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This parasha starts with God instructing Moses and Aaron regarding the red heifer. It then tells of the death of Miriam. There follows the infamous incident where Moses hits a rock to bring forth water rather than speaking to it. Finally it includes the death of Aaron.

Another voice

Chukat by Seth Farber :: 5768

Seth is the director of ITIM, a Jerusalem-based organization that helps secular Israelis navigate the labyrinths of the Israeli rabbinate, and rabbi of Kehilat Netivot, a modern Orthodox synagogue in Raanana, Israel. He received his PhD from the Hebrew University and his wife Michelle and their five children are responsible for his sanity.

Are we sufficiently committed to the study of Torah?

Two third century readings of a verse in this weeks parsha make bold and perhaps contradictory statements about our commitment to what the Rabbis considered the most noble of Jewish pursuits. These statements are not only instructive about the study of Torah, but illustrate a value that has all been but lost on the general Jewish community in the past two generations: 'This is the law of the man who dies in a tent,' states the Torah. 'All those in or entering the tent are impure.' (Chapter 19) While the simple reading of the passage suggests that the first clause is an introductory one, two rabbinic scholars, cited in the Yalkut Shimoni Midrash anthology took it out of context and amplified it:

"Rabbi Jonathan said: A person shouldn't refrain from studying Torah, even upon his death bed, for the verse states. 'This is the law (lit. Torah) of a person who dies in the tent.'" R. Jonathan, reflecting on the rabbinic association of tent and Torah (consider the rabbinic readings of Jacob as a man of tents - i.e. a man immersed in Torah study), concludes that the Bible is hinting to the lifelong commitment and dedication one must hold towards study. Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish states: The words of Torah cannot be sustained by anyone who doesn't kill himself over them as the verse states 'This is the law (lit. Torah) of a person who dies in the tent.

Hermeneutically speaking, both Rabbi Jonathan and Rabbi Shimon agree that the verse must relate to more than simple ritual purity, and that dedication to Torah study is central. And yet, they differ on the nature of that dedication. For Rabbi Jonathan, the dedication is bound by time. Even as one acknowledges that one's time is limited, one must invest fully in Torah study. The intellectual pursuit is guided by something that surpasses time itself. Even as one faces one's limits, one acknowledges the infinite of the Torah. As one is facing the shadow of death, the Torah stands alongside to protect him or her.

Rabbi Shimon, though, has a different message. He doesn't contrast the limited and the limitless. Rather, he is obsessed with dedication and conviction. The real test of the Torah, and ultimately, its sustainability, can be measured by the nature of our commitment to it. Theoretically, one need not study on one's deathbed. Instead, in moments of study, one must be willing to forego all, jeapordize one's convictions, cast aside one's ideology, be open to anything, and allow Torah to cast its shadow. The modern world has opened up Torah study to the masses in an unprecendented manner. Within the orthodox community, more people are studying regularly than in any time in Jewish history. And within the more liberal communities, a newfound appreciation of the Jewish intellectual pursuit is changing the face of the Jewish community. The challenge for the entire Jewish community is not simply to adopt Rabbi Jonathan's model. Torah study is not only meant to be part of our lives. It is meant to challenge us, to ennoble us, to embolden us, and ultimately, to perfect us. We must attempt to rise to Rabbi Shimon's standard and dedicate ourselves to a greater sense of commitment, not only in time, but in conviction, toward how the Torah, in its broadest sense, can shape our lives.


More by Seth Farber

Another voice by Alex Rinsler

Parshat Chukat is brutal. The very title – 'decree' – leaves us cold, echoing the word 'chakah' – bound, engraved, set. The severity of God's decree is felt by all. There's no romance, no pillars of fire: only death, diplomacy and rough justice.

The text is abrupt; one verse puts down Miriam, another condemns Moses to exile. Moses has fulfilled his role as a revolutionary, leading a generation into the unknown. Now he seems remote from the people, fearful of them and increasingly reliant on instruments of power to implement God's will. This revolutionary is not to become a statesman.

Still, the Israelites accrue a string of impressive military victories, each one bringing them closer to the Promised Land. Moses does not falter despite the weight of his sentence and will steer the people through plague, and prevent a civil war in the next sedra. This resilience is unrecognised and makes God's judgement all the more choking.

What a journey. Dissent and rebellion have exhausted the great leaders - it's said that fatigue can make a coward out of anyone. Miriam and Aaron pass on and Moses' days are numbered. Their moments have passed, their glories bound forever into myth and legend. It is decreed.


More by Alex Rinsler

Other Divrei Torah on Chukat

  • 5766 (Raphael Zarum)
  • 5766 (Andrew Levy)
  • 5767 (Diana Lipton)
  • 5767 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5769 (Malya Kurzweil)
  • 5769 (Alex Rinsler)
  • 5770 (Daniella Kolodny)
  • 5770 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5771 (Jude Williams)
  • 5771 (Louise Heilbron)
  • 5772 (Juliet Simmons)
  • 5772 (Robyn Ashworth-Steen)
  • 5773 (Gila Fine)
  • 5773 (Oliver Marcus)
  • 5774 (Rachel Kobrin)
  • 5774 (Steve Miller)