Torah Blogging: Parsha Chukat

This blog post is cross posted at

Summary of the text: This parsha (torah portion) is one of the stranger ones of the Torah. Chapter 19 gives a discussion of the ritual of the Red Heifer, which involves the ritual killing of a purely red cow that is then burned, with the ashes being used afterwards for a variety of purification rituals, most notably the cleansing rituals one must perform after having come in contact with a corpse.

Chapter 20 moves back into the narrative with an account of the people grumbling, Moshe (Moses) striking the rock, and then God punishing Moshe and Aaron for speaking in a way that did not affirm God’s “sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people.” The punishment was severe: Moshe and Aaron would not be allowed to enter the promised land with their people.

The chapter then continues to a discussion of interactions between the Hebrew wanderers and their distant kin the Edomites (in short the Edomites do not show their kin hospitality), and then to the death of Aaron at Mount Hor.

Chapter 21 continues the narrative in telling of a set of battles between the Hebrews and the Canaanite king of Arad. The Hebrews were victorious but the people were becoming restless. Before long God sent “seraph serpents” into the camp to bite and kill the people until Moshe prays to the LORD, who then instructs Moshe to lift up a copper seraph snake on a pole, which magically would heal any of the snakebit dying people who looked upon the snake. (yes, this part is getting really weird).

The people of Israel continued in their wanderings and engaged with more battles against their neighbors, until finally they made their way (in 22:1) to camp on the “steppes of Moab, across the Jordan from Jericho.”

My reflections: This passage is strange and to me reflects some of the early pre-Jewish roots of Judaism, which includes the use of a copper serpent (which suspiciously like a kind of idol to me) to bring healing and the strange rituals involving the ashes of the red heifer (more discussion on some of the archetypal origins of the Red Heifer story can be found on the Velveteen Rabbi commentary on this parsha).

The question might be asked, what do the ancient stories mean to us today? Surely we are not supposed to kill red heifers to use for healing rituals (since that ritual is tied to the “tent of meeting” and later the temple), but I wonder if maybe there is a place for some kind of physical representation of cleansing.

We all have moments when we encounter death. Most of us don’t encounter corpses very often (with the exception of combat veterans and those who have survived terrible traumas — and of course doctors and morticians), but we all do encounter points of seeing death and decay, either literally or figuratively. Frankly every time we watch the evening news, every time we step outside of our comfort zone and go to comfort those experiencing trauma, we touch a little bit of death. And so maybe we need a bit of that “water of lustration” (talked about in this parsha) to cleanse our hearts and souls too. I’m not sure what the answer is (and I really am not advocating that we make copper serpents to gaze at or start killing red heifers), but I do think that our physical human bodies often need tangible experiences to remind us of the inner healing that God can bring.

Another key theme in this passage is the issue of hospitality. Israel encountered several of its neighbors in this passage (and even some kinfolks), but none of these neighbors let the Israelites pass peacably through their lands. Later on these old stories were used as justification by later generations for genocidal acts by the Israelites against these people, but at this moment in time these stories speak of the tragedy of hospitality that is not extended.

And finally there is the death of Aaron (and the prophesied death of Moshe to come). On the surface of it, God’s punishment of Aaron and Moses seems supremely harsh (after all these heroes led the people to liberation), but on further thought I wonder if these stories were in fact not the whole story? Maybe Aaron died of old age, and then Moses in turn died. Both died too soon, before they entered the land as a free people. And so maybe these stories sprung up to explain away the shame of these two great liberators not reaching the promised land.

Or maybe the story is true, and like Dr. Martin Luther King did in his final sermon (“I’ve been to the Mountaintop”), Aaron Moshe knew that their deaths were coming but that the mission of liberation would continue. Who knows really? The possibilities are so interesting to think about though.

For myself, I find comfort in knowing that even great leaders are human, that they die just like all of us do. We all might be a little bit divine (after all, we are made in the image of God), we all all will die. Even Aaron and Moshe died and so will we. We can remember and honor our heroes but we shouldn’t worship them either. And we need to remember that the struggle for justice can go on without them.

Torah Blogging: Parsha Korach

A few weeks ago I committed myself to blogging about the weekly Torah portions for the coming year… but I didn’t get started with the actual blogging, in large part because I was being too perfectionistic about it.

And so for this week, I’m going to plunge ahead and acept the fact that this will not be the final or even a great word about this particular parsha, but will be a word, at least some provisional thoughts for where I’m at right now in considering this text.

And so let us begin…

The next Torah portion is a troubling one. Korach (or Korah depending on how you transliterate the Hebrew) is the account of a challenge to the power structure among the Hebrew people.

Korah (Hebrew for “bald”), a levite (but not of the priestly line of Aaron), joined with several from the tribe of Reuben and 250 others (described as “chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute”) launched their attack. The words they chose are provocative:

They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone to far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the LORD is in their midst. Why then did you raise yourself above the LORD’s congregation?” – Numbers 16:3 (JPS, 1999 version)

What happens next is predictable. Moses creates a divine test to see who is right, with the 250 followers of Korah offering fire and incense to the LORD and then Moses and Aaron did the same thing. When they do this, the presence of the LORD speaks, and shows who is holy (in this case Moses and Aaron) and then announces God’s intention to kill all of the Israelites (since the whole community is to be blamed for the sin of Korah and his follwers). Moses intercedes, so instead only the rebels are punished, in this case by some of the rebels being swallowed up by the earth (along with all of their property, wives and children!) and the remaining rebels being burnt alive.

The message of this text is clear. Rebellion against God’s established authority is always punished severely. And the message is reinforced by the commandment that the fire pans used by the rebels to offer their sacrifice be hammered down and made into a new plating for the altar (as a perpeptual reminder of what happens to rebels).

But of course the story isn’t over. This time the people of Israel themselves rise up against Moses & Aaron saying “You two have bought death upon the LORD’s people!” (Numbers 17:6) And so the LORD proceeds to send a plague on the people, killing 14,700 of them before Aaron is able to persuade the LORD to stop the slaughter by offering incense.

The remaining portion of the text is a further reinforcement of the message that Aaron’s family are to remain as the only priests and that no others can appear before the LORD in the temple.

Wow! What a text! Deeply, deeply troubling. To be frank, on the surface it seems to have a pretty vile message, that God is on the side of the powerful and that God is against those who stand up against injustice.

Considered in context, this message is slightly tempered by the remembrance in the previous torah portion of the crushing news that (after the bad reports of the 10 of the 12 spies) the current generation (except for Joshua and Caleb) will not enter the promised land, and would instead be cursed to remain as wanderers. And so arguably a change in leadership would likely mean the return of the Hebrew people to bondage back in Egypt (there were few options left since they had just been beaten badly in their attempt to invade Canaan).

Who knows really? I can’t help but see this story as an example of the messy interplay of power struggles. Moses and Aaron behaved liked tyrants sometimes (not always of course, but sometimes). Korah and his people made the theologically profound statement that “all of the community are holy, all of them, and the LORD is in their midst,” and yet I have no doubt that he would have been a tyrant too if he had come to power, because power always corrupts. Likely he was a charismatic and dynamic leader (or else he wouldn’t have been able to create such a broad-base of power to challenge the Moses-Aaron leadership), and so the chance of him having the ability to become an abusive leader was high.

What is the take-home message of this text? Certainly I don’t think this story is literally true. I don’t think the Source-of-all-life is the kind of rash deity depicted here, who not only kills the rebels but “their wives, their children and their little ones.” (Numbers 16:27) Such a deity would not be worthy of worship but rather of rebellion.

Rather I think this story is a spiritualized version of an early power struggle among the Hebrew people. Later generations retold the story to reinforce the Mosaic power structure, but in their telling they actually put a powerful word in the mouths of the enemy in this story, “For all the community are holy, all of them, and the LORD is in their midst.”

What if this were true? The idea of being holy (kadush) is to be set apart. Obviously the whole community is by definition not set apart (because what would it be set apart from?) but maybe this idea of at least potential inner holiness is always present, and hence the idea of deep community leadership, rather than hierarchical leadership is present.

And so, maybe Korah is the hero of the story; Korah the “heretic” who ends up speaking a profound word of truth? It certainly makes me wonder.