Through the lens of Torah: Chukat and Balak

Due to the gap between the Diaspora and Israeli Torah reading, a Dvar Torah for each follows: The redeeming power of hope and Walking the narrow bridge.

Moshe Kempinski

Judaism ancient bridge
ancient bridge
צילום: PR

The Redeeming Power of Hope (TORAH PORTION of "CHUKAT" Numbers 19:1–22:1)

Modern civilization rushes forward at a feverish pitch . Instant gratification and disembodied relationships tear away at the essence of all classical human interaction. The result is a deep and dangerous sense of hopelessness. While historically mortality rates had been declining consistently by about two percent annually, there have been recent studies that have shown that the mortality rate due to suicides, overdoses and the repercussions of depression has actually increased by 1/2% in the last decade.

Hope and faith is the lifeboat in this raging "river of life" and when that becomes absent the "river" takes its toll. The prevailing specter of loneliness and sadness are all a function of losing hope and faith. Losing that sense in ourselves and results in also  losing that sense of life’s purpose in general. The loss of hope is destructive and deadly.

The Torah portion of Chukat teaches much regarding this important struggle between hope and the sense of its loss.

In this Torah portion we read of the laws of the red heifer, whose ashes purify a person who has been "made impure “by contact with a dead body.

We read the following;

“G‑d spoke to Moshe and to Aaron, saying: This is the” Chok “of the Torah which G‑d has commanded.” Numbers 19:2)

The word “Chok alludes to the segment of commandments that are supra-rational. That is to say that they come from a place that is beyond logic and reason.

Our sages describe the laws of the red heifer as being the most supra-rational of all the commandments. This may be so because it is connected to Death. Death and the impurity that accompanies it are of the most supra-rational of our life experiences.

When an individual encounters death his or her soul is scarred. The state of Impurity or Tumah is the result of our confrontation with the fact of our own mortality, and of our physicality. It is the result our dealing with the specter of losing potential and ending the power to grow.

It is the curtailment of "hope".

The ceremony of the ashes of the Red Heifer is intended to return the yearning and the hope into the soul wounded by that encounter with death.

The items added to the ashes of the Red Heifer include Cedar wood. Crimson wool  and Hyssop branch .The use of these items in the words of Rashi is symbolic of the vanity and haughtiness that brought about the sin in the first place He explains,quoting Midrash Tanchuma, that " because he has exalted himself like a cedar... he should humble himself like a grass ( the hyssop bush). It is that humility that opens the way into new opportunities for growth. The red color represents our failures that yet need to be remedied.

The “living waters” represent the word of Hashem and His life giving powers. “They have forsaken Hashem, the fountain of living water,” ( Jeremiah 17: 13). The living waters represent both a cleansing and most importantly, a return to the womb and the unlimited potential that follows. That is also the power of a Mikveh

The ensuing Taharah or Purity represents the reaffirmation of our connection to the infinite. It represents the rebirth of Hope.

Yet even in the process of purification we encounter the dilemma of hope and its lack. The Torah tells us the following;

"On the third and seventh days, he shall cleanse himself with it, so that he can become clean. But if he does not sprinkle himself with it on the third and seventh days, he shall not become clean."(Numbers 19:12)

What is the point of the sprinkling of these waters twice? Clearly the sprinkling of the third day is meaningless on its own? Yet we also see that the sprinkling of the seventh day is also meaningless without that of the third day. What exactly are we being taught?

The ritual implies layer after layer of meaning and yet at its basic truth, it is about giving one the power of hope .It is  also about the instilling of faith and the patience to walk forward towards that hope.

That is perhaps one of the reasons, I believe, for the sprinkling on the third day.

Growing into faith and hope is a journey and circuitous process. It takes patience and a certain measure of confidence. The individual who has confronted death needs to have the patience to achieve new beginnings. Yet the wait can be difficult. So the Torah offers and interim ceremony that almost whispers to the individual to be patient and to continue forward.

What is true of the ritual of the red heifer is true in all our lives. At times we confront situations which rob us of the courage to move forward. It extinguishes the light of hope that serves as a beacon. It is in those situations that we need to realign and refocus on the sliver of hope that will help us arrive at hope again.

Hope after all is both the roots and the fruits of the growing Tree of Life.

Balak: Walking the Narrow Bridge

Reb Nachman of Breslov taught “The whole world is a very narrow bridge. And the most important thing is not to be afraid.”( Likutei Maharan 148).

Yet the world must be traversed. That is the point of its creation and the purpose of our lives.

The Torah portion of Balak gives us insight how that must be done

Bilaam ( Balaam) was the prophet for the nations who watched the progression of the Israelites into their destiny with apprehension. He is called into action by Balak, the King of Moab, who has been witness to the fact that the armies of the Canaanite nations are no match for this ragtag group of people led by an eighty-year-old man and directed by a Divine pillar of fire and smoke.

 At first, the king threatens, entices and commands Bilaam to come do what G-d clearly does not want Bilaam to do.

Bilaam desperately wants to go, but cannot go against the express will of the Creator. G-d makes it very clear to Balak in a night vision:

"And G-d said unto Bilaam: 'Thou shalt not go with them ("EEMAHEM" ); thou shalt not curse the people; for they are blessed." (Numbers 22:12)

 Yet, G-d seems to eventually give him the much desired permission:

"And G-d came unto Bilaam at night, and said unto him: 'If the men are come to call thee, rise up, go with them("EETAM") ; but only the word which I speak unto thee, that shalt thou do.'" (Numbers 22:20)

What happened to change the direction of Hashem’s purpose?

A clear reading of the Hebrew text helps to clarify this seeming contradiction. When Hashem tells Bilaam not to go with the messengers of Balak, He uses the words, "Thou shalt not go with them." The Hebrew word used for "with them" is "EEMAHEM" . When, in verse 20, He gives Bilaam permission, He says, "go with them" using the Hebrew word("EETAM" )

The Hebrew word "EEMAHEM" means "with them in common purpose".

 Yet the word "EETAM" means "with them but not embracing their purpose".

That was the basis of G-d's permission.

That is not what Bilaam does, as we see further in the text: "And Bilaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his donkey, and went with the princes of Moab." And the words used to describe "went with" are “vayelech EEM”..Bilaam went with the princes of Moab in common purpose. That explains the Divine anger that quickly followed.

The world is the bridge that enables our walk into destiny and purpose. Yet it is a treacherous and confusing world. The lights are bright, the fragrances are tempting and the lure of instant gratification alluring.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe writes regarding the request Moshe makes to the King of Edom ;

Moshe sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom: "So says your brother, Israel, 'You know of all the hardship that has befallen us.....17Please let us pass through your land; we will not pass through fields or vineyards, nor will we drink well water. We will walk along the king's road, and we will turn neither to the right nor to the left until we have passed through your territory.'(Numbers 20:14-17)

That is the message of our spiritual walk into destiny;

Those who want to stay true to a spiritual destiny , need to walk "EETAM".That means to be  "aligned to and part of this world ". Yet those same people need to be careful not to walk "EEMAHEM" that means to walk in the midst of the world and be overwhelmed by the world's "me" directed vision.

Torah faithful Jews have adopted two contradictory approaches to the dilemma. They in fact do not disagree on theology but rather on a philosophy of life. They essentially agree about G-d but disagree about how to deal with the world.

One side sees the world essentially as a threat and spends much effort at discernment and building fences of protection. As a result they are at times seen as or are actually living lives more isolated and distant.

The other side is much more interested in engagement and involvement and as a result are much weaker with the power of “discernment” . This classic argument and disagreement revolves around the need to separate and attempt to become a “ kingdom of priests”  ,as opposed to the other view which focuses on elevating the world rather than separating from it , despite the heavy spiritual cost that entails.

As a result one side becomes very focused on the individual ( the PRAT) and his or her ascension on the ladder towards holiness.

The other becomes embroiled in the larger picture (the KLAL) and is motivated to act in line with G-d's presence and movement in that larger picture.

Yet when it comes down to it both approaches are correct.

And you shall be holy( Kedoshim)  to Me, for I, Hashem, am holy (Kadosh) , and I have distinguished you from the peoples, to be Mine.” (Leviticus 20:26)

Holiness denotes a sense of being separate and apart.

Just as G-d is Holy and is set apart “I am G-d and no man, the Holy One (Kadosh)  in your midst” (Hoshea 11:9) so are those that walk in His ways bidden to do the same

Yet we also read the following;" Speak to the entire congregation (KOLADAT)  of the children of Israel, and say to them, You shall be holy, for I, Hashem, your G-d, am holy.(Leviticus 19:1-2)

The word “adat" is a form  of "eydah."  The Hebrew word "eydah" stems from the root which implies testimony or affirmation. The people of  Israel, when called an eydah, serve as sort of a witness:

"You are My witnesses,(Atem Eidai) " declares Hashem, (Isaiah 43:10)

Therefore, G-d commands "Adat Bnei Yisrael" to be obedient to His will and create a people that  'testifies' to G-d's existence. Their very continued existence , even if some lose their faith along the way, becomes a resounding statement of G-d's everlasting existence and faithfulness.

It should ideally be a life that at times involves separation and at other times consists of engagement. That is to say, a life lived within the will of a Holy G-d that transforms a people to become the language of that holiness. Actually it is a life that is an "Expression of G-d" in the universe

That is what makes the world a very narrow bridge.

Yet as Reb Nachman says; "The most important thing is not to be afraid at all"

LeRefuat Yehudit bar Golda Yocheved and Yehudit bat Esther