There is something in this week’s portion which is both strange and typical of Judaism.
The law of the red heifer (Num. 19:2) requires a mixture of substances to be sprinkled in order to purify the impure. Strangely the process which purifies also does the opposite – it purifies the impure (“tamei”) and pollutes the pure priest (“tahor”) who administers the procedure.
How can one and the same thing achieve two diametrically opposed things? It’s a paradox. How can God be both immanent and transcendent, both near and far? It’s another paradox. How can He be “Avinu” and “Malkenu”, loving Parent and stern Ruler, at one and the same time? How can man have freewill but still be subject to determinism? How can some mitzvot be “sichliyyot”, amendable to rational analysis and explanation, whilst others are “chukkim”, inscrutable “statutes” requiring assent by faith?
In religions which insist on firm dogmas there can only be one doctrine, at least in theory, though in actual fact even those religions have their paradoxes and contradictions.
In Judaism the power of paradox is everywhere. The medieval thinkers who moulded classical Jewish philosophy insisted that Judaism was rational. So it is – but it has elements which are mystery.
Mystery isn’t identical with superstition. Mystery is far greater. Mystery is something which our instinct tells us is right, but to delve into it and understand all its nuances is too difficult for the limited human mind. King Solomon said (Kohelet 7:23), “I decided to attain wisdom but it was beyond me”.
SATAN & PENINAH.
The people rebelled against God when they were in the wilderness. He sent fiery serpents to punish them. The serpents did their work. Bitten and hurting, the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned against God”. So Moses prayed to God on behalf of the people. God said, “Make a serpent and place it on a pole, so that anyone is bitten he will see it and live” (Num. 21:5-9).
The founder of Chabad, the Ba’al HaTanya, sees this as an example of the idea of Satan and P’ninah (B.B. 16a) propounded by the sages. Satan is of course a well-known concept, the symbol of the tempter who tries to wean people away from God. His activity at the beginning of the Book of Job is the supreme example.
P’ninah, wife of Elkanah, was the taunter of her co-wife Hannah. Speaking of them in one breath sounds strange. But they both share the capacity of breaking down people’s faith – or the opposite. If the victim refuses to succumb to the taunts, their moral courage keeps them faithful to God.
In the case of the serpent, it recalls the first tempter in Biblical history, who worked on Eve to turn her away from the Almighty and to involve her husband Adam in a sin of rebellion.
The lesson is that life confronts us with taunts, temptations and challenges. If we are strong enough we will be able to overcome the moment.
HOW THE SIDRA GETS ITS NAME.
A sidra is named after its first important Hebrew word, not necessarily because of its content. In this week’s sidra, however, we find both at once. “Chukkat” (“statute”) is both the name and the subject: the strange rule of the red heifer.
Ancient man, like the modern generation, puzzled over this command.
Why obey a rule for which no obvious reason can be offered?
There is ingenuity behind various explanations, but in the end such laws must be obeyed not because of our logic but because of the will of God.
Does this mean a Jew sometimes has to go on blind faith? The answer is yes. If I knew all about everything, if I could master all the secrets of the universe, I would no longer be man – I would be God. The fact that some things are beyond me makes me humble: I am both “little lower than the angels” (Psalm 8), and not as high as the angels. Realism tells me to discover who I am, but also what I am not and never can be.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com