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A Cow in the Middle of the Desert

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Parshat Chukat contains one of the greatest mysteries in the Torah. The most memorable anecdote in the parsha is the moment when Moshe is told to speak to a rock and tell it to give water, but for reasons, he hits the rock. Immediately after the conclusion of that story the Torah reports that Hashem tells Moshe that because of his failure in that moment he (and Aharon) will not be allowed to enter The Land. What exactly Moshe did wrong, why he made whatever error it happened to be, why excluding him from The Land after 40 years of leadership is just, and why Aharon was also included in the verdict, are all questions that have intrigued and engaged biblical scholars for millennia. But I don’t think that’s the greatest mystery in the Parsha.

To me the greatest conundrum has to do with the very start of this week’s Torah reading which is a very detailed description of the laws of the Parah Aduma ceremony. In a nut shell, (not like pistachio shell, more like a coconut shell) if a person comes into contact with a dead body, or even if they are in a room with a dead body, then the person is considered tamei – impure. Also, any objects or food items that were in the room with the dead body are considered impure. And depending on what they are and a bunch of other details, both that person and those items could even pass their impurity on to other items or people. The only way to undo this tumah (impurity) is to have the ashes, of an unblemished and unworked red cow, that has been mixed with certain water, sprinkled on you. And even then it is only a kohein that can do it, and only in a certain system of days after the initial contact, and so on. Now, it’s not the actual procedure of the Para Aduma that is a mystery to me. I accept that an Infinite Creator made a world with physical structures, rules of biology and physics, and that the Infinite Creator ALSO made a coexisting spiritual world with its own physics and details. So, if something about my contact with a dead body somehow makes make my presence in a holy place undesirable, I accept even if I don’t understand. (Just because I don’t understand doesn’t mean there isn’t a reason.)

The mystery is, why is this here?

If you have a sense of the flow of the Torah’s narrative is then you know that we finished all the laws of sacrifices and purity and impurity way back in Sefer Vayikra. This book is about the foibles and successes of the Jewish people in the desert. And even more, last week we had Korach’s insurrection against Moshe and........

© The Times of Israel (Blogs)

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