A Red Cow, Water, and a Snake?

To think about as you read this week’s installment:

  1. What do you think about rituals surrounding purification around death/caring for a deceased person?
  2. How do you reconcile following laws that make no sense to you? Would you ever obey a law that you can’t understand? Why or why not?

One might think that the way parashat Chukkat opens, with details about the way one must purify oneself after being in contact with the dead, we would be reading mind-numbing minutia of priestly rites with absolutely no relevance for us today. All this talk about a red heifer and how Eleazar the priest must sprinkle its blood hither and yon, followed by the burning, and how to use the sacred ashes. Whew! So impossibly arcane!! Turns out that the early rabbinic commentators used this particular law of the parah adumah (red heifer) to suggest that the Israelites had two separate categories of law: chukkim (statutes or Divine decrees) and mishpatim (logical laws).

The chukkim were (and are) laws that make no rational sense to us on the surface. Why would touching the ashes of a dead red cow purify one from being in contact with the dead? Or why are we still not allowed to mix certain kinds of fabrics (like linen and wool)?

The mishpatim were (and are) laws that seem to be based in logic. For example, the laws dealing with interpersonal relations such as not stealing or not murdering. They are rational if one is to build a civil and moral society — that is, they “make sense” to us.

The red heifer saga, which opens our parasha, is a prime example of a chok (law; the plural form is chukkim) that makes no sense. Nevertheless, it was very important to have some kind of ritual to draw a sharp line between contact with the dead and re-entry into daily life among the living. On a recent trip, I spent some time in the “Four Corners” area of the U.S., an area of land which belongs to the Navajo Nation. While in the Tribal Lands, I read a fascinating book, The Scalpel and the Silver Bear: The First Navajo Woman Surgeon Combines Western Medicine and Traditional Healing, by Lori Arviso Alvord, M.D., in which she talks about the customs surrounding death in Navajo culture. For example: it is forbidden to touch a dead person; only those who care for the corpse may touch it. After they have prepared the body for burial, the people who have cared for the deceased remove their own clothes, and wash themselves completely before getting dressed again and mingling with the living. When a dead body is removed from a house or hogan, the hogan is burned down, and the place is abandoned. While there are many differences between contemporary Navajo and the Israelites of the desert, we can appreciate that the desert-dwelling Israelites had complex rituals for purification after contact with the dead, and it isn’t so completely different from the customs of other tribes.

But hold on, that’s not all this parasha has in store for us!

This parasha also includes the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, the two siblings of our greatest leader, Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our teacher) at the beginning of chapter 20. Miriam becomes forever linked to water. Think about the episodes linking Miriam and water: she protected baby Moshe when he was set afloat in the Nile, and she later sang the Song of the Sea as the Reed Sea waters parted to let the Israelites escape into freedom. Some of us have added the “Cup of Miriam” to our Passover seder tables to remember her special link. The rabbis connected Miriam to a magical well with springs of fresh water following the Israelites in the desert, because immediately after the verse marking her death (Numbers 20:1) we read “and the community had no water, and they assembled against Moses and against Aaron.” It was as if once Miriam died, the water dried up. So those creative early rabbinic commentators came up with the midrashim (stories) about Miriam’s well.

Aaron, big brother and life-long partner to Moshe/Moses, dies at the end of chapter 20; the description of his death in verses 24-29 reads like a scene from a movie. It is poignant, filled with ceremony and unstated emotion. Perhaps because the landscapes of the Navajo Tribal Lands are still in my brain, I flashed on Native Americans when I re-read these verses — the descriptive scene of Aaron’s death seemed like something I had seen in a movie about the death of a great Native American chief.

Finally, we get to the snake/serpent/viper. The G-dcast storyteller focuses on this fascinating little story in Chukkat — the symbol of the snake or serpent.

As with some alternative medical therapies, where one may be given the tiniest amounts of an allergen to ingest to counter-act one’s allergy, the G-dcast storyteller offers some ideas of how the snake became a healing symbol to counteract its poisonous bites (Numbers 21:6-9). The symbol Moshe/Moses is instructed to fashion is called “Nechash Nechoshet.” Biblical scholar and translator Robert Alter quotes medieval commentator Rashi, who remarked that G-d had just mentioned a “nachash” (serpent), but Moshe said: “the Holy One calls it nachash and I’ll make it out of nechoshet — a pun.” Alter points out that the force of replicating the same letters “reinforces the device of sympathetic magic whereby the sight of the bronze image of the serpent becomes the antidote for the serpents’ poisonous bite.”

And if you want to pursue this depiction of healing in today’s medical symbols, take a look at what Wikipedia has to say about the image of the snakes coiled around a staff.

Believe it or not, there’s a lot more to mine in this parasha, so stay tuned.

Welcome to Exodus!

This is kind of exciting: we start a new (secular) year on the calendar and start a new book of the Bible, Exodus or Sh’mot which in Hebrew means “[These Are the] Names,” taken from the opening phrase of the book.

The book begins with a very short history of how the Children of Israel came to be in Egypt and these verses act as a kind of bridge from Genesis (Bereishit, “Beginnings”).

Shifra and Puah

Micography art depicting the midwives Shifra and Puah, and the first act of civil disobedience recorded in history.

We are officially leaving the fables about the “beginnings” of the world and of our ancestors, and transitioning to the birth of this new nation, going from being the Children of Israel (the person, who was also called Ya’akov/Jacob) to being the Children of Israel (the emerging nation of Israelites).

As you might expect in a well-crafted story focusing on birth, we have a bunch of female figures and some water imagery that echo what happens in the plot. And, in addition to women (and one special girl, Miriam) this week’s parasha also introduces us to another outsider, Yitro/Jethro, who becomes the father-in-law of Moshe/Moses, our great leader. Yitro, also called Re’uel, is a priest of Midian; he is portrayed as a wise and perspicacious desert-dweller who plays a key role in the story of our people’s birth. He also is the father of seven daughters (again, introducing more women into our tale).

Let’s list the women characters and a few tidbits about them:

  1. A Levite woman (Exodus 2:1) who gives birth to a son. We later find out (in Exodus 6:16-20) that her name is Yocheved and that she had 3 children: Aaron, Miriam, and Moshe.
  2. Miriam, who also is not named here, but referred to as the sister of the baby born to Yocheved (Exodus 2:4) and only named later, in chapter Exodus 15:20.
  3. The Pharaoh’s daughter who, again, is not named at all, but given a name hundreds of years later, in the Talmudic midrash (stories). She is called Batya, meaning “Daughter of God.” Batya rescues the Hebrew baby boy (Moses) from the Nile River.
  4. The seven daughters of the priest of Midian (Yitro) one of whom, Zipporah, is given to Moshe as a wife.
  5. Two Hebrew midwives (Exodus 1:15) named Shifrah and Puah. By the way, if you are not inclined to read the whole parasha, I highly recommend reading this little episode of these two brave midwives (Exodus 1:15-22) and then join the centuries-old conversation about why these women ignore the Pharaoh’s decree. Why indeed? First, consider the following: the midwives are described in a noun phrase, which, in Hebrew, ends up being ambiguous. The phrase is m’yaldot ha-ivri’yot meaning either “the midwives who were themselves Hebrew” or “the (Egyptian) midwives who helped with the birthing of the Hebrew women slaves.” Depending on what you think about the nationality of the midwives, imagine how and why they had the courage to disobey the powerful ruler of Egypt. And how does a reward given by God (Exodus 1:20) influence your conclusion about who they really were?

Basically, this parasha brings all of this woman-energy to the foreground, as if to underscore how essential the women were in the birthing process of this nation.

The G-dcast narrator this week raises questions about another group of outliers — people with disabilities, like Moshe Rabbenu / Our Teacher Moses, who had a speech impediment.

In thinking about those who tend to be “outside” the mainstream both today and in many biblical stories, we have a trio: people with disabilities, women, and non-Israelites.

How do you think this enhances the description of the birth of the Israelite nation?

To further emphasize the birthing metaphor, we can look at the Hebrew word for Egypt: Mitzrayim. Mitzrayim also can be understood to mean “narrow straits,” probably describing the land on both sides of the life-giving waters of the Nile. The river waters are much like birth-waters; our people must make the journey down the birth canal, the narrow straits, before emerging as a brand-new nation, the Israelite nation, the People of Israel.

And so we get to the end of this blog post, without my even sharing thoughts about the burning bush, Moshe’s conversation with God, the name God gives Moshe to identify Godself, the murder of the Egyptian task-master, the fugitive status of our greatest leader, and how Moshe gets along (or doesn’t) with the Israelite slaves. Just in case this parasha whets your appetite for more, here are a couple of sources you might enjoy: