Archive for Chukat

Chukat: Detours On The Way

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger
Torah Reading: Chukat 
“They set out from Mount Hor by way of the Sea of Reeds to skirt the land of Edom. But the people grew restive on the journey, ” (Bamidbar/ Numbers 21:4)
Good morning! 
Sorry I’ve missed some weeks recently- we’ve moved offices and I just fell behind, that’s all. 
There is so much to choose from in our Torah portion, which begins with the famous (and mysterious) Red Heifer and continues with two chapters of strife, conflict, war, and grief as the Israelites travel through the wilderness. Today we’ll look at the verse above, which occurs shortly after the death of Aharon, Moshe’s brother, and immediately after a few terse lines describing a battle with the king of Arad. (21:1-3)
The few words of this verse don’t capture the full weight of the narrative: the Torah seems to be saying that the Israelites went from Mount Hor, near the kingdom of Edom, in what we would now call southwest Jordan, almost all the way back to Egypt, to the Sea of Reeds where they crossed when escaping Pharaoh. We know Mount Hor is near Edom- in the Torah’s reckoning- because just a few verses earlier, the place where Aharon died is called “Mount Hor, on the border of Edom.” (See 20:23
Archaeologists and historians have differing theories about the exact location of various places mentioned in the Bible, but for our purposes, you don’t need to know precisely where they went to get the sense that after the death of Aharon and a horrific battle with Arad, the Israelites were in retreat, emotionally if not geographically. The text says they were heading back west in order to “skirt” or “circle” the land of Edom, perhaps to avoid danger or because they weren’t allowed through, but one can only imagine the tremendous disappointment and discouragement they must have felt to be so close to the Land of Israel and yet moving further away.
The Torah describes this discouragement as vatik’tzer nefesh ha’am, literally “the spirit of the people was shortened.” Rashi imagines the people saying “we have to turn back just like our ancestors did 38 years ago!,” which would have been an unbearable burden. Yet as readers, we know the people were very close- just a few weeks, probably, from their camp across the Jordan River from which Moshe would deliver his final speeches (what we call the book of D’varim or Deuteronomy) before they entered the Land. 
This is the problem of hope: when our “spirits are shortened,” we are unable to see how far we’ve come but can only see the roadblocks and difficulties ahead. This is when bitterness sets in, and indeed, the Torah tells us that after their detour back to the Sea of Reeds, the people complained against God and Moshe about the manna, of all things. Change is hard, and take time, and is never without its challenges. Even this very day, today, as the U.S. Supreme Court rules in favor of marriage equality – a goal that some have been working towards for a generation or more, there are those who react with bitterness and complaint and vow to resist. There will be detours, setbacks, roadblocks and challenges- it is to be expected with any big change. Even today, this week, as the nation has, with astounding speed after the Charleston massacre, begun to reckon with the racist legacy of the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of resistance to integration, there is already a backlash to the backlash. There will be backlashes, arguments, political struggle and resistance- this, too, is to be expected, so let us never lose sight of our goal of reconciliation and equality for all. 
The Israelites were “short of spirit” even when their wandering was near its completion; all of us sometimes get negative, kvetchy and blaming when the journey seems long and never-ending. The challenge, then, is to remember that “shortness of spirit” is an opportunity for broadening one’s vision, making the spirit big and free and open and taking in the widest perspective possible. If our spirits can be made short, they can be made big, too- but only if we choose faith, hope and patience. These are not easy virtues, but who said a journey to the Promised Land would be easy? 
Shabbat Shalom, 
The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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Chukat and Taking-A-Break news

Shalom all, Neal here.

The next few weeks are going to be very busy with travel and other responsibilities so we’re taking a break from writing until second week of July or so.

In the meantime, please see some wonderful commentaries on this week’s Torah portion that I’ve linked to below.

R. Charlie Savenor  explores Moshe’s leadership here, Prof. Shira Epstein discusses theimpact of Miriam’s death in the weekly JTSA commentary and from my alma mater the Ziegler School here’s a commentary on the death of Aharon.

Shabbat Shalom and see you in a few weeks!


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Chukat: Speak Words of Torah

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chukat

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts.’ “(Bamidbar/ Numbers 20:7-8, JPS translation)

Good evening!

The Torah portion Chukat is long and varied, containing many interesting and dramatic narratives, including strife in the wilderness, the decree that Moshe will not enter the Land, and the deaths of Miriam and Aharon. The beginning of chapter 20 relates the famous story of “striking the rock,” with the resultant terrible decree on Moshe, who was apparently supposed to speak to the rock when the people cry out for water, as in the verse above. Instead, he struck it with his staff, and is told that he will never enter the Land.

There is oodles and oodles of rabbinic commentary on what, exactly, Moshe did that was so bad, but we won’t get into that today. (You can check out commentaries on that topic here, here, and here.) Rather, I’m interested in a fascinating midrash related to what Moshe was ostensibly supposed to do when the people cried out for water, and there were only rocks around them. The late medieval commentator known as the Or HaChaim (from his famous book of that title) quotes an earlier text to which interprets “order the rock” [literally, “speak to the rock before their eyes”] as “study Torah by the rock,” or maybe even to teach Torah to the rock itself ! The text says that Moshe should have spoken just “a single paragraph” to the stone; given that rocks, unlike people, don’t have ears to hear or minds to understand, what could this possibly mean?

The verse itself is clear that Moshe was supposed to speak to the rock, not just whack it with a stick, but the image of studying Torah by- or with- the rock suggests that the better way to get water from a rock is a more meditative approach, rather than frantic action. This is not about a miracle of hydrology, it’s about what it takes to draw out from others something deep and nourishing: first, go to your innermost core, reminding yourself of your deepest ideals and sense of connection.

Then, speak words of Torah- that is, words which are grounded in our best selves, our most authentic ethical and spiritual traditions and paradigms. That’s how you draw out something sustaining when the community is “dry” of ideas, hopes, and vision. “Speaking Torah to the rock” can mean: Moshe, if you’re swinging sticks around when the people are scared, go back to your own source of innermost meaning- study some Torah so that you act from a place of spiritual intentionality, not negativity, resentment or anger towards the people.

Dealing with human beings- stubborn, stiff-necked and complaining, as all of us are, at least some of the time- often requires a reorientation of our attitude before we can be effective agents of hope and care. Even Moshe had to remember who he was- a teacher, a leader, a lover of Israel, grounded in sacred ideals- before he could give others what they needed. It’s no great failing to want to strike the rock; we fail only ourselves when in haste we forget to slow down and take in Torah and its vision of compassionate humanity.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Chukat: Waters of Strife

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion: Chukat

The portion Chukat begins with the Parah Adumah, or Red Heifer, a red cow which is sacrificed in order to purify those who are ritually impure. Miriam dies, and there is strife and thirst. Aharon dies, and the people have a difficult path through hostile nations.

“But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.’ Those are the Waters of Merivah—meaning that the Israelites quarrelled with the Lord—through which He affirmed His sanctity . . . .” (Bamidbar/Numbers 20:12-13)

One of the most troubling passages in the Torah is the story of the “waters of Merivah,” found in Bamidbar 20:2-13. The people are thirsty and cry out for water, and God gives Moshe instructions to speak to the rock and it will bring forth water. Moshe instead strikes the rock (after making a snarky comment to the complainers), and is told that because he did not trust God enough in the sight of the people, he would not continue to lead the people into the Land. The place where this happened is called Merivah, from the word “quarrel,” as the Torah itself explains in the text above.

Let’s set aside the question of whether striking the rock was so bad that Moshe deserved to be punished- that’s a famous question and there’s lots of commentary on that. Since our theme this year is connections between the Torah and the prayerbook, instead let’s note a reference to these events at a most un-strife-ful time: the beginning of Shabbat. To wit: at the beginning of the service called Kabbalat Shabbat, we recite 7 psalms, beginning with Psalm 95, which begins with the invitation to sing together but also bids us to be different than those who grumbled at Merivah:

“Harden not your heart, as at Merivah, as in the day of Massah in the wilderness;
When your ancestors tried Me, proved Me, even though they saw My work . . . ” (Ps.95:8-9)

The story of Merivah, both in Bamidbar 20 and an earlier version in Shmot/Exodus 17, seems to represent resentment, anxiety, and lack of broader perspective on the part of the people who were speaking out against Moshe. Yet it also seems that Moshe didn’t act out of the deepest compassion- after all, the people were thirsty and fearful, and he appeared to respond with frustration rather than understanding of their needs.

So getting back to Psalm 95, above: as we go into Shabbat, perhaps the reference to Merivah reminds us that what we have, for the next 25 hours, is probably enough; Shabbat is a time to let go of the anxieties and fears and wanting “more” which pervade our working hours. Shabbat is a time to put away our resentments and impossible expectations- of God and each other- so that we can make sacred community in joy. We slow down so we can see more clearly what we have, and what we need, so there is not strife, but peace.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Chukat-Balak: Two Kinds of Memories

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chukat/Balak

This week we have a double Torah portion, Chukat-Balak, and so we read the
hafarah for Balak, from the book of Micah. This collection of prophecies can be
a bit confusing, as it’s not exactly clear which historical events form the
context for the preaching, but for today, it’s enough to know that the basic
idea of the book is that God has sent troubles to Israel, in the form of
surrounding enemies, as recompense for their sins- but Israel will ultimately be
redeemed and restored. The part which forms this week’s haftarah specifically
mentions the king Balak, who, as related in this week’s Torah portion, hired
Bilaam to curse the Israelites and stop their advance. So Micah tells the people
to remember how God saved them from Balak, so they may again turn to God, and
this is the connection between the Torah portion and the haftarah:

“My people,
Remember what Balak king of Moab
Plotted against you,
And how Balaam son of Beor
Responded to him.
[Recall your passage]
From Shittim to Gilgal–
And you will recognize
The gracious acts of the Lord.” (Micah 6:5)

OK, so far, so good, even if the idea of “God will send enemies to punish
Israel” is a difficult and problematic concept- we’ll unpack that more another
day. Let’s turn instead to another interesting detail in the verse above: the
prophet’s exhortation that the people should remember all that God did for them
from “Shittim to Gilgal.” Astute subscribers will remember that we discussed
Gilgal just last week- it’s the place where the Israelites first camped after
arriving in the Land, and the place where Shaul was affirmed as the first king
of the united monarchy. However, Gilgal is also mentioned in later texts as a
place of sin and wickedness (see Hosea 4:15 and 9:15, for example, among other

Similarly, Shittim has both positive and not-so-positive historical associations
: in the book of Bamidbar [Numbers], it’s the place where Joshua was affirmed as
leader after Moshe, but it’s also the place where the Israelite men sinned with
Moabite women. (Cf Numbers 25-27.) It’s where Joshua sent spies out in the
beginning of the conquest of the land, as well. (Josh. 2)

So it’s not clear what Micah means when he tells the people to remember what God
did for them “from Shittim to Gilgal.” Does he mean that God sends leaders to
Israel, and Israel accepts them, as they did with Shaul at Gilgal and Joshua at
Shittim- thus implying that the people have a history of celebration and
blessing? Or does he mean that despite Israel’s sins at Gilgal and Shittim, God
will never forsake the people? To put it another way, are we supposed to
remember the good things that happened at these places- so that Israel will be
inspired to return to the spirit which prevailed at those times- or are we
supposed to remember the bad things that happened at these places, so Israel
will be chastened and humbled by Divine grace despite our noodnik behavior?

Well, as it turns out, great Torah commentators haven’t figured this one out
either. Hirsch, for his part, favors the latter interpretation- it’s about
Divine grace and patience in the face of Israel’s not-so-illustrious history.
Fishbane, however, in the Etz Hayim commentary, sees this geographical reference
as a “synopsis of place of divine beneficence,” citing the transformation of
Bilaam’s curse into a prayer and the people’s acceptance of Shaul as king. To be
fair, these interpretations are not contradictory- it’s a matter of emphasis.

Yet perhaps the prophet is being more subtle than first reading might suggest.
Maybe it’s precisely because both Gilgal and Shittim are places of complex
memory that they serve as shorthand for the richness and complexity of a deep
and long-standing relationship, whether it be between a people and its Source or
even on a much smaller scale, a community, family, or friends. In any long
relationship, there is love and there is disappointment; there is the memory of
celebration and the memory of tension, and so perhaps renewal requires a more
holistic introspection. Israel both celebrated and sinned at Shittim and Gilgal-
so to move forward into the future, Israel must remember its ideals and
commitments, to be called back to them, as well as remembering how the covenant
stood firm despite Israel’s mistakes and misdeeds.

Seen this way, Shittim to Gilgal isn’t about two places, it’s about two kinds of
memories: memories that call us back to who we truly are, and memories of the
good that has been bestowed on us. Taken together, they lead to healing,
humility and forgiveness, and that’s truly hopeful.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Chukat: Service from Love

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chukat

In addition to all those memorable days, we’re also reading the Torah
portion Chukat, which has no mitzvot which are currently practiced as
such, but which opens up with wording which leads to an important
discussion relating to the mitzvot- religious commandments – as a whole.

The first verses of Chukat concern the “red heifer”- the red cow which
was sacrificed in a complex ceremony connected to ritual purity. Thus
we read in the JPS translation:

“The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: ‘This is the ritual law
that the Lord has commanded. . .’ ” (Bamidbar/Numbers 19:1-2)

The first words of the second clause- “zot chukat hatorah” – give the
portion its name, but it’s a hard phrase to translate. For the key
word “chukat,” which is a form of “chok,” JPS has “ritual law,” but
other translations use “statute,” “decree,” or simply imply the idea
of a commandment or imperative. Rashi explains that this word, “chok,”
is used because the nations of the world will demand a rational
explanation for the ritual of the red heifer and Israel can respond
that it is a decree – that is, a religious practice which comes from
revelation, not from reason.

In many discussions of the mitzvot, a distinction is thus drawn
between chukkim- decrees- and mishpatim, or laws which could be
derived from reason or principles of justice. [The word “mishpat” is
related to the idea of justice and the fair governance of society.] To
put it another way, mishpatim are commandments that reasonable people
could figure out on their own (for example, don’t steal, lie, or
murder.) Chukkim are practices which have no obvious basis in fairness
or rationality- like not mixing linen and wool, or not eating ham, or
as we learn this week, sacrificing a red heifer to make what is
sometimes called “waters of lustration.” (Lustration = purification,
more or less.)

Figuring out which mitzvot are chukkim and which are mishpatim would
take a long time- and never yield consensus- and many commentators
find “ritual” meaning in the “ethical” mitzvot, and vice verse. Yet I
still think the idea of chukkim- mitzvot which we can’t reduce to
purely rational principles- is an important one, because for me, it’s
connected to the idea of serving out of love.

Think for a moment about your love for a spouse/ partner, a friend, or
another family member- I’ll bet there are things you do for that
person, to please them and make them happy, which comes from knowledge
of that person’s preferences, tastes and idiosyncrasies. You might
cook certain foods or find decorations of a certain color simply
because that’s what this particular person likes and doing those
things deepens the relationship. The actions may seem arbitrary-
baking raisin cookies rather than snickerdoodles- but the reason for
doing it is anything but: your friend or loved one likes raisin
cookies and making them is an action which makes love real.

Thus, to me, chukkim are those aspects of Judaism which I do because I
love God (as the Divine Source), Torah and the Jewish people- or,
perhaps more precisely, because I want to love God, Torah and the
Jewish people. I won’t lightly override my conscience to obey ritual
law, but I’ll celebrate Shabbat on Saturday, rather than Sunday,
because that’s what my relationship to the Holy One, Torah and Israel

I’ll wear certain clothes and eat certain foods and pray certain
prayers because these actions are the expression of my particular
connection to my faith, my people, my history, and my spiritual path.
Chukkim, to me, are what make Judaism . . . . well, Judaism, and not
just some abstract ethical monotheism. The rational laws connect Jews
to universal moral ideals; the chukkim, “decrees,” celebrate the
possibility of a unique Jewish spirituality. Both are good, and both
are gifts from Heaven.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Chukkat/Balak: Opportunities, Gained and Lost

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chukkat/Balak

Hope you had a happy Fourth of July- if you’re in the USA, then I hope
you had a happy holiday, and if not, well, I hope your Fourth was
equally good going about your regular day, even without the excitement
of barbecues and fireworks. The excitement continues, of course, in
the double Torah portion this week, Chukat-Balak, which includes
rebellions, plagues, sorcerers, battles, negotiations, blessings,
curses, and most poignantly, the deaths of Miriam and Aharon. The
generation of the Exodus is dying out, and the next generation will be
ready to enter the Land, under new leadership.

Moshe is told to take his brother and nephew (Aharon’s son Eleazar) up
a mountain, where the garments of the High Priest will be taken off
Aharon and put on his son. Rashi and others comment that it is a great
comfort to Aharon that he will see his son dressed as High Priest, but
nevertheless, Aharon dies on the mountain, and Moshe and Eleazar come
back to the people:

“When Moshe and Eleazar came down from the mountain, the whole
community knew that Aharon had breathed his last. All the house of
Israel bewailed Aharon thirty days.” (Bamidbar/ Numbers 20: 28-29)

R. Samson Raphael Hirsch notes a tradition that Aharon was mourned
even more than Moshe: the text in Devarim/ Deuteronomy 34:8 says
simply that “the Israelites bewailed Moses in the steppes of Moab for
thirty days,” but here, the Torah is very clear that ALL the “house of
Israel” mourned for Aharon. Rashi says that “all” refers to both the
men and the women; he bases himself on a famous midrash that Aharon
was a pursuer of peace, who made peace between husbands and wives
(among others.)

However, Hirsch also comments on an irony in the image of the entire
Israelite nation mourning its beloved High Priest- only a few verses
before, when they ran out of water, the people were rioting and
rebelling against the very man they are now crying for! The text is
explicit about this:

“The community was without water, and they gathered themselves against
Moses and Aaron. . . . ” (Bamidbar 20:2)

In Hirsch’s interpretation, the people loved Aharon, and their grief
for him was the more genuine emotion; their anger was only a passing
feeling based on temporary conditions or frustrations. That’s
certainly plausible- we’ve all spoken unkind words to our loved ones
when we’re exasperated or exhausted by other problems. However, it’s
also possible that the intensity of the communal grief is deeply
connected to their earlier outburst of frustration. Perhaps the
difference between the death of Moshe and the death of Aharon is that
Moshe blessed the people before he died, whereas Aharon’s final
interaction with the community is one of contention, in which the
people demand water and he and Moshe “strike the rock” in anger in
order to give it to them.

This turns Hirsch’s and Rashi’s interpretation around, to a certain
degree: perhaps the Torah adds an extra word to denote the pain the
Israelites felt upon losing Aharon not only because he was a beloved
man of peace, but because they had unfinished reconciliation to do
after the strife in the wilderness. To take the comparison further: at
the end of his life, Moshe gave his blessing, and the people received
it, but Aharon, whose explicit job description included blessing the
people, simply went up the mountain without having a chance to take
his leave. (Verse 27 says that the three men went up the mountain in
front of the entire community, but there is no indication that the
people knew what was going to happen.)

In this reading, the pain of the people comes not only from losing
Aharon, but from losing their chance to reconcile with him and make
their peace. Having officiated at hundreds of funerals, this makes
sense to me; while there is no such thing as “closure” (I’d like to
ban that word!), having a chance to say goodbye, with words and
rituals of transition and blessing, often brings great comfort to both
the dying and the soon-to-be bereaved.

Of course, the real challenge comes from knowing that any of us could
be “called to the mountain” at any time, making t’shuvah and
reconciliation a constant spiritual imperative. It’s quite simple,
really: if you want to be at peace with your loved ones, you have to
make peace with your loved ones! The people bewailed Aharon, but I
believe they also bewailed their lost opportunity to ask forgiveness
and express their love. Such opportunities can be fleeting, and are
precious beyond measure.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- as per usual, the full text of the parsha is here along with some

and a summary and other commentaries are here:

BUT, here’s something new and fun- I found a Torah commentary blog
which has many interesting thoughts on the parshiot, from modern,
classic, and Hasidic perspectives:

check it out and tell me what you think.

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