Obedience and Holiness: Parshat Chukas

Obedience and Holiness: Parshat Chukas


Howard Adelman

In the blog before the last one, I wrote about three young people who did not seem to have a religious bone in their bodies and who also seemed to have no sense of the sacred. In last Friday’s blog I wrote about the competition over defining holiness between Korah, who found holiness in everyone and Moses and Aaron whom God anointed as holy. A commentator wrote me that taking the side of Korah meant that if humans were already holy, they did not need to improve and the whole enterprise of Judaism would have been aborted. I countered by suggesting that seeing holiness in each human was not to be equated with seeing perfection. In today’s blog and a discussion of Parshat Chukas (Numbers 19-21) I want to zero in on the concept of holiness.

In Judaism, the mount where the temple stood by its very designation is viewed as sacred. We know it is sacred more from how that sacred place was profaned that through the sacrifices and God’s presence. We are ending two weeks of the three weeks of mourning that began on Canada Day, I July and the 17th of Tamuz that leads up to Tish B’Av ordained to commemorate the destruction of the first and second temples, each a Beit Ha’Mikdash. The sacred place was made profane in that destruction. But sometimes profanity is smashed as when Moses confronted the Israelites who had built and worshiped the golden calf as if it were holy. So the holy and unholy are regarded as opposites that are complementary. If Moses smashed a golden calf, the Syrian Governor burned a Sefer Torah on the Mount, a destruction also commemorated in this period of mourning. Finally, King Menashe committed the ultimate unholy act and placed an idol right on the Beit Ha’mikdash, an act of destruction also commemorated in this period of mourning.

But what has all of this to do with Parshat Chakas that describes the perfect red heifer, the parah adumah, and the laws applicable thereto? What has all of this fight between the holy and the unholy have to do with the military destruction that runs through Parshat Chakas, beginning with the destruction of the Canaanite army quickly followed by the defeat of the Moabites and the Amorites. And all the time the Israelites kvetched. There was not enough water. Living conditions were terrible. And when God responded by making them really miserable by infesting the camp with poisonous snakes, Moses had to get rid of them with the magic of his copper snake and save those who had been bitten.

The Israelites were (and remain) a recalcitrant lot. They were an unholy people because a holy people obeys because they are commanded to obey, not because they understand why they are obeying or because obeying fits in with how we feel or think or because we want to set off our own will against that of another.

A person is holy because he obeys. That is why Korah is seen as betraying his priestly role, because he went beyond kvetching and challenged instead of obeying. A place is holy because one is willing to sacrifice one’s life for that place, not simply to win it, but to prevent that place from being desecrated, from being used to burn a sefer Torah, from being used to construct an idol, from being destroyed itself. Moses was seen as a uniquely holy one because he was chosen to obey God’s commands without question.

If this is so, why do I sympathize with Korah? Why do I suggest that Moses ran a kangaroo court in dealing with Korah’s protest? Why do I portray Moses, who is a prophet like none other, who is supposedly holy like no other, who is privy to the secret of the red heifer, but not the secret of who God is, why do I portray Moses as a manipulator and a sophist who twists words and meanings?

In Judaism, the prime injunction is neither to Know God nor oneself, but to obey Him in spite of your profound ignorance, not to know oneself, but to understand that the highest degree of wisdom is to enact decrees (chukot), to implement orders that you not only do not question, but have no right to question, to live a life that expresses chukat ha’Torah.. And not only do you obey without question, obey without inquiry, but recognizing that it is a mitzvah, a blessing, a good deed, to do so with the best of one’s ability and, thereby, become a pure being in the doing. And in order to perform that act of eliminating what defiles a place, one must ensure that one is not defiled oneself.

A sign that you have done so? You do not kvetch. You do not complain that there is no water. You do not complain that there is no food. Moses failed his people, not by giving into their complaints and using his rod to bring forth water, but for calling them rebels because they were such kvetches, because he insulted and degraded the people and did not see in them their potential for holiness. Moses was unlike Korah, not because he sinned by giving in to populism, not because he did not sufficiently trust God, but because he did not sufficiently trust the people that God had chosen to be His bride. So Moses, even though he was holy like no other, even though he knew the secret of the red heifer, was not holy enough to enter the land of Israel, not holy enough to stand on the Beit Ha’Mikdash. And he was not holy enough because even Moses did not have enough faith in God to sanctify God in the eyes of his children. (Numbers 20:12)

So what does one do if one loves the study of Torah enough to sacrifice time to earn money, time to be spent on pleasures, but not to fulfill it, not to become holy and not to serve to make Israel a holy place? That is the central question – not to be or not to be. So in Parshat Chukas, God spoke to Moses and Aaron to inform them that the statute of the Torah required them to locate and acquire a perfectly unblemished cow that had never worked a day of its life, that had never pulled a plow, and to have it slaughtered by a Kohen and participate in voodoo by dipping your finger in its blood and sprinkling that blood before, not on, the Holy of Holies, and then burning the entire red heifer until there is absolutely nothing left but ashes, ashes to be used paradoxically with water to make oneself clean,, including the Kohen who must be cleansed from participating in the slaughter of the red heifer.

Why should ashes of such a rare pure and unblemished cow that has been sacrifices serve as “an everlasting statute for the children of Israel”? Why is the central issue and top priority in Israel washing the body of the dead to purify it before burial? Is this not an act of necrophilia? Why is the corpse which dies, if not death itself, considered unclean? Why does Saul in the movie Son of Saul become so obsessed with cleaning the body of the corpse he regards as his own son and insist on a proper burial. Why does he end up washing that body in a fast flowing stream as he tries to bury it, and does so even though it may sabotage the revolt as well as efforts to record the horrible events that occurred in Auschwitz/Birkenau?

And what about the others? What about the non-Israelites? A message was sent to the King of Edom to let the Israelites pass in safety. But the King of Edom refused, did not grant a right of passage and blocked the path of the Israelites towards the promised land. When Edom came forth with a vast force and a strong hand, when he refused a right of passage, Moses was ordered to sacrifice his brother, the High Priest, on top of Mount Hor where Aaron died before he could lead the Israelites to smite the Edomites. This was followed by the destruction of the King of Arad and his Canaanites at Hormah.

In spite of these victories, the Israelites kvetched even more. So the horde of venomous snakes attacked them until Moses once again used the magic of his copper staff to smite the serpents. Even though Moses had more cause this time, he did not put down the bride of God, he did not give in to the propensity to denigrate his people, God’s people, but, in spite of their obvious inadequacies – and his own – to express pride in who they were and not shame at whom they were not. And Moses did so even though he had been found unworthy of entering the land of Israel. Moses saw that he had made the greatest mistake of his life, but owned up to it and carried on with his responsibilities even though he knew it would be without personal reward.

The slaughter of the Edomites and the Canaanites was followed with victories over the Moabites and King Sihon of the Amorites, And the Israelites took possession of all their lands. This happened again in 1967. And the Jewish people were once again divided. Some said hold onto that land because it is sacred and God delivered it to us as our holy land, a land that we must be willing to die for. Others said give it back. We have enough land on which to live and thrive and we can live and thrive best if we live side by side with our neighbours in peace. But those neighbours on that land, or many of them, particularly their leaders, refused to acknowledge the right of the Israelites to live not only on the land captured in 1967, but even on the land they made their own in 1948. Jews might be allowed to live there on sufferance, but not by right and certainly not on the Beit Ha’Mikdash.

So more and more Jews became convinced, not of God’s promise, but that they had been given no choice, that they had to continue living on all of the promised land that had been captured. In the greatest irony, the non-Israelites served that ancient promise even more so than the Israelites and the Jews throughout the world. Only the so-called dedicated few, the zealots, rejected the idea that the Israelites had to live in accordance with the natural laws of force, for they were few in number and did not constitute a huge army that the Israelites had assembled when they first conquered the Holy Land. These Jews rejected both the idea that Jews were destined to live in accordance with natural laws, including the “natural” laws of realpolitik.

They also rejected what was an even more alien principle for them, that Jews were like everyone else entering the modern world, the contemporary world, the world that worshiped existence, that worshiped the greatest idol of all, the belief that the world was made so that the self could experience it and live in the present rather than for the sake of the future, in the belief that everyone had his own personal truth and that being authentic to that truth was the ultimate commandment, a “truth” that rejected the sense of sacrifice, a truth that rejected the sense that one must be willing to die for what is holy, a truth that rejected the duty to become holy in following a commandment that seemed out of this world and not part of it, but a commandment that most of all rejected the idea that the holiness of the command from the other world did not command the killing of others, though it acknowledged the necessity of doing so if the armies of those others rejected one’s holy obligations.

So how do those who are holy or, more accurately, who aspire to holiness, address their fellow Jews who regard such a concept of holiness as crazy, as absolutely nuts, as other worldly, for any address starts with the premise they reject, that there is an authority which you not only do not know or understand, but whom you cannot even question. The irony is that the quester has more in common with the secular existential individual who lives for his or herself in the contemporary world, rejecting any source of authority, even a source in reason and logic, outside his or her own personal sense of what is right and wrong. For those in quest of holiness and those convinced that holiness lies within themselves without any external reference at least both believe in a holiness; those who conform to the rules of realpolitik do not.

In accordance with the lesson of Moses, who failed to live up to that idea of holiness, of obeying a God one did not and could not understand, those in quest of holiness must trust their fellow Jews, both those who reject the sacred altogether and are simply devoted to national survival in accordance with the rules of international force, and those who only see holiness as residing within, without any external reference, who revere diversity and difference because there is no universal holiness, there is no one God. Those in quest of divine holiness must follow the commandment not to “diss” their fellow Jews, not to lose faith in the bride of Israel even when they willingly become servants of the enemies of Israel as in the case of Jewish Voices for Peace. The dictum is not to love thy neighbour as oneself, but to love one’s fellow Jew even though he kvetches all the time and seems to have lost all faith in God. Those in pursuit of holiness must reject the notion that Korah held that there is something of the holy in every one of us, reject the notion put forth by a philosopher/teacher in a Jewish Conservative seminary (the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York) such as Alan Mittleman (Human Nature & Jewish Thought: Judaism’s Case for Why Persons Matter), reject the case of this contemporary Baruch Spinoza who took the belief in the spark of the holy in each individual to its logical conclusion.

But those in quest of holiness must not reject such advocates as simply kvetchers who betray God, for they are all part of God’s people, and the people as a whole are always holy even if the individuals within, including those who openly pursue holiness, are not. And even if those who pursue holiness must contend with what they regard as the sacrilegious belief that holiness is immanent within each one of us, these pursuers of the holy cannot reject these others. They cannot thrust them into a man-made purgatory. For the kvetchers of realpolitik must confront what Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik insisted upon, that with the advent of modern science and quantum theory, there were no absolute natural laws to serve as a reference point while those in pursuit of holiness must accept that these blind followers of faith in the absolute laws of nature must not only be tolerated, but must be embraced. So too the kvetchers of existential angst remain part of the Jewish people and their contribution to that people; however alien, they must not be rejected even if their particular beliefs are.

And where do I stand among the kvetchers espousing realpolitik, among the dropouts who seek to realize an ephemeral holiness within themselves and believe that the right to choose is our most sacred blessing, among those who implicitly and explicitly join the enemies of Israel and help foster its possible destruction, and among those who believe that holiness can only be achieved by strict obedience to a God one does not and cannot understand? I stand amongst them all, yet apart from them all, and that is not my pride, but my failing. For in revering detachment and understanding most of all, I sin more than all the others in reverence for the greatest idol of them all – abstraction instead of commitment, in a belief in reason rather than holiness, in a belief in thought rather than an inner sensibility, and the contradictory belief that empathetic understanding and objectivity can be reconciled. My faith in reason and in this fundamental contradiction of reason, is my ultimate failing and why I will never be holy.

The absolute may be with us at the start, and, indeed, at every point along the way when we believe we have located the absolute. But what happens when we accept at one and the same time that each version of the absolute will prove empty and false, that the absolute that is with us from the start in the process of emptying itself for our sake will only carry the promise, not of fulfillment, but of the experience of more and more emptiness? There is an answer for me, and that is the problem with such an answer. It is an answer for me and not for us. I have no answer about how to unify the Jewish world and how that Jewish world can be accepted in the wider world around. I pursue tikkun olam in full recognition that the concept of social justice is merely a ghost of its real meaning, an obligation to correct the defects of the cosmos and not simply the social organization of the world of humanity. My only solace – I live amongst contenders for different concepts of faith even if I cannot live within any one of them.


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