7 haiku for Parsha Chukat (The Red Cow Cures All) by Rick Lupert

It just takes one dose
of perfectly red cow to
cure what ails you

Forty years go by –
What happened during those years
was not written down

You can understand
the hesitation when told
to speak to a rock

Howdy neighbor – Mind
if we pass through? No problem –
We will go around

You have to admire
Storytellers who kill off
major characters

This is where all God’s
water comes from – Spring up, oh
well – and sing to it

I think we will pass
through after all – that Land is
forty years coming

Los Angeles poet Rick Lupert created a the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 20 collections of poetry, including “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

Rhyme and Reason: Parshat Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1)

This week’s portion bears one of the Torah’s great enigmas. What exactly did Moshe Rabbeinu do that prompted God to bar him from crossing the Jordan into Israel?

What was the infraction?

Most students are taught that Moshe’s misfeasance was that he hit the boulder even though God told him only to speak to it. If Moshe and Aaron only had spoken to the boulder, the witnessing nation would have been overwhelmed by the miracle of an inanimate rock obeying, responding dutifully by providing ample water for 3 million people. Under that theory, proffered in the midrash Tanchuma and popularized for all by the premier Torah commentator, Rashi, Moshe diminished the awe by hitting the boulder. A thoroughbred runs faster at Churchill Downs when hit than when its jockey coos soft urging words. Presumably, a boulder responds to hitting, too. Thus, Moshe diminished the miracle.

Yet many of our greatest Torah commentators, including Rashi’s most prominent contemporaries, disagree with Rashi’s take — and with each other in deciphering this puzzle. First, they ask, is it less miraculous when hitting a boulder prompts it to give water? (Can you do that?) Indeed, in Exodus 17:5-6, the people also had complained of thirst, and God told Moshe to take his staff and strike a boulder. The water then miraculously flowed, quenching the nation copacetically. Besides, if God did not want the boulder hit, why did He tell Moshe to take his staff — a command virtually synonymous with Divine expectation that the staff actuate the miracle?

So what was Moshe’s bad?

Rav Avraham Ibn Ezra believes Moshe let the mass complaining get him flustered, breaking his prophetic concentration, resulting in a temporary failure when trying initially to implement the miracle by properly hitting. People saw nothing had happened. Having lost focus, Moshe needed to recapture his concentration, requiring his hitting the boulder a second time. That diminished the miracle.

Rambam (Maimonides), by contrast, discerns a rare temper outburst. Moshe, the most humble of people, seemingly lost his temper, according to Rambam, when he called the people “rebels.” Inasmuch as Moshe’s every action and word was that of teacher and role model, his anger — if Rambam perceives accurately here — would have taught that God does not want to be bothered when there is no water in the desert. But that was not God’s message. Rambam believes Moshe reversed a teachable moment into a wrong lesson.

Ramban (Nachmanides) disagrees. First, Aaron never lost his temper; yet God decreed against him, too. Besides, the people indeed were angering God; therefore, some tough talk from Moshe was appropriate. Accordingly, Ramban prefers Rabbeinu Chananel’s interpretation that Moshe erred in his wording of the rhetorical question he posed: “What? From this boulder shall we bring forth water for you?” It was not “we” who would be bringing forth water. It was God. Moreover, Ramban observes that, if Moshe and Aaron had proceeded with proper Divine focus and equanimity, only one tap of the boulder would have effectuated the miracle, but they instead needed to hit twice because a quietly controlled anger caused Moshe briefly to lose his Divine focus at the first strike.

So which is it? What, then, did Moshe and Aaron do that was wrong? Maybe God worded the Torah’s presentation cryptically to teach that, really, it is none of our business. These were our greatest leaders ever. The burden of leadership exposes individuals to public scrutiny. Fear of public scrutiny deters many great people from assuming leadership, often leaving mediocrities to take the reins. Maybe God wanted to assure us that there was rhyme and reason in His ending their lives on the Jordan’s eastern bank, on Holy Land that would be parceled to more than two tribes. Maybe He barred them in part so a new leader could lead a new generation into freedom in our own land. Maybe in part because, as leaders of the Exodus from Egypt, somehow it would not be fitting for these two leaders to enter.

God conceived the rhyme. They understood the reason. And perhaps it is none of our business other than to know that none of us is perfect, we all are held to individually tailored standards, and we should let our leaders live their lives without our holding them to subjective expectations that God would not countenance.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School, is rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County. He blogs at rabbidov.com.

Real Spirituality: Parashat Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1)

Spirituality, kabbalah and meditation are buzzwords in today’s religious lexicon. But do they really describe religion?

A number of years ago, my mother, who lives in Cleveland, received a call from the major local paper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The paper was doing a feature story on the mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath, for its weekend column on religion. They called my mother, an Orthodox rebbitzen and a well-respected academic, for her observations. During the interview, the reporter asked my mother, “When you went to the mikveh, did you experience spirituality?” My mother answered, “All religious experiences involve spirituality. If you mean, did I feel a halo hover over my head, no. But did I feel I was performing a divine commandment? Then definitely, yes.”

The divine commandment as the ultimate spiritual moment explains an enigmatic story that has occupied the attention of Bible scholars from time immemorial. The story occurs right after Miriam dies, and the water supply for the Jews in the desert suddenly goes dry. To rectify the problem, God commands Moses and Aaron to speak to the rock in order to extract water. But, in a moment of frustration, Moses hits the rock twice with his staff and subsequently water miraculously gushes forth. Following this act, the Torah records that God said to Moses and Aaron, “You did not believe in Me enough to sanctify Me in the presence of the Children of Israel. Therefore, you will not bring this congregation into the land that I have given them” (Numbers 20:12).

The punishment was swift in coming, but one must wonder how God could claim that Moses and Aaron did not sanctify His name? Did anyone who witnessed the water gushing out of the rock think this was not a miracle? Certainly everyone present knew that it was a great miracle. When does a rock produce water, let alone more water than the mass of the rock itself, which certainly violates every law of basic physics?

Perhaps, however, we can find an answer to this problem. God wanted Moses and Aaron to speak and not to perform any act. God wanted the Jewish people to learn that you do not have to do “wild and crazy” acts to encounter the Almighty. The lesson God wanted us to learn was that we just have to speak and God listens.

In simple language, if you want spirituality, you don’t need meditation or kabbalah. You don’t need anyone teaching you mysticism. In Judaism, the greatest spiritual encounter is simply talking to God. Every time we thank God for our physical needs, such as in the morning blessings when we thank Him for our ability to see, to walk and to care for our bodily functions, we have achieved the ultimate spiritual moment possible.

And maybe that is the point. What is Jewish spirituality? The answer is realizing that we must be grateful to God for all of the gifts we receive daily. Spirituality isn’t mystical; it is rational and concrete. We just have to think about what we do, and then it all becomes a remarkably close encounter with the divine.

Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum once told me the following story:

After years of trying to locate documentation of religious heroism among the Orthodox community during the Holocaust, he finally made some inroads by interviewing a Chasidic rebbe who had survived those ghastly years. The rebbe recounted how, in 1944, he was assigned to clear the railroad tracks in Auschwitz after Jews arrived at the concentration camp and deposited their belongings on the tracks. Following the arrival of a train filled with Hungarian Jews, he found a pair of tefillin and smuggled them into his barracks. Every morning, while it was still dark outside, he tried to put on tefillin. He wasn’t successful every day, but the days he was, he told Berenbaum, he will never forget. Wearing those tefillin in the hell of Auschwitz proved to be the most spiritual moments of his life.

The real spiritual story in Judaism is encountering God every day by performing mitzvot and conversing with God in prayer. That isn’t a buzzword; that is reality.

Ritual’s Mysteries

This week’s Torah portion begins with, and is named after, the key word chukat. Chukat means “the law of” and specifically refers to the ritual law of the red heifer. What distinguishes a chok from other kinds of laws is its mystery.

Most Torah commandments have a basis in reason and logic. Chukim cannot be justified by rational arguments. There is no plausible explanation for why the ashes of an unblemished red cow are particularly powerful against ritual impurity. Nor can intellectual arguments justify why those ashes should have the paradoxical effect of purifying an impure Israelite, but rendering a priest who handles them impure. The chok of the red heifer, like the chok not to wear a blend of wool and flax, doesn’t claim to be reasonable. It claims to be holy and to foster holiness.

Often people will tell me that what they love about Judaism is the freedom to question, to challenge and to demand answers.

Abraham challenged God, based on the logical consequences of Divine morality. “Will the Judge of all the earth not do justice?” (Genesis 18:24). When the daughters of Tzelophehad challenged the inheritance law as it had been presented to them, God responded, “Well do [they] speak!” and issued an amendment (Numbers 27:7). “The shy [student] does not learn,” Hillel warned (Pirkei Avot 2:5). So in every generation, Jews ask. And in every generation, the tradition, with its rich history of law and lore, addresses their questions. A true inquiry merits a thoughtful answer — and sometimes a set of answers, or even a change in the law.

But if we say that Judaism welcomes and cultivates rational discourse, that doesn’t mean that rational discourse is its highest value. Arguments — even arguments “for the sake of heaven” — are our process, not our purpose. We want to discern Divine will, to discover and act on truth as best we can. We want to serve God and humanity. We want deveykut (closeness to God) and kedushah (holiness). We want shalom (peace) and emunah (faith). There is something that Jews, I think, hold even dearer than the opportunity to question, and that is the opportunity to trust.

The most important things we do in life are (hopefully) not irrational, but they aren’t driven by rationality. Do we choose whom to marry by logic? Do we have children because we weighed the pros and cons? Does our sense of mission derive from our ability to reason? Something higher and greater than reason guides us. When we learn to trust that “something,” time and again it saves us.

Chukim operate from, and tap into, that “something higher and greater.” They remind us that life is full of mystery, that there are many things — significant things — that we know but can’t explain. They ask us to go deliberately beyond our logical minds, to give up our desire to understand something before we can accept it. The Children of Israel responded to words of Torah, saying, “Na’aseh venishma — we will do, and we will understand” (Exodus 24:3,7). In matters of utmost significance, you may need to act first in order, fully, to know.

We can theorize and offer commentaries about the red heifer. (Generations of Jews have, and that is a worthy subject for another column.) We can have philosophical discourse about mystery. Ultimately, however, with regard to chukim, reason bows to awe.

Also, with chukim, reason bows to love. In any relationship, there are times when your loved one will ask you to do something that doesn’t make sense to you but somehow meets their need. There are many possible responses: You can argue. You can try to convince them it isn’t necessary. You can “keep score” and consider whether they’ve been meeting your needs lately. You can decide that it’s a manipulation or power play and resist giving them their way. You can delve into the question of why they have this desire. But if what they are asking isn’t harmful, then I recommend doing it and saving the questions for later.

It’s generous. It honors them. In fact, it’s an opportunity to really practice love. Doing what makes sense is simple logic; you would do it for anyone; you might do it even if you weren’t asked. But doing what doesn’t make sense is a gift.

What do I — a limited, flawed human being — have to give to the Master of Universe? The laws of the Torah are for my benefit, not God’s (Deuteronomy 10:13). Most commandments have a logical claim — they make sense for the social contract and for my spiritual development. Chukim are the exception and, as such, they are an opportunity for me and for all Jews to show our love for God.

What do you give to the God who has everything? Your willingness. Your trust.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom synagogue in Tarzana (www.makom.org) and editor of “Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life.”


Kids Page

Somewhere New

Are you traveling to new places this summer?
Maybe you’re exploring the desert like the Israelites are in this week’s Torah portion — Chukat. They’re getting closer and closer to Israel, but they have to pass through the lands of many different tribes.
Maybe you will be visiting Israel, too.
If you do, please write to us about your experiences there.