Originally Published June 2012


The parshah breaks down into two main parts:

  1. From Chapter 19 until 20, 22 psukim on the halachos of para aduma
  2. From then on, the story of the next generation in the desert.

Shlach, Korach were about the first generation, the one’s who left Egypt and their challenges. Chukas now begins to address the challenges of the first generation born outside of Egypt. They deal with the lack of water at the rock; sending emissaries to Edom for water and food and having to go around; the deaths of Aaron and Miriam and Moshe being left alone to guide the next generation.

Flint and Sandstone

The new generation was very different from their parents. The young ones complained about the mann1)21:5, calling it disgusting, insubstantial bread. Moshe struck the rock (though he was told only to speak to it). This had happened once before, at Mei Marrah.2)Shmos 17:1-7 Then, explains Malbim, Moshe had struck a hard, flinty type of rock called tzur. In our parshah, Moshe struck a much softer, sandy stone called sela. Geology notwithstanding, the Torah is teaching us a powerful lesson in intergenerational relations.

The first generation to leave Egypt were raised in slavery and hardship. Their thick skin meant they were accustomed to stern discipline and sharp rebuke. This approach to life, learning, and discourse is represented by the tzur. This generation craved clear discipline and hard boundaries, so it was therefore appropriate to strike the rock.
The new generation, by contrast, had been coddled in Sinai from their births. Their every need was provided directly by Hashem. The soft sela represented their thinner skins. For them, it was not enough to be told what to do without question. By their innocence, they demanded to be involved, for their hearts to be placated with explanations and reasons. In this new generation, it was only appropriate for Moshe to speak to the rock.

Honouring Elders, Cherishing Youth

The younger generation, full of zest and with conquest on the horizon, looked upon their conservative elders and scoffed. They, the youth, were the ones destined for Eretz Yisroel. This new generation was headed into a brave new world, totally different from the old. What use had they for the lessons, though hard fought, that their fathers had learned about desert life? This attitude towards their forebears came about when the generation conflated temporal progress with spiritual accomplishment.

As far as success in avodas Hashem is concerned, there is only one address: the gedolei dor. Our elders have sacrificed their living selves, devoting long decades to the understanding and application of Hashem’s Torah. They have the knowledge, the understanding, and the practical experience to direct us in our pursuit of our potential. But the teacher who does not understand his students misses his opportunity. It is the challenge of age to remain relevant to the clamouring youth.

So it is in every age. There is a natural, everpresent tension between the older generation, cautious and battle-worn, in it’s position as guide and mentor and the younger one, controlled by their drive and ambition.

The theme of transition in this parshah is easy to see, but there’s an obvious red herring here, the red heifer – parah adumah. All the way back in parshas Beshalach 3)Shmos 15:25, when the people complained of the bitter waters at Marrah, the verse states:

שם שם לו חק ומשפט ושם נסהו

Rashi there explains that the chok of parah adumah was given then, decades before the events of our parshah. Why then does the Torah go so far out of it’s way to state the practical laws of the red heifer here?

The Message in Mortality

Death is a central theme in this parshah: the death of the previous generation; the deaths of Miriam and Aharon. The greatest and most fearsome transition we know accompanies the transition between the story of the previous generation and the next. To grasp the theme of death in our parshah and the deeper connection to the red heifer, we first need to understand what death really is.

In the garden, Adam was given the choice between eternal life (represented by the Tree of Life), or a limited existence overshadowed by death (the lure of the Tree of Knowledge). Though Hashem implored him to choose the easier path, Adam opted for a life of challenge and suffering, which would ultimately end in death. Why?

Adam was not content with guaranteed success. He was certain that he would accomplish his spiritual goals given an easy, everlasting life, but he did not want the core of his being to be a given, bland and infallible. He chose to exist in a heisenbergian state of non-completion, willingly lowering himself in order to work up to an even higher level. In sodoing, he subjected himself to suffering, and to a limited lifespan within which to accomplish his ambition. The threat of death would hang over him, driving him to succeed and exceed.

Rebbe Meir was a scribe, and he wrote a special sefer Torah which contained hints and codes. In his sefer, where the verse in Breishis 4)Breishis 1:31 says וירא א-לוהים את כל אשר עשה והני טוב מאד, Rebbe Meir wrote והני טוב מוות. Death, more than anything else, is the force which pushes us to fully express our individual potential.

Death, Tumah and the Spiritual Deficit

Now we can understand why the red heifer is central to this parshah. Since Adam made his fateful choice, each individual is responsible to complete his task in this world – to bring his spiritual potential into actuality. The same is true of the nation as a whole. Klal Yisroel must do their job. What happens if one of us fails to live fully before he dies, if the generation fails to accomplish its rectification? The sages said

Any generation in which the temple is not rebuilt, it is as if that generation destroyed it.5)Yerushalmi Yoma 1:1

We are one people, united throughout time and space. Whatever we fail to accomplish is carried forward as a deficit for the next generation.

Tumas meis, the archetypal spiritual malady, emanates from a dead body, from the physical consequence and distillation of man’s spiritual deficit.
Ramban, Tosfos, and Kli Yakar, among others, discuss a fine point in the sugya of kivrei tzaddikim6)Not to be taken as practical halachah. Ordinarily, graves impart tumas meis just as bodies do, but a tzaddik’s grave does not. The tzaddik gamur is someone who has completed his spiritual rectification. He has accomplished what his Creator sent him to do, leaving nothing over for the next generation to complete. When Rebbe died, the kohanim carried his bier7)תוספות כתובות קג: ד״ה אותו היום שמת רבי בטלה קדושה, ירושלמי ברכות ג'.

Nation and Individual

It is crucial to maintain the unbroken chain of teachers and students, leaders and doers, elders and youth. The parah adumah teaches us the urgency and necessity of fixing and healing our spiritual deficit. But why must this be unclear to us, why an inscrutable chok, not to be understood?

In every generation, some merit wisdom, wealth, or leadership, while others must be content to follow. Why do some ascend to heights of greatness and others remain consigned to auxiliary roles? That is a chok, a decree from on high whose reasoning is hidden from us. But despite this opacity, we cannot live as a nation or as individuals without integrating the urgent need for this national order. Indeed, the very source of our individuality is our connection to our roots. No man is an island. Our national purpose, our covenant with God, is what defines us as people, and not the other way around.

References   [ + ]

1. 21:5
2. Shmos 17:1-7
3. Shmos 15:25
4. Breishis 1:31
5. Yerushalmi Yoma 1:1
6. Not to be taken as practical halachah
7. תוספות כתובות קג: ד״ה אותו היום שמת רבי בטלה קדושה, ירושלמי ברכות ג'