Parashat Chukat – Erev Shabbat 1 July 2022 (5782)
Week of 26 June – 2 July 2022
Torah portion: Numbers 19:1-22:1 Haftarah: Judges 11:1-33
Theme: The red heifer
Even though I know my Bible reasonably well, I had not heard about the red cow or heifer before I went to Israel. I only realized the importance of it when I learned that some people who are otherwise not interested in animal breeding and cattle, have spent years and a fortune in an attempt to breed a cow that has a particular color. It has been a project run by the Temple Institute in Israel for decades and they are still not quite there yet. Imagine all that money and labor that has been invested in this enterprise because of a couple of verses in today’s parashah: “Tell the Israelites to bring you a red heifer (“cow” in Hebrew) without defect or blemish etc.” (NIV 19:2)
The interpreters of Numbers 19:1-22 have found meanings in it well beyond its practical application. One of them is even recorded in the New Testament: Hebrews 9:13-14 states that the blood of Christ surpasses the old sacrifices, including the ashes of the heifer. Some commentators place the red heifer in the juxtaposition of the Golden Calf: as the latter one brought death and sin, the former can bring life and purity. (See: Plaut: 1981, p. 1150.)
But there is another aspect of the red heifer law that dominates the Jewish approach to it. The requirement to create a purifying substance from the ashes of a red cow is a ritual law or chukat ha-Torah, and this week’s parashah is named after this term. It is called chukah even though there are other words in Hebrew for “an ordinance” or “a law”. According to the rabbis, the use of this specific term is not accidental: chukah is a law that cannot be and does not have to be understood. A Midrash says that even the wise king Solomon had to admit that the meaning of the red heifer eluded him. (See Bamidbar Rabbah 19:3.) The law of the red cow thus is not so much about its meaning as it is about our obedience to God whether we can comprehend what he is saying to us or not. That is how Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai explained it to his disciples: “God said, ‘I have engraved a rule, I have decreed a decree (chukah chakakti, gezeira gazarti), and you have no permission to transgress what I decreed, as it says “This is a chok (rule) of the Torah.” (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:8.)
God has given us our minds and reason to be used, there is no question about it, but there are times in our lives when we are faced with meanings and happenings beyond our understanding. The red heifer ruling challenges us and reminds us that we are but limited human beings and our intellect is not always enough to match God’s plan in this world.
Sometimes it is wonderful to be reminded that our reason is not everything, we and the red heifer are only a small part of a bigger picture in God’s world whether we understand it or not. But I keep on thinking about those rabbis in Israel who visit a herd of mostly-red cows every time a new calf is born: how far are we prepared to go in order to follow what we think God is asking of us?
For Reflection and Discussion: 1. Find your own meaning of the red heifer! 2. Discuss how to distinguish between the times when God wants us to use our reason and when God would like us to obey him without questioning!
Bibliography: Jewish Virtual Library https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/red-heifer ; Plaut, Gunther, The Torah: A Modern Commentary (New York, 1981); Sefaria https://www.sefaria.org ; The Temple Institute https://templeinstitute.org/
This week’s Parasha Commentary was prepared by
Rota Stone, New Zealand, Bat Kol Alumna: 2002, 2003