Posted by: Subway Conductor | July 3, 2020

A Derasha on Parshat Chukat-Balak

This week we have a double portion.  The first, Chukat, begins with the matter of the red heifer. This ritual is the paradigm for what is termed a chok – a mitzvah which cannot be explained rationally. What is the background of the ritual of the red heifer? We must remember that in the time when the Temple existed and the sacrificial system was in operation, there was a great concern with ritual purity. A person who was not in a state of purity could not participate in the Temple rituals. As an example, for Passover the main event was the korban pesach, the Passover sacrifice which each family would bring and then would eat. (This is, of course, why we have the shank bone on the Seder plate.) But, someone who was ritually impure could not eat the korban pesach. One of the primary sources of impurity was contact with a corpse. Even being in a building where a corpse was present would make one impure. The red heifer – a totally red cow without blemish – was slaughtered and completely burnt. Its ashes were mixed with other materials and with water. This was then sprinkled on the person who had come into contact with a corpse and the impurity would be alleviated. This ritual was without rational explanation. It is said that even the wise King Solomon did not understand it. There is a story that a non-Jew came to Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai and derided Judaism on the basis of this ritual which seemed to be a form of magic. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai retorted to the man that there were rituals that he practiced that were equally strange. When the man left, Yochanan ben Zakkai’s students said to him, “That was good enough for him. But what do you say to us.?” He answered, ‘The corpse does not defile and the water (with the askes of the red heifer) does not purity. It is written in the Torah and therefore we do it.”  This is the classic definition of a chok. We have no explanation for it, but we do it because the Torah says so.

Several weeks ago, on parashat Kedoshim, I mentioned another example of a chok. The mitzvah of shatnez – forbidden mixtures. What is striking in that instance is that the statement just before the prohibition of shatnez is the best known and most fundamental ethical principle in the entire Torah – “Love your neighbor as yourself.” One could write books and articles on this mitzvah explaining how it stands at the core of our ethical system. I need to look at other people and realize that they are like me. Hillel, when asked by a non-Jew to teach him the Torah ‘while standing on one foot’ said, “What is hateful to you do not do to another.” When I hear of someone doing something horrible to another person, I ask myself, “does that person not understand that he could be the person that he is mistreating?” If I can put myself into the place of another person, that would act as a restraint on my actions. I could imagine myself being the one victimized. Therefore, I should not do to another person that which I would not want done to me. The key to this ethical reasoning is “love your neighbor as yourself.” There is a mitzvah that compels me to understand that that other person is like me.

Right next to this fundamental expression of our ethical system is a mitzvah which is a chok forbidding wearing a garment made of flax and wool. What are these two mitzvahs doing next to one another? The fact that the Torah puts these two right next to one other emphasizes that the Torah does not make a distinction between mitzvot that have a rational basis and those that do not. The source for both is the same.

Even commandments such as “do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal,” which certainly can be explained on a rational basis – no society could exist without these laws – ultimately have the same source. Although we can understand them, we must also feel compelled to adhere to them because they are written in the Torah.

           The second portion is Balak which tells the story of the heathen prophet Balaam who is famous for his ability to pronounce curses. King Balak of Moab hires Balaam to come and curse the Jewish People for him. Probably the most famous part of this narrative is the story of Balaam’s talking donkey. On his way to meet Balak, G-d puts an angel in the road to block the way. Balaam’s donkey sees the angel, but Balaam does not. The donkey veers off the path to avoid the angel and Balaam angrily beats it. After this happens three times, the donkey finally turns around and says to Balaam “Why are you hitting me?” The angel now appears to Balaam and rebukes him. This part of the Balaam story is meant to be humorous. I think that on one level it is intended to humiliate Balaam who wants to go and curse the Jewish People. But the story also makes the point for Balaam’s benefit that he is not able to say anything that G-d does not want him to say. G-d can put words into the mouth of a donkey, so he can certainly put words into the mouth of Balaam. Finally, Balaam meets up with King Balak and they go up on a mountain where Balaam can see the whole people in order to pronounce a curse on them. But, instead of curses, he utters praises. The most famous statement of Balaam is “How lovely are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.” This statement was interpreted to refer to the study halls and synagogues of the Jewish People. Therefore, Balaam’s utterance ended up in our morning service. Upon entering the synagogue, one of the first thins we say are the words of Balaam, “How lovely are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.

Good Shabbos


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