Best of Parashah Ponderings: Chukat and the Game of Life

Parashat Chukat / פרשת חקת
Torah Portion: Numbers 19:1 – 22:1

(Originally published here June 26, 2015.)

This week’s parashah reads like a board game, with the Israelites moving ahead a space, hitting misfortune, moving back several spaces, and then getting lucky and moving forward toward the finish line. The opening chapter of the parashah, rather than fitting in with the game itself, feels like the game’s complicated instructions that will only make sense once you start playing the game. Much happens to the Israelites in this parashah board game for better and for worse, and by the time it is over we’ve discovered an important lesson about dealing with life’s travails.

Let’s start with the instructions. Parashat Chukat begins with the bizarre details of the ritual of the “red heifer” (Numbers 19:1-22) through which one is spiritually cleansed after having become spiritually contaminated by coming into close contact with a corpse. Part of this ritual requires someone to burn the heifer, reducing it to ashes, and as that person executes his responsibilities, he and the presiding priest are made impure. That is, their contact with the ashes of the heifer that will cleanse another person will, in the end, defile them and require them to wash their clothes and bathe their bodies in order to become clean once again.

It’s hard to make sense of this ritual. Why does it unfold the way it does? Why do the ashes purify one person and contaminate another? What did the heifer look like in actuality, and where did it come from? We cannot know the whys and wherefores of the red heifer ritual for sure because it could only be performed in the Temple in Jerusalem by the priests, and, of course, neither the Temple nor the priests themselves longer exist. It’s all a mystery beyond our comprehension, which, the rabbis teach, is exactly the point: sometimes God commands us to do things we do not understand, but the idea is to do them out of faith without questioning. Similarly, I’ve read and heard the instructions to complex board games that I simply could not understand, but I had faith that somehow by following the instructions the game would proceed as it was supposed to and things would begin to make sense. The only problem with the Red Heifer game, though, is that it’s a “game” that can’t be played anymore! How frustrating!

So, with the instructions/prelude behind us, we see that the Israelites move one step forward to Kadesh in the “wilderness of Zin” (Num. 20:1). Just as they are settling in, however, Miriam, the prophetess and Moses’ sister, dies. Then, things really spiral out of control: the Israelites find themselves without water (20:2); Moses strikes a rock twice to produce water, despite God’s explicit instruction to simply “order the rock to yield its water” (20:6-11); Moses and Aaron get the news from God that neither of them will get to cross into the Promised Land (20:12-12); the king of Edom refuses to give the Israelites passage through his territory and turns them away. In the span of just 21 verses, Israel hits upon hard times and their forward movement is halted. Unfortunately, their next advance from Kadesh to Mount Hor (20:22) is followed by a string of more setbacks: Aaron dies (20:28); Israel is attacked by the king of Arad (21:1); serpents attack the people, killing many of them (21:6). By this point, it looks like the Israelites are on a losing path.

Just then, a miracle occurs and the forward momentum kicks in once again: Israel comes upon a well at Beer and breaks out in song (21:16-20). Refreshed, Israel defeats in succession the Amorites (21:21-32) and King Og of Bashan (21:33-35), neither of whom granted Israel the right to pass through their territory in peace. Finally, the game ends with Israel making it as far as “the steppes of Moab, across the Jordan from Jericho” (22:1). Victory! (Well, almost. We’ll have to wait until the Book of Joshua for the next installment of the game.)

What are we to learn from Israel’s experience in this “game”? There are two lessons. First, life can be messy, complicated and hard to understand from time to time, but we must strive to accept our reality and keep our sights set on what we deem truly important. In the case of the Red Heifer, biblical Israel enacted this ritual with all its mystery and believed that being do so they could deal with death effectively. They neither refused to follow God’s strange commandment nor stopped caring for their dead. They accepted the ritual of the Red Heifer at face value, and this allowed them to carry on. We, too, don’t need to understand our reality all the time, but we do need to work with what we’ve been given in order to move forward.

The second lesson is simply that, while life is full of setbacks, the setbacks should neither define us nor deter us from striving for success. In Chukat, lots of bad stuff happens to the Israelites. They grumble and say they wish to be back in Egypt. However, they eventually find their stride, gain confidence, and enjoy a series of major successes. The Israelites do not give up on God, and God does not give up on them.

Had we chosen to read the parashah only through the death of Aaron, we never would have come to the well at Beer. We certainly wouldn’t have seen Moses and the Israelites camping in the steppes of Moab. Were we to give up on life with every defeat — floods, acts of hatred, the death of loved ones — we would never be able to experience the great blessings God has in store for us.

As we play the game of life, it behooves us to assess our circumstances realistically, come to peace with where we’re at and keep on playing. Though we may suffer setbacks from time to time, let us recover quickly and prepare ourselves to keep progressing toward the winner’s circle, which is where, after all, we belong.

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