This week’s Parashat, Chukat, Numbers 19:1 – 22:1,[i] begins with one of the most mysterious statutes (chukim) in the Torah, that being the preparation and cleansing action of the ashes of the red heifer. The sages are not in agreement as to the why of this series of commandments. In fact, it appears that many of them continued to scratch their heads in wonder, quoting the Kohelet, “All this I have tested with wisdom and I said, ‘I determined to be wise’—but it was far from me” (Kohelet [Ecclesiastes] 7.23). In her commentary, Nehama Leibowitz attempts to come to grips with these statutes by relating the account of a meeting between R. Yohanan b. Zakkai and a gentile concerning this parasha.
A gentile asked Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, “These rituals you do, they seem like witchcraft! You bring a heifer, burn it, crush it up, and take its ashes. [If] one of you is impure by the dead [the highest type impurity], 2 or 3 drops are sprinkled on him, and you declare him pure?!” He said to him, “Has a restless spirit ever entered you?” He said to him, “No!” “Have you ever seen a man where a restless spirit entered him?” He said to him, “Yes!” [Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai] said to him, “And what did you do for him?” He said to him, “We brought roots and made them smoke beneath him, and pour water and it flees.” He said to him, “Your ears should hear what leaves from your mouth! The same thing is true for this spirit, the spirit of impurity, as it is written, (Zachariah 13:2) “Even the prophets and the spirit of impurity will I remove from the land.” They sprinkle upon him purifying waters, and it [the spirit of impurity] flees.” After he left, our rabbi’s students said, “You pushed him off with a reed. What will you say to us?” He said to them, “By your lives, a dead person doesn’t make things impure, and the water doesn’t make things pure. Rather, 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 chuk (statute) of the Torah.” (Bamidbar Rabba 19.8)[ii]
She then concludes, “The ashes of the heifer and the waters of the sin-offering have no intrinsic purificatory properties. It is a Divine commandment.”[iii] In other words, the act of obedience to HaShem’s command is the key issue, which in essence is a matter of the heart. We know the commandment, and, therefore, we choose to be obedient, even though we may not know the reason for the commandment. The “why,” in fact, is not important, except possibly for intellectual gymnastics. The primary reason that the LORD gives Bnei Yisrael for obeying His commandments is so that Bnei Yisrael would be holy as He is holy.
For I am Adonai who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God. Therefore, you shall be holy, for I am holy. (Leviticus 11.45; cf. 1 Peter 1.16)
This may well be what Rav Shaul had in mind when he wrote the Corinthians that “…we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5.7). We may not always understand why we need to do what the LORD directs us to do, but we can have faith in the fact that He does have a purpose.
The next episode in the parasha epitomizes the importance of being obedient to the word of the LORD. Once again, the people were grumbling over another perceived lack of water needed to meet their needs. I say perceived only because they had been in this position before, and HaShem had provided miraculously for them (Exodus 17.6). This time when Moshe and Aaron went to the LORD in the Mishkan, He told them
“Take the staff and gather the assembly, you and your brother Aaron. Speak to the rock before their eyes, and it will give out its water. You will bring out water from the rock, and you will give the community something to drink, along with their livestock.” (Numbers 20.8)
Moshe, (1) take your staff, the symbol of your authority, (2) gather the people along with you and your brother Aaron, (3) speak to the rock in their sight and the rock will bring forth water, enough for the people and their livestock. Simple as one, two, three, and the people would be satisfied and all would be well again – at least until the next crisis or perceived crisis. Unfortunately, the event did not play out according to plan. (1) Moshe took his staff as commanded (20.9), and (2) Moshe and Aaron gather the people together before the rock (20.10) – so far so good. Then the plan went south! (3) Instead of speaking to the rock, Moshe berated the people, “You rebels!” But he didn’t stop there, he stepped into the place of HaShem by saying, “Must we bring you water from the rock?” Then, instead of speaking to the rock as instructed, he struck it in his own strength, not once as before but twice (20.11). Water did come forth and everyone was satisfied. Why water came forth at this point only HaShem knows because Moshe was not obedient to the word of the LORD. His disobedience came with a price – Moshe, nor Aaron for that matter, would enter into the promised land. Within this parasha, both Miriam and Aaron die (Miriam, 20.1; Aaron, 20.29), and though Moshe continued to lead the people on their journey, he would not enter into the Land.
The lesson to be learned for us today is simple, as the words of Samuel to King Saul, “to obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Samuel 15.22). Was Moshe’s righteous anger justified? Probably so. However, he let his righteous anger out run the word of the LORD to him and Aaron. When we know what we are to do, whether it is something specific from Scripture or something that we know in our kishkes[iv] is from the LORD and that we are to do it, and we do not do it, then we face the possibility of stepping out of HaShem’s commands and plans. In doing so, we may not only find ourselves not accomplishing the best that the LORD has for us, but possibly even settling for less desirable consequences, like Moshe, who lost the right to enter into the Land of Promise and like King Saul, who lost his kingdom and dynasty. May this be lesson be warning enough to keep us on the straight path.
[i] Unless otherwise noted, all Scriptures are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.
[iii] Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar (Numbers). Eliner Library, 1993. p 235
[iv] Yiddish for one’s innermost parts, guts.