Includes the famous Red Heifer enigma

By Joel Gimpel

June 30, 2001

Parshat Chukat begins with a mitzvah we are asked to perform even though we are unable to understand its purpose and reason – the sacrifice of the red cow, whose ashes are to be used to purify people who have become contaminated through contact with a corpse. The narrative then jumps 38 years to begin the description of what transpires just before the Jews enter the land of Israel. The prophetess Miriam dies and the people are left without water, since the miraculous well that had accompanied them throughout their sojourn in the desert existed only as long as she lived. Hashem commands Moses and Aaron to speak to a particular rock so it will miraculously produce water; Moses strikes it with his staff instead, and Hashem tells the two leaders that they will not enter into the Promised Land. After this, the king of Edom refuses to let the Jews pass through his borders, causing them to take a more circuitous route. Aaron dies and is buried on Mount Hor, and Elazar his son succeeds him as Kohen Gadol (High Priest). The Israelis sing a song of praise about the miraculous well that Hashem had provided, and the portion concludes with the battles and victories over Sichon the king of Emori and Og the king of Bashan.

In the news release for this weekend’s services (which was edited unscrupulously by West Hawaii Today), Barry wrote that I, not to be cowed by the Red Cow conundrum that baffled even King Solomon, would discuss this week’s Parshat. Somewhat jokingly, I replied saying that, if all else fails, I could twist the conundrum into a discussion of the current Israeli – Palestinian conflict. Well, my friends, that’s exactly what I’m about to do. Let’s first dispense with the somewhat obvious lesson of the Red Cow sacrifice and resultant temporary impurity of those participating in the sacrifice. We all, through common experience, know that if we wash our dirty hands in clean water, our hands become clean and the water, dirty. Similarly, if we allow our clean hands to come into contact with an unclean substance, our hands become unclean. Ask any doctor.

But does the Torah really want us to learn the simple rules regarding basic sanitation? I doubt it. What then is the reason for the command to sacrifice a pure red cow, with the resultant temporary impurity of the sacrificers?

There are three categories of commandments in the Torah: eidos, recalling past events, Shabbat, and holidays; mishpatim, dictated by moral understanding (e.g., don’t murder, steal or commit adultery, and give to charity); and chukim, for which there is no rational explanation. The Red Cow sacrifice is one of the latter. In it, Hashem asks us to perform as a sign of our willingness to accept the Torah and his commandments, even those that transcend our experiences.

The lesson of the Red Cow, I believe, is that we should love our neighbor, for we, by giving of ourselves and becoming impure to help another become pure, demonstrate our love for our fellow man. We gain from suffering, and learn from loving. Perhaps, the Red Cow conundrum is a metaphor for Torah: the cow’s ashes have the power to cleanse, as does the Torah.

Applying this lesson of the Red Cow to the current conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, we can see that it requires that we love our neighbors, and be willing to become impure, albeit temporarily, and give of ourselves to help another.

There is one other intriguing question to keep in mind: How many unblemished and perfectly pure red cows that had never borne a yoke do you think existed at the time?

This Parshat continues with the narrative regarding Moses angrily striking the rock with his staff, and being punished therefore by not being permitted to enter the land of Israel. In the old days, they used to say, “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” Rods were in. Discipline of that sort was very common, and probably quite effective. But hitting and other types of “contact discipline” have fallen out of grace, and are discouraged by many prominent psychiatrists.

Why the change? An analysis of the nature of Moses’ sin in the desert will yield some insights into why the nature of parental discipline has evolved as it has, and what the Israelis and Palestinians need to do to achieve peace.

Rashi, the preeminent Torah commentator, gives one explanation of Moses’s sin. The people thirsted for water, so Hashem instructed Moses and Aaron to speak to a certain rock, and water would then miraculously flow from it. But instead of speaking to it, Moses hit the rock and the water came pouring out. In another place in the Torah, Rashi seems to indicate that the reason why Moses was punished was because he became angry with the people and called them morim – fools. On top of all this, the Torah itself states that the cause for Moses’ not being allowed to enter the land of Israel was because he didn’t have the faith to sanctify Hashem’s name when he hit the rock.

There seem to be three different aspects to Moses’ sin: (a) a lack of faith; (b) unjustified anger at the people; and (c) that he hit the rock instead of talking to it. The three aspects are interrelated, and actually represent a progression. When we are faced with all types of challenges and tests in our lives – be they an illness, the loss of a job, or a difficult child, we are asked to have faith and trust in Hashem, that Hashem has only our best interests in mind.

Moses was having major trouble with the people, and his faith in Hashem was being tested. Sound familiar? Sometimes, we fail that test and we lose control of ourselves. That’s the second step, when we get angry at ourselves and at others. We call people names and we yell at them. Moses called our ancestors rebellious fools when he got upset at them.

The final step is that, in our anger, we lash out indiscriminately at the object of our anger. Sometimes, our kids are just not getting the message we are trying to convey to them. Their head is like a rock, not willing to listen to us. So, in our frustration, we “hit the rock,” instead of patiently talking to it. And that never works. It always causes the one who got hit to rebel or to close him up even more. Parenthetically, I believe that this can be said of both the Israelis and the Palestinians. Neither are getting the message, so in their mutual frustrations, they’re hitting the rock.

And this could be why discipline doesn’t work too well nowadays. It’s not our kids that are the problem. Kids haven’t changed all that much throughout the centuries. It’s the parents that have changed. In the old days, parents were more firmly anchored in their faith, so when difficult situations and challenges inevitably fell upon them, such as a difficult child etc., they handled it much better. Even when they needed to discipline their child, it was done in a more cool and calculated manner, where only the best interests of the child were in their minds. So the discipline (generally) worked.

Today, though, it’s a whole different ball game. We get hit with a difficult test, we lose ourselves, and we hit with reckless abandon. The kid gets smacked out of anger or frustration, but hardly ever in a calm, calculated, and loving manner. So how do we expect it to work?

It is told that, in the previous century, Russian Minister of Education Uvarov once came to a great rabbi, and asked him when is the appropriate time to start educating children. To which the rabbi replied, “Twenty years before they are born.” We have to first make ourselves a good example for the kids, and then we can influence them in a positive manner. Similarly, the Palestinians and Israelis must make themselves good examples for each other. Then, they can achieve the peace they profess to desire.

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