“…To atone for the sin of the calf”
The Torah portion entitled Hukat is divided into two sections of totally differing nature. The opening chapter (Num 19) is the famous chapter of the Red Heifer: a legal section, describing the procedure to be used for ritual purification of contamination by contact with the dead. An untouched heifer with pure red hair was slaughtered outside of the Temple precincts (at the crest of the Mount of Olives, according to tradition), burnt together with cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet, the ashes dissolved in water, and the water sprinkled upon those who had been rendered impure. Beyond the seemingly “hocus pocus” aspect of this ritual (see the next section and the midrash in Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, Parah, as well as the discussion in Urbach’s Hazal, pp. 83-84 and 329-330), it is noted for involving an innate paradox: the very heifer which was intended for purification rendered all those who engaged in the various stages of its preparation ritually impure (albeit for only one day).
Rashi, in his commentary here, following a regular verse-by-verse elucidation of the laws of the heifer based upon standard Rabbinic sources, cites an entire allegorical homily from the Yesod by Rabbi Moshe ha-Darshan of Narbonne, one of the early leaders of French Jewry and a noted midrashic compiler, whom Rashi revered as an important teacher and source of the tradition. The gist of this section is that the ritual of the heifer was intended to atone for the sin of the Golden calf. What does this mean? Why the need for atonement? The question is rightly asked: if tumah is not a sin, but a technical, halakhic state, mitigating against an individual entering the Temple, etc., what has a ritual intended to affect purity have to do with “atonement,” and specifically for the sin of the Golden Calf? Why does this ritual and no other effect purification? (Phil Chernofsky posed this question recently in his popular “Torah Tidbits.” This law, by the way, is why halakhically observant Jews do not go up to the Temple Mount, or at most, according to some views, only to certain peripheral parts of it; because in the absence of the ashes of the Red Heifer all Jews are considered ritually impure)
And if so, already, why shouldn’t it relate to the sin of Adam and Eve? After all, death is part of the human condition, going back to the first human being. Moreover, Adam and Eve were specifically told by God, apropos of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, “on the day you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17; cf. 3:3). True, it is a commonplace of liberal Jewish apologia that, unlike the Christian Churches, we do not interpret this episode as describing some cosmic, “original” sin. Nevertheless, there are various midrashic notions, such as that of zohamat hanahash, “the pollution of the serpent,” that would suggest that Adam’s sin changed things in a fundamental way. Why, then, is the contamination resulting from death connected with atonement for the Golden Calf?
All this can perhaps be dismissed as so much fanciful creation of the midrashic imagination, a “just-so” story prompted by the similarity of the calf and the heifer in color and species. But if Rashi took the trouble to quote it at length, and to make the unusual move of giving a second verse-by-verse run-through of the entire section (something he otherwise does only in vv. 32-40 of the Song of Moses, Ha’azinu, in Deut 32), this would certainly suggest that he at least thought there was more to it… What, and why?
In general, the Golden Calf is seen as the primal sin in Jewish tradition; a kind of cosmic rift within the Bible (even in the purely literary sense, as I have commented earlier). It is axiomatic among the Rabbis that the sin of the Golden Calf is one that requires constant atonement by Israel, collectively. It, more than Adam’s sin, is seen midrashically as the “original sin” in Judaism (certainly, as I have mentioned, it serves as the locus for the central act of forgiveness and divine mercy). Why? In essence, the sin of the calf was not so much about idolatry, as it was about the need for some concrete, corporeal, intermediary symbol or reminder of the Divine presence. The stern, austere demands of iconoclastic monotheism were simply too much for the people, in the same way as the various conflicts between Moses and the people in the recent chapters of Bamidbar are ultimately about the one, central fact that a certain type of sustained toughness and maintenance of vision in the face of difficulties was just too much for the people. The kernel of all this is rootedness in the flesh, not as something sinful in itself, but as that which, when not animated by the spirit, by the sense of some transcendent purpose, quickly reverts to pettiness, to fearfulness, to squabbling, etc. And what is death, if not the departure of the animating spirit, of that which makes us alive and vital and creative and capable of soaring to spiritual heights, leaving an inert mass of dead flesh? (The Rav, in his “Eulogy for the Talner Rebbe,” speaks of death as the “hideous darkness… grisly and monstrous,” making a mockery of all human aspirations). Hence, the confrontation with death, with the dissolution of life, with the resultant questioning of all that makes us human, prompts a reevaluation of the old question of the balance between body and spirit—and the act of purification, of catharsis and working through of this seering confrontation, also confronts us with the age-old sin of the Golden Calf.
“I have chiseled out a law, I have issued a fiat, and one is not to question it..”
Hukat occupies a central place in much of Orthodox polemics and homiletics as the source for accepting the law categorically, absolutely, even when it flies in the face of human reason. It is almost seen, at times, as a Jewish version of credo qua absurdum est: “I believe because it is absurd.” This is even implied in the title: Hukat, “the ordinances of the Torah.” The laws of the Torah are conventionally divided into two groups: hukim and mishpatim, “ordinances” and “laws”: the latter are those that square with human reason, similar to legislation that we might find in civil society or basic humanistic moral principles. The former, the hukim, transcend human reason, are “above the intellect,” cannot be understood. In addition, of course, the chapter of the Red Heifer seems particularly remote from logical ways of thinking, making no sense in terms of our ordinary experience; moreover, the internal paradox within its laws (“contaminating the pure and purifying the contaminated”) lends it a further component of paradox and illogic.
Rashi, quoting the midrash, refers to the hukim as “those things about which Satan and the nations of the world taunt Israel, saying ‘Why do you need these commandments.’” He goes on to quote God’s proclamation: “I have chiseled out a law, I have issued an edict, and you are not allowed to ponder after it [i.e., to question it]” (based on Yoma 67b. A close reading of the various midrashim in this vein, and the subtle differences among them, including an analysis of precisely which mitzvot are called ”hukim,” would make an interesting study, but is beyond the ken of this framework).
This is often read as a call to serve God purely as an arbitrary legislator, and to see the Torah as ultimately His arbitrary, divine fiat. But things are in fact more complex than that. The Rambam treats this subject in the three separate halakhot that serve as the peroration for three books of his Mishneh Torah (Meilah 8.8; Temurah 4.13; Mikva’ot 11.12). His answer is subtly nuanced and complex. On the one hand, a person may not make his acceptance of the Law dependent upon his ability to understand the reason for the particular mitzvah or the mitzvot in general, or its fitting into his conceptions of reason. In this respect, they are indeed “the edicts of the king,” which are to be accepted as a binding, heteronomous imperative. On the other hand, a person should always seek out the meaning of the mitzvot, trying to understand them insofar as his intellect is capable of doing so. (Indeed, I sometimes wonder whether Maimonides’ interpretation of gemara in Talmud Torah 1.12, as reflecting upon the inner structure and meaning of the law, including Ma’aseh Merkavah and Ma’aseh Bereshit, the secrets of the Divine Chariot and the Acts of Creation, does not include within its rubric reflection upon ta’amei hamitzvot as well—but that is a whole other issue.).
The issue of ta’amei hamitzvot is also a central one in the commandment of shiluah heken, the sending away of the mother bird (Deut 22:6-7). Here, we deal with the opposite pole, so to speak: the Midrash relates the story of a young man who climbed a tree, at his father’s request, to chase away a mother bird, and in the course of doing so fell and died. How can it be, said Elisha ben Abuyah, that he should die while performing two commandments of which it is said “that your days may be long”? The midrash concludes that one should not put God to the test in such a way; for similar reason, one does not say in prayer, “Your mercies extend to the bird’s nest,” because one is thereby “making God’s edicts into mercy,” i.e., reducing the mitzvot to human, almost sentimental terms (see Mishnah Berakhot 5.3; b. Kiddushin 39b).
I’d like to connect this discussion, once again, to the last two weeks’ discussion about the role of the intellect, post-modernity, etc. Essentially, my position is in many way very old-fashioned; I don’t care much for the present Zeitgeist, and find myself liking it less and less as time goes on. One of my aims in Hitzei Yehonatan is to try to develop an intelligent mode of discourse about the various challenges to Jewish faith presented by modernity, and in the course of doing so to elucidate and formulate more clearly to myself as well my own positions on various issues. I find a grave lack of such intelligent discussion in the self-described ”frum,” “Torah world,” which tends to be marked by a cloying, pietistic, ingrown style of rhetoric and thought.
“As it is written in the Book of the Wars of the Lord”
Between Chapter 19 and Chapter 20 of the Book of Numbers, we have a “fast forward” of 38 years. More important, in these two brief chapters we find yet another perspective in the composite portrait of the people of Israel. Having read a formal, schematic portrait in Chs. 1-8 of an amphictony of tribes arranged ever so symetrically around the Ark of the Lord; and a catalogue of human vices, failings and shortcomings in the “murmurings” chapters (Chs. 11-17), we now turn to a portrait of Israel as a warrior people, advancing confidently, vigorously, circuiting the land of Canaan to find an appropriate point from which to begin their entry into and taking possession of the land. On the way, they encounter various peoples, such as Edom and Moab, who do not have the decency to even allow them to a pass through and sell them a bit of water and food; ultimately, they encounter Og king of Bashan and Sihon king of the Amorites who actively engage them in battle, and are roundly defeated. En route, there are a series of interesting vignettes, and snatches of ancient, warlike poetry, taken from the “Book of the Wars of the Lord,” or from the ”saying of the ballad singers”: quotations and bits of song from ancient, long forgotten books. The entire section has a unique, archaic atmosphere, filled with echoes of ancient warfare among desert tribes.
A few vignettes. After the murmurings, it is Moses’ turn to be punished. First of all, the incident of the well, which ceased to yield its waters after Miriam’s death, and the order to Moses to speak to the rock that it might yield its waters. Moses impetuously smites the rock with his staff, an act for which he is punished by being told that he will not be permitted to enter the land but must die in exile, “because you did not sanctify me among the Israelites” (20:12). A bitter pill, and one that has elicited much and lengthy commentary—but this subject is for another time (those interested in delving into this further are referred to Nehama Leibowitz’s chapter on this problem in her Studies in Bamidbar and/or the commentaries of Ramban, Sforno, Hizkoni, and Ibn Ezra on these verses).
An interesting sidelight to this passage. Rashi, on verse 20:1 (quoting Moed Katan 25, comments that, unlike the case with Aaron and Moses, it does not state that Miriam died “at the mouth of the Lord,’ i.e, by the divine kiss, even though she did so, “out of respect toward the One on High.” I find this very strange, assuming as it does the reality of the anthropomorphic image of God; as if God were a man , for whom it would be improper to kiss a strange woman, rather than Him transcending gender, and certainly sexual desire. Moreover, even if we do accept this imagery, surely God would be seen as a father, seeing Miriam as one of his daughters.
The incident of the brass serpent (21:6-9). There is something very raw and almost “primitive” here. The people begin to die of a plague, as punishment for a renewed round of murmuring against God. Here, unlike the earlier cases the people immediately repent (“we have sinned”; v. 7); and Moses molds a brass serpent, which he holds aloft so that people may see it and be healed. Interestingly, this selfsame serpent was kept for centuries, and turns up again in 2 Kings 18:4 in the court of Hoshea son of Elah, until whose days it was revered as locus of magical powers or even a demi-god.
The war with Og and Sihon is actually an important motif in biblical history, seen as emblematic of God’s redemptive acts on behalf of Israel. It is invoked in the historical summary in Deuteronomy, in the Book of Joshua, in Psalms 135 and 136, and elsewhere. A humorous side light; a “tall story,” if you will, about Og king of Bashan. Og is described elsewhere as having been a veritable giant; Deuteronomy 3:11 takes the trouble to describe the dimensions of his enormous iron bedstead. In the early days of the State of Israel, when there were few tall people to be seen, anyone more than six feet tall was likely to followed through the streets by gangs of urchins calling out “Og king of Bashan.”
The Murmurings: A Postscript
I would like to briefly return to the last three Torah portions—Beha’alotkha, Shelah lekha and Korah—and the rebellions and murmurings that dominate them. These three seem like a veritable catalogue of human failings and shortcomings. True, the Israelites’ wanderings through the wilderness begin on an affirmative note, under the beneficent guidance of the Almighty: guided by the pillars of fire and cloud; eating manna from Heaven and drinking water from the miraculous well of Miriam; encamped in a sacred four-square formation around the Tent of Meeting; and summoned together by the clarion call of the shofar blast. Indeed, the “generation of the wilderness” is repeatedly mentioned by many Hasidic and other writers, most notably Sefat Emet, as an archetype for those enjoying an almost Edenic existence. But then things rapidly degenerate: they complain about the food, remembering with nostalgia the fish, the garlic, the melons, the spices, the gourds in Egypt. You could say that they were the founders of gastronomic Judaism: Moshe Rabbenu forgot to bring the right kind of kugel, herring and whiskey for the Great Kiddush, and he never heard the end of it! (One is reminded of the Kotzker, and his demand for uncompromising honesty: “I don’t want a crowd of Hasidim barking for food like dogs, but a dozen knees that have not bent the knee to Baal!”) This is followed in short order by the incident of the spies, in which the people are overtaken by fear of the unknown, and by Korah’s rebellion, the archetypal case of the demagogue who wins a following using simple, populist arguments to play on the inevitable frustration with almost any leadership—but who is in fact motivated by his own egotistic desire for power, influence and wealth.
I won’t go into detail, as we have discussed all this in the past (see below), but would like to dwell for a moment on the story of the spies. Why were the spies taken as the paradigm of the “bad guys” in the Humash? The traditional midrashic interpretation is that they were delitorin, “talebearers,” people who were somehow moved by evil intention from the very outset, to badmouth Eretz Yisrael and dissuade the people from wanting to enter the Land. But were the really moved by deliberate bad intent, or simply by fear?
Ultimately, it seems, the Torah does expect human beings to overcome their human weaknesses; on some level, its demand is that people be “different”; that we conquer our deepest fears and somehow transcend and transform even our most basic, ingrown faults—beginning with something as basic as fear. Thus the spies, even if they were “genuinely” frightened by the people they saw in Canaan, were somehow culpable.
We find painted here in stark, dramatic colors the age-old conflict between the uncompromising, idealistic leader, who seeks to impart a pure, undiluted teaching, and the masses, with their mundane, down-to-earth needs, concerns, fears and worries. Dostoevsky, in his famous chapter of the “Grand Inquisitor,” shows a religious leader of the opposite ilk—consciously feeding soothing, comforting, undemanding lies to his flock. The alternative there is not, as often thought, an agnostic or atheistic message, but a message in which the True Teaching (in that case, Jesus returned to life, seeing the elaborate pomp and ceremony and hierarchy of the medieval church) demands human strength and daring, moral power and courage, not weakness. Very much like Kotzk (or Nietzsche), or “the Holy Rebellion” of religious Zionism, creating a new, powerful, confident breed of Jew. And Moshe Rabbenu was the first of that type.
Are things ever really different? The present “post-modern” age, with all its rhetoric of individualism, of personal rights and “growth,” is as prone as any time in history to mass movements, of people following just about anyone who comes along with a strongly delivered, clear-cut message, no matter how patently false, illogical or even immoral it may be. Strong-minded, charismatic “gurus” are bound to find a following.
But, on the other hand, doesn’t the Torah also contain a message of leniency, of Divine forgiveness and understanding for human weakness, delivered again here: “I have forgiven as was your word”; “God, compassionate and forgiving”; etc. (See my discussion of the “Covenant of the Cleft of the Rock” and the contrast I draw between the “Shavuot revelation” and the “Yom Kippur revelation” in HY I: Ki Tisa, now also on my blog).
Thus, on another level, we also learn from these portions the power of fear and these other elemental emotions, as something experienced by all people at one time or other. In this context, I would like to share an important insight I have recently gained about the profound divisions within our country, that have reached new depths of bitterness and hostility with the plan for disengagement from Gaza, scheduled for implementation later this summer. I am not going to talk here about the substance of the plan, and its pros and cons, per se, but only about the aspect of the tensions that it, and the whole issue of the “territories,” have generated over the past three-plus decades.
It occurred to me, thinking about the just-mentioned parshiyot, that both sides are ultimately moved by the same motivation, albeit filtered through different interpretations of what is likely to happen—namely, fear. Both sides fear what will happen if what they advocate isn’t done: the Right fears escalation of terror if the IDF leaves the pressure cooker called the Gaza Strip; while the Left fears an escalation of terrorism, cooling of support from our allies in America, further estrangement from Europe, and possibly a full-scale war with the Palestinians and at least some Arab states, if we don’t disengage.
Of course, all this is cloaked in the language of values: the sanctity of the Land vs. universal democratic values and human rights and the revulsion at what is seen as colonialism; one side sees the other as “anti-Jewish,” while the other sees the former as “anti-democratic” or even “fascist.” But the dispute is as much about how one reads the map as to what the Arabs “really” think. How will they react to disengagement and the dismantling of settlements? While they take it as a positive sign of willingness to compromise and of desire to make a real, lasting peace, or as a sign of weakness? Both views can invoke partial factual support for their position, and both are incomplete and selective in the information they choose to regard as relevant.
But secondly and perhaps more important, both are based on a reading of the future—which is always a calculated risk. No one knows for certain what future will bring. (Nor can the other side know either: Abu Mazen, Muhammed Dahlan, the new Hamas leaders, may know what they think in their innermost heart, but they cannot know how the dynamic of conflicting forces will play out within their own divided society.) How, as the proverbial example used in Chaos Theory has it, will the flapping of butterfly wings over the Pacific affect the climate in Kentucky? The conclusion I draw from all this is that the bottom line is not some kind of facile, saccharine “unity,” such as advertised in occasional TV jingles and posters, but that everybody in Israel must at least learn to disagree with the other in a respectful, human way, and to acknowledge the good faith of those on the “other side”—that hose who hold a diametrically opposed position are not evil or defeatists, but fellow Jews trying to deal, as we are, with fears and anxieties in face of a future that, by its very nature, like any future, is uncertain.
To return to today’s psalm: we must relearn the value and joy of fellowship, even with those with whom we disagree about what we think of as the deepest existential issues—a kind of hineh mah tov umah na’im shevet ahim gam yahad. (Incidentally, this is sorely needed even in the most literal sense: the divisions cut deep even within families. I recently heard of a certain Shalom Akhshav [Peace Now] activist, who happens to have grown up in my old neighborhood, who literally refuses, on principle [!] to visit his sister and her husband at their home because she lives in a West Bank settlement.) Perhaps a bit of humility, based on the awareness that only He who Knows the Secret Things knows how the conflict with the Palestinians will play itself out, and who was “right,” is in order all around.
The Bronze Serpent, and other Anomalies
It’s interesting that the “color” of Parshat Korah is sky-blue (tekhelet)—the color of the garment that, according to the midrash, Korah and his cohorts wore as part of their protest against the leadership of Moshe Rabbenu. The dominant color of Hukkat, on the other hand, is the “red” of the red heifer —really, a kind of rust-colored orange-brown (see the photo we sent out with our Purim humor issue). I find this interesting in light of the use of these two colors to symbolize the two opposing political camps in Israel now—those for and against the Disengagement from Gaza, planned to occur just over a month from today. One group ties orange ribbons or pieces of cloth to their cars, their houses, clothing, bags, kippot, women’s head-coverings…. in short, wherever possible; while the others wear blue and white, to symbolize their loyalty to the decisions of the government.
On a more serious level: I find it strange that in this portion, God Himself commands Moses to make what amounts to a fetish—to make a bronze serpent (how different is that from the Golden Calf?), to place it on a staff where it will be visible far and wide, and for the people to gaze on it, so that it may heal them from the venom of the real serpents that had bit many of them (Num 21:6-9). True, our tradition states that the intended purpose of this metal serpent was a spiritual-religious one—that the people should raise their eyes on high to God and thereby “submit their hearts to their Heavenly Father” (m. Rosh Hashanah 3.8). It would almost seem that the prohibition against imagery is not so much that there is something inherently evil or pagan therein, but that all depends on the will of God. (After all, the cherubim, located in the Holy of Holies, were a pair of humanoid images of some sort—some say, scandalously so; while the “sea of Solomon,” i.e., the huge water laver in the First Temple, was supported by twelve cast meal statues of bullocks.)
The interesting thing is that, over the course of time, the brazen serpent did in fact become an object of fetishistic worship. Thus, we read in 2 King 18:4 that Hezekiah needed to pulverize it, together with the other pagan artifacts in Jerusalem, because the people made offerings to it.
What is the conclusion to be drawn from all this? One might say: that something that once served a holy purpose can easily become detached, in the popular mind, from its original purpose and become a fetish. This is, in fact, precisely what Rambam (Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim, Ch. 1) said was the origin of the earliest idolatry: originally people merely showed respect and homage to the sun and stars and moon, created by God as sublime cosmic beings to serve Him, but later they began to idolize them as Divin entities in their own right.
One sees this in Jewish religion even today: for example, in the cult of graves, and in the notion among many that one ought make every effort (including borrowing money) to journey to the graves of saints—in Ukraine, in North Africa, in the United States—because the souls of the tzaddikim buried there alleged have special powers to intervene with God on one’s behalf. Moreover, even the halakhah itself can be related to in a fetishistic manner: It’s hard far me to define exactly when this is happening, but I feel that this too often happens. Too often, I see my fellow Orthodox Jews subjugating themselves to the mitzvot, to the Shulhan Arukh, and forgetting God and forgetting love of their fellow in the process. The mitzvot become treated as end in themselves, rather than as the path that leads up the mountain: that the Torah is a ladder with its base on the ground, but its head reaching to the heavens.