wish that were not so. This reading is one of those times.

I mean the verses about the red heifer, purification, and tamei, that dreaded term which was not even translated into English by Fox. Like Kapu. What can that really mean? What archetypal images appear? Aren’t the lessons more general than the specifics described? Isn’t there more to it? Or the tribes the Israelites deal with in one way or another while on their journey. These are people. Why are they dealt with so incidently, like passing scenes? We know better. In the past year we have all been watching the goings on in Kosovo. That’s what confrontational  tribal interactions looks like on the ground. 400,000 stories. Here covered in 42 verses. What is the Torah really trying to teach us? Can these verses really help us in our understanding of Kosovo?

Even the final story in this section, the story of Bil’am, is a tribal confrontation. With all its lovely poetic and literary devices, it is still about one tribe trying to curse another and about one tribe, thankfully, as always, ours, being made invulnerable to such an act by our being blessed by God. Three lines best describing a Jewish holiday: “They tried to kill us! We won! Let’s eat!”. But that’s the same three lines for any nation’s holiday. We can’t help noticing that throughout history, each warring faction seems to believe it was blessed by God. I mean, God bless America. Of course the kamikaze pilots also gave thanks to God for their sacrifices. Should God ever be invoked for any act of human violence? What is it that God wants us to learn from these accounts? That our story is true while everyone else’s is bull? This has been going on for years. Isn’t it time to give it a break?

Hitler heard his own voices. They told him to destroy the Jews. He thought why not? Hadn’t that been the way of history? Hadn’t one people been wiping out another people since the earliest recorded time? Look, Hitler could have thought, even in their book, the Torah, the section called Chukat, hadn’t God told the Israelites something similar? Isn’t that what nations do? In the name of one God or another? But history can be challenged, habits can be broken, new lessons can be learned. Hitler Germany did finally go down in flames. Humanity learns. It is unacceptable for one nation to lord it over another. That was the lesson. The colonial powers gave up their colonies. It was no longer acceptable to either the people or their overseers.

There are times that I believe our sacrifice, the loss of 6 million Jews, could only occur in a God centered world, if the lesson that such a catastrophe could teach was worth the learning. That one nation, or one people, or one religion can no longer feel it is their right to decimate, or even subjugate, to even oppress another, to ethnically cleanse itself of another, is no longer acceptable human behavior. That just might be a lesson large enough to possibly account for the tragedy suffered.

Haven’t  we just reconfirmed that lesson in Kosovo? Milosevitch’s actions with regard to the ethnic cleansing of the Albanians are no longer acceptable to the European nations on whose soil the rise and fall of the Third Reich took place. But the meaning is even more complex. How could we impose our will on Milosevitch’s or on the Serbs? Cultural Relativism would have us believe that the ethics and values of a culture are only appropriate within and not outside of that culture’s world view. This line of reasoning stems from the lesson. But within the Balkan cultural world view it was perfectly acceptable, natural, even noble to reiterate the stories of and repeat the incidents of intercultural cruelties and massacres. What right does America and the rest of Europe have to impose this unacceptability value on the Serbs?

The more complex lesson, I’ve come to realize, is that along with the coexistence of many diverse cultural world views, there is a hierarchy of values. The real Torah, is the journey itself, and the lessons learned are to be read in that journey.  If you don’t take it you don’t learn it. You might not learn it even though you do take it, but that’s up to you. We, what might be called Western Civilization, the Judeo-Christian world took almost seven thousand years to learn this lesson. There are transcendental values and they are almost always blind to the particulars of race, religion, nationality or ethnic group. Treating each other as the sparks of God we each are is such a transcendent value. Hashem is on the side of the enlightened, not on the side of the Serbs, the Americans or the Jews.

Let’s face it this lesson certainly is not evident in this section of our Torah. These accounts don’t come near to stressing that particular lesson. There were few indications that we learned that lesson in most of Christianity’s long European reign. I even see it’s understanding absent in much of how modern Israel acts, amongst one another, the religious toward the secular, and especially  toward the others, the Palestinians, in its midst. How come we, of all people, are failing in that regard? We should be leading. A light unto the world is what we call ourselves. But the higher aspects of all cultures and religions are lights unto the world. Let’s recognize that and let’s help each other power each of our high reaching lights. We’ll find, I firmly believe, that it’s the same single light for all of us. Shaloha and thanks for listening.

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