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.