Sunday, June 13, 2010


Juxtaposition is key in the Torah. This rule applies quite clearly to the start of this week's portion, Chukat. The opening law of this parsha is that of the red heifer. It provides a mystery that even the wisest man ever - King Solomon- could not solve. It is famous paradox, contaminating the pure and purifying the contaminated. It is supra-rational and represents what Rabbi Abraham Twerski dubs ""the suspension of logic in deference to the Divine Will." It is no coincidence that this portion follows the story of Korach.

In a piece often quoted by his students, Rabbi Soloveichik says that Korach's mistake was thinking that his own logic could override the logic of G-d. The essence of a Torah life is the opposite principle, that G-d's judgment must override our own. This is why this portion follows the downfall of Korach, highlighting his mistake of thinking that he could challenge G-d's decisions. The opening line of the parsha is "This is the law of the Torah." It does not say, as we'd expect, "This is the law of the red heifer." The idea is that suspending our own judgment is the basic rule for observance of the entire Torah.

Rabbi Yitzchak Twerski points out that the first mistake of man, is the most commonly repeated mistake of mankind. Adam and Chava thought that they could override G-d's judgment with their own thinking. They suffered the consequence for their mistake. Hevel began to repair their error, submitting himself to G-d. However Kayin regressed and brought death and exile to the world, as his parents did, by challenging G-d's judgment. Many years later the story of Korach echoes that old tale of misplaced hubris. There are only two places in the Torah that the earth is described as opening up it's mouth and swallowing; this language is employed in regard to Kayin and in regard to Korach.

Adam and Chava thought that people had no more accountability than animals. This is why Chava reasoned that if the snake could have contact with the tree then so could she. This is why snakes and people had to be made more markedly different than one another. According to Rabbi Nissan Alpert the mistake (cheit really means mistake, not sin) of the golden calf was that people were saying that this cow was a symbol of the essence of man, that man is like an animal - eating to live and living to eat. The Rabbis teach that that the red heifer atones for the sin of the golden calf. The meaning of this may be that the red heifer comes to atone for the lowest level of impurity, a dead/soulless human being. Acceptance of this law is an admittance of the fact that humans are quite different than animals, given that animals have physical, utilitarian, value even in death.

Tradition has it that Moses was the only one granted the understanding of the ritual of the red heifer. RabbiLeibish Harif expalains that this is because Moshe was not involved in the cheit of the golden calf. Idolatry represents the opposite of what a Torah life is meant to be, rather than accepting our being created in G-d's image the idolater creates god in his image. A man can make a "god " out of wood and then remodel that same wood into furniture or charcoal. Idolatry is self will taking over subordination to the will of G-d. As Rav Chaim Schmuelewitz put it, "There is no such thing as doubts, there are only desires."

This portion, following on the heels of the Korach rebellion reminds us that his questioning of G-d was a form of idolatry. This is literally the oldest story in the book, going back to the first episode in human history.

An anecdote comes to mind: Two men made a deal that whoever died first would visit the other. One dies and appears to his friend in a dream The friend asks him what his day is like now. He replies, “I eat whenever I want, I sleep whenever I want, I fulfill every physical desire whenever I want.” The living man says, “I can’t believe it, you died and went to Heaven!” The other guy explains, “No, I was reincarnated; I’m a cow in Kansas.” We think sometimes that our greatest pleasure is fulfilling our physical urges. Our calling is much higher than that.

It would serve us well to keep our desires in check and to remember the unique essence of human beings. Our special stature comes along with responsibility that other living creatures do not have. It would serve us well to remember our uniqueness and to accept our covenant with G-d. May we be so blessed to rise up to being human in the highest sense of the word.

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