Parshat Chukat: Faith in the Unclear and the Unknown

“There are things that are hidden, we won’t understand and we won’t know/
we will also do things, seemingly without reason
there’s no need to ask and investigate into everything
sometimes, it’s fine not to know everything”

This is the refrain of Zohar Argov’s well-known song, “There are things that are hidden.” Parshat Chukat is best known for its mystery; it purifies the impure, but as it does so, it also defiles those who perform the purification.

We are lucky – particularly in today’s day and age with the boundless knowledge Google puts at our fingertips – that there is a parsha that reminds us that there are still some things we can’t understand, and we should find this humbling. The answer to some questions is “because”, or, as we find in Tehillim, “Happy are the people who have it so.”

Sometimes, it’s OK not to know everything, and to simply do what Hashem commands because he commanded it, as innocently as a child who accepts the authority of others even when he or she doesn’t understand the reasons. The Torah, and Hashem’s limitless wisdom are beyond us, and beyond our understanding. We should be honored that we don’t understand everything, that we’re part of something so great that it can’t be understood through human reasoning.

The heifer’s ashes purify. The Mishna (Tractate Parah 3:5) tells us of the seven red heifers identified throughout the history of the Jewish people. The last red heifer in our region was burned over two thousand years ago, during the time of the second Temple. Are we then doomed to remain impure until the end of time?

Maimonides, in his book, Sefer Tehara, The Laws of Ritual Baths 11-12, shows us one way to purify ourselves today without the red heifer – by purifying our souls of evil thoughts and opinions. Here, he means correcting our ways and our thoughts through the “waters of knowledge”.

It is obviously clear that the laws concerning defilements and purities are biblical decrees, and not things which the human mind can determine; they are classified as divine statutes… but is a matter of biblical decree; it depends on the heart’s intent… just as one who sets his mind on becoming clean becomes clean as soon as he has immersed himself, even though nothing new is produced in his physical being, so one who sets his mind on purifying himself from all the spiritual defilements, namely wrongful thoughts and evil traits, becomes clean as soon as he made up his mind to abstain from those notions, and brought his soul into the waters of reason…

Parshat Chukat doesn’t deal just with the red heifer. This parsha recounts many events – 13 in total – perhaps more than any other Parsha in the Torah:

  1. The case of the red heifer 2. The laws of purity and impurity 3. The death of Miriam 4. The waters of contention – Moses strikes the rock 5. Moses and Aaron are punished 6. Emissaries are sent to the king of Edom, and the king turns down their request. 7. The death of Aaron 8. The war against the Canaanites dwelling in Arad 9. Complaints, snakes, and the copper serpent 10. The list of desert journeys 11. The song at the well 12. The war against Sihon 13. The war against Og, the king of Bashan.

In other words, this parsha contains three wars, death from the bites of snakes and serpents, and the demise of three leaders of the Jewish people (Aaron and Miriam die, and Moses is forbidden from entering the Holy Land). All of this makes Chukat one of the saddest chapters of our history. All of our great leaders are affected: Miriam, the prophetess, Aaron, the kindly grandfather figure who creates peace between man and fellow man, and Moses, our great teacher. All are affected (Moses died 8 months after his brother).

What is to become of us? Have the Jewish people’s legendary leaders faded away? No! Israel is not bereft of its God. The phrase “everyone can be replaced” is even relevant to the greatest leaders in Jewish history, and even such figures as Moses, Aaron and Miriam.

Beyond this, Parshat Chukat also contains a crucial chronological transition – the transition from the first year since the exodus from Egypt to the fortieth year of Israel’s desert journeys. Chapter 20, verse 1 states: “The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon…” The Ibn Ezra provides the following exegesis: “In the first month – in the fortieth year. For the Torah includes no incident or prophecy that was not either in the first year or the fortieth year. And the meaning of ‘and the People of Israel came, the entire congregation’ is that the entire generation of the desert had died, and now, the people were approaching the Land of Canaan.”

What an incredible jump! In just one verse, we’ve advanced 38 years, without even noticing!

Thirty-eight years accounts for most of the lifetime of an adult, and lo and behold, no mention of anything happening during those years. Is it true that nothing had happened, nothing of consequence for future generations, during those 38 years?

We can learn two lessons from this, one on a personal level, and another on a national level. The national lesson is that it would seem that 38 years in the lifetime of a nation aren’t necessarily significant. This teaches us that we must be extremely patient concerning national processes occurring before our very eyes, and this is usually rather challenging, since we all want peace, here and now, and we all desire ‘Mashiach now!’ We must do what we can for our redemption to occur earlier, yet keep our sights on the long term, even if it will take many years for anything to happen. We will be like the man who planted a fig tree and is asked why he planted the tree, if he knows he will never eat its fruit? He responded that he was planting the tree for his children and grandchildren, for they will be the ones who will eat the fruit.

This is the personal lesson: during those 38 years, millions of Jews had lived their lives, and no mention is made of that time. Nothing they did was important enough to be documented for all eternity in the Torah. At times, people bicker and fight over issues that seem important and fundamental to them, but we can learn that they aren’t all that important, when looking into the future, and that there is no need to quarrel or yell about them. We are taught of Rabbi Natan, the disciple of R. Nahman of Breslav, who was scorned and attacked for having spread his rabbi’s teachings. His disciples asked him whether he was aware of this, and whether he was offended. R. Natan responded as follows: “I see that a hundred years from now, someone will be walking beside my grave, and muttering that once, a man named Rabbi Natan had lived, but he has been dead for a long time.” Those who see far into the future and embrace a broad-minded philosophy don’t argue and get caught up in things that may only seem important to those who only live in the here and now.

The waters of contention – Mei Merivah.

There were two crises in the Torah involving water: one occurred after the exodus from Egypt, and the other, just before the people entered the Holy Land, when their faith faltered: “Because you did not have faith in Me”

  • After the exodus, at Refidim – the location is called “Massa and Merivah”, and Moses was commended to strike the rock.
  • Here, on the 40th year – the location is call Mei Merivah, the waters of contention, where Moses was commanded to speak to the rock.

Water also served to strengthen the people’s faith during the exodus and at the doorstep to the Holy Land:

  • The parting of the Red Sea during the exodus, and its aftermath: “… and they had faith in Hashem and his servant, Moses”
  • At the entrance to the Holy Land, Joshua parts the waters of the Jordan river so that “you shall know that a living God is among you” (Joshua 3:10). Consequently, “on that day God exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel, so that they revered him all his days as they had revered Moses.” (ibid., 4:14)

Interestingly, faith was bolstered through miracles involving water, and water was also involved in the rebellion and attempts to undermine that faith. This carries an important message: everything in the world and in life can be used to either strengthen or weaken our faith. It all depends on us, and our perspective. We have the power to draw strength from what we see; it depends on us. According to the Kuzari, these are the roots of faith and apostasy.


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