Parashat Chukat – Erev Shabbat 23 June 2023 (5783)
Week of 18 June – 24 June 2023
Torah portion: Numbers 19:1-22:1 Haftarah: Judges 11:1-33
Theme: From Defilement To Purification
As a healing sequel to the rebellion and tragic fate of the Levite, Korah (Num. 16), Parashat Chukat seeks to strengthen the morale and vocation of the Israelites, as a holy people. That process began in chapter 17 with the ritual of the staffs, honoring the twelve ancestral tribes. It continued in chapter 18, with the affirmation of Aaron’s Levitical responsibility for the Tent of Meeting and its services. Now, Parashat Chukat presents “ritual law (Chukat haTorah),” in its response to instances of defilement.
The parashah states, for instance, that a person’s exposure to a corpse defiles, for seven days, not only that person, but also everything and everyone in that setting. However, Chukat also enables release from defilement, through rituals of purification; several examples are offered. The first is the purification of the Tent of Meeting: when the priest Eleazar, after witnessing the slaughter and burning of an unblemished heifer, sprinkles some of its blood, seven times, towards the front of the desecrated Tent. The purification of persons required intentional bathing and washing of one’s clothing, with the awareness that one remains unclean until evening. More relevant to this parashah is purification using a substance composed of the ashes of a “red” heifer, burned with cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson material; a supply of it was preserved in a clean place outside the camp, to be mixed with water for lustrations (sprinkling). Gunther Plaut (1149) cites the Mishnah’s note that this ritual was used only nine times: once by Moses, once by Ezra, and seven times thereafter. The memory of it remained in the Temple’s Sabbath service.
By Numbers 13:26, the community was established in Kadesh. Numbers 20 picks up the desert narrative thirty-eight years later, still at Kadesh, in the “last act” of the desert journey with its significant symbolic events. They set out from Kadesh and Mt. Hor where, when Aaron died, Eleazar was vested in his father’s priestly robes. Initially denied passage through Edom and Moab, the Israelites arrived back at Kadesh, where Miriam died. As the Exodus generation passed away, a new generation emerged, with a new vision that would take them into the Promised Land. At Kadesh, Moses struck the rock, demanding the release of its water (20:9-13); however, his arrogant attitude there immediately barred him from entering the Land. Numbers 21 recounts the community’s trek out of the Negev, and the struggle to occupy the land of the Amorites, which is celebrated in the Song of the Well (17-18) and the Song of Heshbon (27-30). Finally, they arrive at a point across the Jordan from Jericho.
The haftarah provides a poignant companion piece to that account, from the generations of the Judges (c. 1220-1025). Jephthah, the Israelite commander in Gilead, sought terms of peace when the Ammonites attacked, but without success. As he engaged in that battle, he vowed that, in return for victory, he would sacrifice, in a burnt offering, whatever emerged first from his house on his return. The haftarah ends there. But the following verse envisages tragedy — would enacting his vow have been a defilement? Reflection and Discussion: 1. Recall a challenging journey in your own life. What were some of your learnings in that experience? 2. As Jephthah formulates his vow, what would you suggest to him? Bibliography: Plaut, W.G., The Torah, Union of American Hebrew Congregations (New York, 1981); Brown, R., Fitzmeyer, J., Murphy, R., The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Prentice Hall (New Jersey, 1990).
This week’s Parashah Commentary was prepared by
Diane Willey,nds, Canada, Bat Kol Contributor.