Chukat is one of the most important parshiot in the chumash. We receive the decree of the Red Heifer, lose important figureheads and their protections, we face rejection of safe passage and an attack from behind. However, it's deeply moving in the context of the journeys of Moses, Miriam and Aaron. Chukat's message is ultimately one of surrender, and seeks to answer the following question: how do we gain from loss
First we have the decree of the Red Heifer. It's the ultimate purification ritual that requires a measure of impurity from those performing it - duality at its finest. It's as straightforward as it is a paradox. Regarding it, King Solomon says, "I said I would be wise, but it is far from me." (Kohelet 7:23). One message to glean here is that atonement requires sacrifice.
Miriam's death immediately follows, "There Miriram died and was buried." Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks contends that Miriam's death played a crucial role in why Moses hit the rock instead of speaking to it. "A careful reading of the famous episode in the context of Moses' early life suggests that Miriam was Moses' trusted friend, his confidante, the source of his emotional stability; when she was no longer there, he could not cope with crisis as he had done until then." (Lessons in Leadership, Chukat) In fact, she had saved his life many times: the reunification of their parents, rescuing him from the river, bringing him to nurse by Yocheved. Miriam was Moses' channel to his people, she was a wellspring he drew from constantly. The next line reads, "Now there was no water for the community". The miracle of the well was in the merit of Miriam (Taanit 9a). Our spiritual needs have a way of manifesting physically and thirst is one of the most desperate physical expressions of lack we have. Sometimes we don't miss the water until the well runs dry. However, when our wells dry up, there are other, less obvious sources around us every day.
Upon Aaron's death, the pillar of cloud which had guided and protected the nation in the wilderness left, and he was mourned by the "entire house of Israel". According to Rashi, he was so well loved because he pursued peace and extended himself to bring harmony between adversaries and between husband and wife. Aaron proved that a sense of home and belonging is not dependent on a fixed point, rather it's something created between people who seek peace wherever they roam. Community cannot exist without 'unity'.
Moses hit the rock instead of speaking to it. Moses said, "Listen now, you rebels, shall we bring you water out of this rock?" (Num. 20:10) Then according to Midrash, he struck the rock twice - once yielded a trickle and twice gave way. His decision went unchecked. However, R' Jonathan Sacks writes, " I have contended...Moses neither sinned nor was punished. He merely acted as he had done almost forty years earlier when God told him to hit the rock (Ex. 17:6), and thereby showed that though he was the right leader for the people who had been slaves in Egypt, he was not the leader for their children who were born in freedom and would conquer the land." (Lessons in Leadership, Chukat). It's an important lesson in itself: sometimes we're not the right fit. The sooner we can accept it, the sooner we can move on.
In closing, it's difficult to lose integral elements of our identity, whether it's people, a place or an object - tangible or intangible. We feel a part of ourselves is lost as well. We can feel vulnerable, afraid, angry, lost and confused. However, if we operate from a place of unchecked passion we will lose our better judgment. We're robbed of all reason and become slaves to fear. We're suddenly back in Egypt.
Remember the lessons from the sacrifices of Moses, Miriam and Aaron: loss is a tool for gain - an opportunity to trust and grow close with the ones we love, and to carry home in our hearts not on our backs. It's only through loss that we see what really matters. Our ability to love and move forward is only as great as our ability to surrender to acceptance.
Michael Miller grew up in Cleveland, Ohio (USA) and now lives in Jerusalem. He received his BA in Acting and Drama Therapy from Marymount Manhattan College.
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