Tag Archives: Chukas

Chukat: The Last Question of the Disciple of Peace

When all the congregation saw that Aaron had died, all the house of Israel wept for Aaron thirty days.

Numbers 20:29

Hillel and Shammai received from them. Hillel would say: Be of the disciples of Aaron—a lover of peace, a pursuer of peace, one who loves the creatures and draws them close to Torah.

-Pirkei Avot 1:12

Note: This was written before my blog post The Broken Saint.

Last week, I started something of a minor storm in my little corner of the blogosphere by writing a blog post (actually, a series of them) based on Fruit Fruits of Zion‘s (FFOZ) commentary on Torah Portion Shelach. This week, I thought I’d try something different, using FFOZ’s commentary on Torah Portion Chukat to set a more gentle tone.

Why did Israel weep for Aaron thirty days? Aaron was 123 years old when he died, a ripe old age, full of years, yet all Israel wept for Aaron thirty days. Thirty days is the customary term of mourning for a close relative, and Aaron, as high priest over the congregation, was like a close relative to all Israel. According to Jewish tradition, Aaron was especially beloved by all Israel because he was known as a peacemaker.

-FFOZ Torah Commentary

There were thousands in Israel who were called by the name of Aaron, for if not for Aaron, they would not have come into the world. Aaron made peace between husband and wife so that they came together, and they named the child that was born after him.

-Avot d’Rabbi Nattan

Perhaps you are not a fan of midrash and don’t consider Rabbinic commentary to be a valid method of relating to the Bible. Nevertheless, I believe these statements can say a great deal about who we are as disciples of the Master today, or at least they can say something about me.

“They went down to the pit alive” (Numbers 16:30) – even in the grave they think they are alive. There is a blessing contained in “They went down to the pit alive,” as with “the sons of Korach did not die,” (ibid. 26:11) – “a place was established for them (Gehinom; see Megilla 14a) and they repented.” For teshuva, repentance, is effective only while one is still alive. This, then, is the blessing – that even in the pit they will live, and they will be able to effect teshuva.

-from “Today’s Day”
Tuesday, Sivan 26, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe; Translated by Yitschack Meir Kagan
Chabad.org

This refers to last week’s Torah portion and is a midrash on the fate of Korach and the others who went down into the pit with him. We know that Korach’s sons survived, and we see here the Rabbinic commentary on how they did so (though I do not take this as literal fact).

But the midrash provides encouragement that even when we have descended so low that everything seems totally hopeless, God will still find a way to redeem us if we repent, if we make teshuvah, if we turn away from our sin and back to Him…perhaps by becoming a peacemaker.

Aaron said to them, “Tear off the gold rings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” Then all the people tore off the gold rings which were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. He took this from their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool and made it into a molten calf; and they said, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” Now when Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.”

Then Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you, that you have brought such great sin upon them?” Aaron said, “Do not let the anger of my lord burn; you know the people yourself, that they are prone to evil. For they said to me, ‘Make a god for us who will go before us; for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ I said to them, ‘Whoever has any gold, let them tear it off.’ So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.”

Exodus 32:2-5, 21-24

golden calfThe incident of the Golden Calf was perhaps Aaron’s greatest failure, but as we see in this week’s Torah portion, by the time of his death, he was beloved and mourned as one mourns for a father as the commentary said above, Israel mourned Aaron like a close relative.

Redemption is possible, even when everything seems hopeless and everyone is against you…everyone.

Frankfurt, Germany is closed down on Christmas, and I took the opportunity to visit Heidelberg, an hour away by rail. I walked through the train looking for a window seat where, guidebooks in hand, I could follow all the storied towns along the way. My eyes fell upon a young man wearing a black skullcap. An Orthodox Jew, I thought. Despite the pallid face of a yeshiva bocher, and the yarmulke clasped to his hair in traditional style, there was something troubling about the identification.

“Funny, you don’t look Jewish.” The punch line from a joke about Chinese Hebrews tickled my mind. The face looked German and the hair in careful, casual wisps gently falling over the forehead suggested mod or punk rock.

-Burton Caine
“Strangers on a Train in Germany”
Aish.com

Caine’s chance encounter with another Jew on a train from Frankfurt initially seemed a little odd but the mystery deepened considerably as their conversation progressed. Caine’s traveling companion was a German, born of German parents, and except for a few years of study in Israel, the young gentleman had lived all his life in his native country.

Caine inquired and found the fellow studied Bible, Talmud, and Hebrew in West Berlin, even though opportunities to do are not common there. He was traveling to Darmstadt, the place of origin of the famous 15th century manuscript of the Haggadah.

But why was Caine so bothered by the other man’s appearance. He didn’t look Jewish. Do all Jews necessarily look “Jewish”? What cues was Caine picking up on that told him there was a lot more to this person’s story?

The train was slowing down now and time was running out. Had I missed every clue? Calm down, I whispered to myself; not every Jew in Germany has a saga. He bent down to put his books into his bag, and the black skullcap now confronted me as a blatant proclamation of his orthodoxy. Why that suggested to me the key question, I cannot imagine, but I blurted it out.

“How do your parents react to your piety?”

“Badly,” he said with a wan smile as he buttoned his coat. “They are very hostile.” He spared me the final question. The train stopped; we had reached Darmstadt. He turned to go and paused only to add, “They were Nazis and are bitter anti-Semites. I converted to Judaism,” which he repeated in English as if he was not sure of the Hebrew word.

“They never forgave me. I am going home to visit them on Christmas.”

This story was originally published in the Christian Science Monitor in 1987 and the dating of the original encounter seems like it should be years before that.

Man alone in a caveOne young man’s answer to the Holocaust, to his parents being Nazis and bitter anti-Semites, was to convert to Judaism. Perhaps that was the only way he could atone and make teshuvah. Who is to say (according to midrash) how the sons of Korach made teshuvah in the pit, suspended between life and death, and thus were saved? Was this one person’s way to become a peacemaker, by turning away from the path of his parents and turning toward the world of their victims?

Imagine, a Jew going home to visit his anti-Semitic parents for Christmas in the heart of Germany. How much more alone could he possibly feel?

Although (hopefully), the religious blogosphere isn’t as hostile as I imagine it was for a Jewish convert visiting his ex-Nazi parents for Christmas, it isn’t always a friendly place, either. It seems as if there’s an endless series of taunts and barbs being tossed back and forth, either as an active “dialog” or, as I recently discovered, “covert” blog posts based on private email exchanges. It seems that you can’t say anything, publicly or privately, without it becoming grist for the mill.

Not only that, but even within the same, basic theological construct, interpretations and opinions vary widely and each side holds fast to their position, defending it vigorously, taking no prisoners.

Who wants to be a part of that? If this is the “Church” established by Jesus Christ, the “ekklesia” of Messiah for his disciples and the worshipers of the God of Israel, why would I want to be a member of such a divisive “club”?

I periodically think of quitting. As I write this, I haven’t been to church in a couple of weeks. Once was because it was Father’s Day and I used that as a justification for “taking it easy” at home. Last Sunday, I was just tired, I had done my Sunday school homework, it wasn’t particularly stimulating, and I felt I could get more mileage out of just studying at home.

But if I am committed to worshiping with a community, then it’s not right to “dodge” them. I did have coffee with a good friend that afternoon, a devout believer for over forty years. We periodically toss about the idea of starting a small Torah study, but who would we invite who would (or could) be interested and illuminated by such an endeavor?

And then there’s the online religious world. There are days I could drop the whole thing like a hot rock. I know it seems odd for me to say that, since I’m such a prolific blogger, even when I try not to be. But who needs opponents and “frienemies” taking pot shots at you, while people you thought were your friends don’t say anything at all?

But then, on Rabbi Packouz’s Torah commentary, I found this:

Failure is when one stops trying, not when one doesn’t succeed.

-Anonymous

There are times when I don’t even know what I’m trying to succeed at but I know that whatever I’m doing, if I quit, I’ve failed.

Meriam Ibrahim
Daniel Wani and Meriam Ibrahim

This probably comes under the heading of first world problems since none of my “religious issues” (and recently, I was confronted on exactly that) even come close to the persecution Christians experience around the world, not the least of which is the plight of Pastor Saeed Abedini and his family or Miriam Ibrahim’s struggles, though praise God, she was released from prison and no longer faces the death penalty (but then I recently heard she was re-arrested trying to leave the country).

Christian persecution always has external sources, people, other religious groups, nations, who are against the disciples of Christ. But Christianity is also its own worst enemy (and for the sake of this one blog post, I’ll toss the Hebrew Roots and Messianic Jewish movements and their many variants into the mix). We’re always worse off when the world doesn’t attack us because then we attack each other. So much for “blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9).

Which brings us back to Aaron and this week’s Torah Portion. As the first High Priest of God and brother to Moses, Aaron lived a larger-than-life existence. Just being among that first generation of Israelites that left Egypt, to see all they had seen would have been marvelous and terrifying.

But Aaron also lived a very human existence, he was flawed and he struggled, in some ways, just like the rest of us. But it’s not always just about what you’ve left behind, but how you’ve lived, and Aaron lived before God, presided in the Tabernacle as Kohen Gadol, provided atonement for all of Israel in the Most Holy Place once a year.

And yet, Hillel and Shammai remembered him first and foremost as a maker of peace, and adjured others to be like Aaron’s disciples.

What is it to be like Messiah’s disciples? What are we to do in the face of an imperfect life, existing within an imperfect “Church” (and I use the term in the widest possible sense), filled with imperfect people?

I wish I had an answer to give you. I’d love to have that answer myself. But the only thing I keep returning to is not how to succeed but how to avoid failure. As much as I sometimes want to, I can’t give up. It’s not that I’m some sort of guru or wise man (or wise guy) or visionary. I’m only me. One ordinary human being who happens to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and who is constantly challenged by the enormity of that role (and make no mistake, you’re in the same boat I am…being an “ordinary” believer doesn’t mean fading into the woodwork).

I have no long-term plans. I live in a world where God can turn human plans on their ear in a heartbeat. In such a place, I simply stand before God and ask, “Here I am, God. What do I do now?” I think the answer God gave Aaron was, “live, serve, and die, and after that, continue to live before God”. Regardless of the paths we each travel along in our faith, that’s probably the only answer any of us will receive.

He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Job 1:21

“The opposite of defeat is hope.”

-Anonymous

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Chukat: The Chutzpah of Entering Fire

This is the Torah (law): A man who dies in a tent…

Numbers 19:14

The Torah is only acquired by those who kill themselves for it in the tents of study.

-The Zohar

It happened in the winter of 1798 or 1799, when Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch was a child of eight or nine. Every Friday night Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi would deliver a discourse of chassidic teaching to a select group of disciples. Little Mendel begged to be allowed in, but his grandfather refused.

The dwelling of Rabbi Schneur Zalman consisted of two two-room buildings, joined by a connecting passageway. In one of the wings, a large wood-burning stove, used for heating and occasionally to bake bread, was set in the wall between the two rooms. The stove opened into the outer room, and also protruded into the inner room which served as Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s study.

One Friday night, the Rebbe was delivering his weekly discourse in his study. It was an exceptionally cold night, so a gentile was summoned to heat the oven. For some reason, he found it difficult to push the logs all the way in to the oven, so he built the fire near the opening of the stove. As a result, the outer room soon began to fill with smoke. Once again, he tried to push the burning logs further in, but they wouldn’t budge. The poor man had to start all over again. He put out the fire, pulled out the logs, and peered into the stove to see what was preventing the logs from going in.

His shouts and shrieks summoned the entire household. The session in Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s room was disrupted; those in the second building also came running. Inside the stove lay a young boy.

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
“The Path of Fire”
Commentary on Torah Portion Chukat
Once Upon a Chasid series
Chabad.org

Chassidic tales are very compelling but it’s impossible to know how much some of them represent actual events. I’ve come to look at these tales as stories that have been crafted to communicate important moral and religious thoughts to a specific audience. Since I’m obviously not part of that audience, it’s rather puzzling that I should be drawn to them at all. Certainly most of my fellow Christians are at best, indifferent to the stories of the Chassidim and prefer moral commentaries from the ancient or current Christian scholars and commentators.

So what’s wrong with me?

I don’t know.

According to Rabbi Eli Touger’s commentary on this Torah Portion:

The term Chukim refers to those mitzvos whose rationale cannot be grasped by human intellect.

I find my own “rationale” for pursuing the writing of a blog focused on not only Jewish, but specifically Chassidic teachings, to be just as difficult to grasp by my intellect. As I’ve said in the past, the content that I discover in Chabad sources talks to me with my metaphors, but it doesn’t make sense that it should. This is not only because I’m not Jewish (and certainly not Orthodox), but that I am not particularly learned either. I should be just as put off by what I’m reading as most people in the church. I have no explanation for why I return to this particular pool daily to drink and seek refreshment.

But then not all of my meditations are particularly refreshing.

I mentioned just the other day that we are all seeking out a greater imagination, particularly when our own well becomes dry. I’ve also said that there are times when I feel as if I’m in a wilderness waiting for God to do something, but in truth, it is God who waits in the desert for me. Like a dunce in the corner of the classroom, I may have asked God too many stupid questions but I just can’t figure out how else to talk to Him.

But it’s not just me and God. If it were, I suppose life wouldn’t seem so complicated. Being married to the girl with the Jewish soul has taught me that Judaism isn’t really accessible to me, but then Christianity isn’t exactly an open door, either. I call myself a Christian as a matter of intellectual honesty, but I’m the weirdest Christian I know. If I ever entered a church and actually said what I really think, feel, and believe in a completely unfiltered manner, I’d most likely get thrown out on my ear.

I’ve talked about “not fitting in” before and I suppose this missive is just the latest incarnation of that personal state. Judaism is, by definition, community and in theory, so is Christianity (though “salvation” is personal and not corporate) but I’ve gotten just too “strange” to fit into anybody’s community, at least for more than a tiny march of days. Not only that, but I have to consider how my joining any particular community would affect my family. My being married to a Jewish woman, and being dedicated to ensuring the safety of her being a Jew takes an obvious toll on my being a Christian. She can tolerate my meeting with a couple of guys once a week, but church would be pushing the envelope a little too hard…for the both of us.

So I have a mystery and no answers. While I share my perspectives with the Internet, it’s a wholly impersonal environment. People respond to me, but it’s “virtual” and only on rare and brief occasions does the virtual transcend into reality.

I know what I’m writing has virtually no connection to Chukat, but this is who I am and where I am right now. How about we finish the story as told by Rabbi Tauber and see what turns up.

A small lamp was the only source of light in the smoke-filled room, so it took some time until the child was identified as the Rebbe’s grandson, little Menachem Mendel.

For some weeks now, the child had discovered that he could hear his grandfather’s words through the thin wall of the stove. Every Friday night he would clamber deep into the large stove, and listen to the profound and lofty words of the Rebbe’s teachings. And now, because of the bitter cold, his listening post had been discovered.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s daughter-in-law, Rebbetzin Sheina, who was present at the time, related:

“When they pulled the child out of the stove, he was paralyzed with fright. My mother-in-law, Rebbetzin Sterna, cried to my father-in-law, the Rebbe: ‘See what could of happened! A tragedy! Strangers you allow to enter, but when your own child begged you, you wouldn’t let him in!’ Father-in-law replied: ‘Sha, sha. Moses reached Mount Sinai only by beholding fire – only then did he merit that the Torah be given through him. Torah is acquired only through self-sacrifice.’ “

One way to deal with not fitting in is to have the chutzpah to fit in anyway. In little Menachem Mendel’s case, he fit himself into a stove, but unfortunately, he didn’t anticipate that on a cold night, he could end up being part of the fuel used to warm the room. Rabbi Tauber relates a childish error in judgment to the willingness to die for the sake of Torah learning, but clearly in the real world, the little boy wasn’t willing to burn nor were his elders willing to incinerate him for the Torah’s sake. The real lesson (at least according to the Rebbetzin, since the Rebbe disagreed) is that if someone wants in badly enough and they show a willingness to make sacrifices, you should let them in.

That doesn’t really work in my case since I’ll never be Jewish enough (or rather, I’ll never be a Jew at all) to learn as a Jew and I’ll never be Christian enough to fit into the church culture. I don’t know what I’d have to be to fit in with my wife religiously. I don’t think there is an answer to that one except, as I said before, to be a “low profile Christian at home.”

But what about God? I guess I can be a Christian at home in terms of behaviorally displaying my morals and ethics without being overtly “Christian” (openly praying or invoking Christ’s name, for example). In this case, chutzpah won’t get me anywhere except in hot water, so I’ve nowhere else to go except into the privacy of my own thoughts, which gets turned into very public blog posts…and to turn to God.

I’m seeking out a greater imagination, but I’m putting some pretty harsh limits on it.

Solomon couldn’t comprehend the mitzvah of the Red Heifer and I can’t comprehend my own existence. If God didn’t require that Solomon understand, I guess I don’t have to, either. I can only continue living and to see what happens next.

The irony is that I don’t know what to do, and yet I feel as if God is waiting for me to make the next move. I guess that’s what faith is…acknowledging God and proceeding forward, even when it doesn’t make sense, for what alternative do we have?

Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your fathers put me to the test
and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
For forty years I loathed that generation
and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart,
and they have not known my ways.”
Therefore I swore in my wrath,
“They shall not enter my rest.” –Psalm 95:7-11 (ESV)

Good Shabbos.