Torah portion: The mystery of limited vision, Parashat Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1)
We are often reminded in our lives about the limits of what we can know, what we ought to know and what we can’t know. Tragedies, heartbreak and, yes, abundance all remind us in their own way that there is so much to life that is unknowable.
This existential frustration is most famously framed by this week’s parsha, Chukat, and the story of the Red Heifer. This mysterious, colored cow that brings purity is relegated to the parts of the Torah that cannot be known. Part of the conundrum is the law that those involved in preparing the Red Heifer become impure, while the one it is prepared for becomes pure. This contradiction gives birth to mystery. Mystery implies a limit in our vision.
Moses was told that he would be limited in vision long before this episode. The Torah recounts God’s exchange with Moses: “Then I shall remove my hand and you will see my back, but my face may not be seen” (Exodus 33:23). This is how God makes known to Moses the limit of human vision.
The Talmud compares the world in which we live to night. Imagine that you are driving a car at night on the highway in the middle of nowhere. There are no lights on the road and you wonder why the road curves so much and in such odd ways. You assume that the individual who built this road was utterly incapable. Little do you know that were it to be day, you would notice that the area around the highway is filled with mountains, rivers, and numerous other natural obstacles that offer good reason for the road to constantly curve.
The message here is that sometimes in order to understand, we must see the entire picture. One more illustration that gets the same point across but in a subtly different way: Imagine peering into a doorway and noticing two people engaged in an aggressive struggle with knives. On impulse you run into the room and tackle the two individuals to the ground. Suddenly you hear in the near distance, “Cut! Cut!” As it turns out, you have just barged into a movie set. Many times we are missing an important piece of information when we fail to see the whole picture.
This Chukat message is essentially what the holiday of Purim and the Book of Esther are all about. The miracle of their story is hidden within the text, and we are challenged to see the entire picture — to stand from afar and reveal the magnificent tapestry. The Talmud wonders where Esther is alluded to in the Bible. The Talmud turns to the words in Deuteronomy: “V’anochi haster astir panai ba’yom hahu” (But I will surely have concealed [astir] my face on that day) (Deuteronomy 31:18). Esther’s name, which has the same root letters as astir, indicates what is hidden.
According to Jewish law, there is a specific way to read the Book of Esther scroll. The reader unfolds the entire scroll before beginning because it is essential that we see the whole picture. Likewise, God’s name seems to be totally absent from the Megillah because it is our job to lift the curtain masking the real story.
Jewish tradition has a Written Law (the Bible) and an Oral Law (the Talmud). The essence of the Oral Law is about revealing the hidden. It is there to reveal the message hidden within the Written Law.
The Talmud presents the opinion of Rav Dimi Bar Chama, who says that God held Mount Sinai over the Israelites, forcing them to accept the Torah. The Talmud then questions the legality of this acceptance, as it was against their will. The answer to the challenge is based upon a verse in Esther (9:13): “They kept and received,” which teaches us that the people reaffirmed their commitment to the Torah, thereby asserting their voluntary acceptance in the days of Esther.
Why would they need to reaffirm their commitment if the Israelites already declared at Sinai, “We will do and we will hear” (Exodus 24:7)? An ancient source called the midrash posits that they voluntarily accepted the Written Law at Sinai but not the Oral Law. The acceptance of the Oral Law was affirmed in the days of Esther. Based upon our thesis, we can say the reaffirmation was an expression that the holiday of Purim is a time when we have to bring God out from the hidden domain. It is a day that focuses on seeing the entire picture. This is why they accepted fully the Oral Law on this day, for that is the nature of the Oral Law — taking the commandments in the Torah and revealing their true detailed makeup.
It is critical that we begin to see the full picture, for without it everything in life seems so disjointed and distant. This is precisely our relationship with God. It seems to be hidden. We at times feel that we are so far from God. But were we to understand the greater scheme, we would see how close to Him we actually are.
The feeling of distance and detachment is, more often than not, a foible of our limited vision. We tend to see with tunnel vision and ignore God’s hand in our daily lives. Every breath, every movement, every passing step is a miracle. Life’s many tender dances are all signs that we stand right next to God.
Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn is rav and dean of Yeshivat Yavneh in Los Angeles.