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And Now, Cows (Chukkat)

A short thought on the parshah, dedicated in the memory of my maternal grandmother, Miriam Leah bat Sarah, whose yahrzeit was observed last week.

As its title suggests, Sefer Bamidbar, on the whole, recounts those events which took place during B’nei Yisrael’s wanderings “in the desert.” Occasionally, however, the narrative is interrupted with legal material. Our parshah, Chukkat,[1] offers a perfect case in point: it begins with a detailed description of the parah adumah (“red cow”) ritual which was to be performed when one contracted “corpse impurity.” Only after discussing this procedure at length does the Torah resume with the history it had been in the midst of recounting.

The introduction of the “red cow” ritual at this point in the text seems, at first glance, entirely arbitrary. In what way, if at all, is it connected to the larger story of Sefer Bamidbar? Several answers suggest themselves here.

At one level, the law of the parah adumah is undoubtedly related to the later events of our parshah: namely, the deaths of Miriam and Aharon. Chazal already noticed this connection, and interpreted it to mean that “just as sacrifices atone, so too do the death of the righteous.” More mundanely, preceding the deaths of Aharon and Miriam with a ritual devoted to the religious processing of death may have helped prepare the nation, mentally, for the imminent loss that it would soon confront. Especially instructive, in this regard, is the fact that the Torah deviates from its usual practice of reserving ritual responsibilities for Aharon, and instead appoints his son, Elazar, as the officiant of this particular ceremony. Is this, perhaps, the Torah’s way of hinting at Aharon’s looming demise?[2]

Image result for red cowOn the other hand, the literary placement of the parah adumah ritual may also be explained in terms of the material which precedes it: namely, the rebellion of Korach. Korach, we have argued at length, represents in many ways the worship of death; his very name, it would seem, is derived from the term “korchah,” denoting gashes made in one’s head upon the loss of the dead—a practice that was prevalent among the cults in the Ancient Near East, and which the Torah expressly forbids.  There is even a medrash which claims—somewhat anachronistically, it would seem—that the ritual of the parah adumah was what prompted Korach’s rebellion! Either way, presenting the ritual of the parah adumah at this particular junction in the Biblical narrative may perhaps be aimed at offering a healthier alternative for the ritualizing of loss than those methods championed by Korach and his ilk.

So we have now two reasonable explanations for the literary placement of the parah adumah—one in terms of what follows it (deaths of Aharon and Miriam), and the second in terms of what precedes it (rebellion of Korach). Yet there is, of course, a third option: namely, considering the parah adumah in terms of the events which coincide with it.

Well—what does coincide with it?

That’s actually a fascinating question, which we rarely if ever pause to ask. And the answer is somewhat startling, once stumbled upon. See, by most accounts, Korach’s rebellion occurs in the second year of B’nei Yisrael’s travels in the desert; the deaths of Aharon and Miriam occur in the fortieth year. And the thirty-eight years in the interim? We are told nothing about them. Basically all that we get, between the rebellion of Korach, and the deaths of Aharon and Miriam, is the ritual of the parah adumah. So, in some sense, it is through the law of the parah adumah that the Torah “tells the story” of those intervening years.

That’s really powerful, if you think about it. For just as the theme of death dominates the law of the parah adumah, so did it dominate those thirty-eight years for which the text of the parah adumah serves as a stand-in. The slaves had already been freed. The Torah had already been received. The journey to the land of Israel had already been mapped out. But because those who left Egypt had protested, during the sin of the spies, that they did not wish to enter into the land, Hashem had decreed that none of them would do so. And so, the people had to spend thirty-eight years waiting: waiting for the old generation to pass, and for the new to fill its ranks. For nearly four decades, the defining experience of an entire people was the inevitability of its own death.

Had it wanted to, the Torah could have told the story that way. That it chose, instead, to tell the story through the lens of the parah adumah reflects, perhaps, a profound perspective on the experience of loss. It suggests, somehow, that the enduring impact of loss—that which is remembered for posterity—is not determined by the bare facts of “what happened.” It is defined, instead, by the efforts we make to process our loss, and draw from it meaning that brings healing to ourselves and our communities.[3] Hence, the story of the thirty-eight years is not told as the story of the thirty-eight years. It is told as the story of the parah adumah.

[1] Much has been made of the fact that the Torah characterizes the ritual of the parah adumah as a “chukkat haTorah”—a term traditionally interpreted to suggest that this ritual somehow serves as the Torah’s quintessentially “suprarational” command. Are the details of this ritual actually any more esoteric than those of other Biblical rituals? Probably not. Yet perhaps the real “chok” here is not the ritual, but that which it ritualizes: namely, human mortality. That is the truly confounding matter which confers upon the parah adumah the status of a chok: the fact that no ritual will ultimately produce satisfying answers to the questions raised by the confrontation of loss.

[2] Curious, too, is the fact that the Torah describes at length the procedure of the parah adumah and only afterwards reveals in what context is to be performed—namely, upon exposure to death. This, too, may be a way for the Torah to gradually prepare us for a discussion about loss, in a way that is not too sudden or startling. Simultaneously, of course, it also contributes to the sense of disorientation and of suprarationality—“chukkah”—surrounding the parah adumah, and the experience of death which it serves to ritualize.

[3] Some may recall that we drew a similar conclusion several years ago about the way that the Torah presents the purifying ritual the metzora (often translated heuristically as “the leper”). It may be no coincidence, in this regard, that tzaraat is referred to both in the Torah and by Chazal as a form of “death,” i.e. akin to that state which the parah adumah serves to purify. Nor may it be a coincidence that we find striking parallels between the ritual of the metzora and that of the parah adumah (status of impurity; leaving the camp; seven days; immersion; dipping of hyssop into blood; key phrase “זאת תהיה תורת המצורע/זאת חקת תורה;” etc.)

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