A friend of mine, in his yeshiva days, would look at youthful pictures of old stars, and called it Mussar. Yes. Death, like a heartbeat crouches between our thoughts, in our lives, as we hope daily for life.
The paradox of the Parah Adumah – Red Heifer, which defiles the pure and purifies the defiled, represents death, mysterious death. The teaming, contradictory combination of life death are the enigma that even King Solomon was unable to comprehend.
Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik notes the long gap in narrative between the incident of the spies and the death of Miriam. (The story of Korach and the tale of the wood gatherer are written in between, but when these actually occurred is quite questionable.) Shortly after the exodus the spies returned from their mission with a negative report. Thirty nine years later Miriam died. We are told nothing about what happened in this time.
Why are not told about the day to day happenings of these 39 years? Because nothing happened. At least, one could understand people of that time feeling it that way. After the spies' report was in, the community was told they’d travel forty years, then die. Jewish national life would begin after this population wandered aimlessly, then disappeared. Death was the only destination they had in their lives.
The Midrash presents this image: Annually, on the night of the ninth of Av, everyone between ages twenty and forty would lie down in an open grave. In the morning, only some would get up and walk away. So they progressed toward the end of an era, a time marked incrementally by the death of a generation. This had to have been a particularly sad time to live.
Rav Soloveitchik says the Parah Adumah served as a symbol for dealing with death. Had the Parah Aduma puzzle been about impurity alone it would have been put in Vayikra with the rest of tum'ah and taharah. This teaching was placed in Bamidbar, in the heart of an intense confrontation with mortality.
One of the metaphors of this rite is that someone other than the person being treated for impurity sprinkles the heifer's ashes. Generally, impure people immerse themselves in a mikvah, bringing some sense of control. Here, the treatment comes from outside oneself, from out of one's own control. The impurity of death mirrors death. We can't cope with death on our own. G-d assists us in dealing with the our lethal life. G-d assures us that the soul will survive the demise of its physical form. We will live to see death of death.
The Torah is a guidebook for life. The start of this parshah states that "this is the Chok of the Torah." Death is part of life. That’s a chok, an ungraspable reality. Even Solomon was a man and couldn't completely understand life and death. It's a G-d thing.
The Rambam serves for many as the paradigm of the rationalist. He wrote that when he saw the handwriting of his deceased brother he felt unbearable emotional pain. Rabbi Soloveitchik, today the mentor of many religious intellectuals, wrote that when struggling with his wife's fatal illness, as he walked the hospital's whitewashed walls he couldn't find G-d.
Death is a difficult reality for us all. This portion, with the Parah Adumah serves as a symbol reminds us how death hovered in the desert for 39 years. Parshat Chukat is a reminder of death, and how G-d is with us in life, even as it is the valley of the shadow of death.