June 25 – July 1, 2017 • 7 Tammuz 5777
Annual (Numbers 19:1-22:1): Etz Hayim p. 880-893; Hertz p. 652-664
Triennial (Numbers19:1-20:13): Etz Hayim p. 880-886; Hertz p. 652-657
Haftarah (Judges 11:1-33): Etz Hayim p. 909-913; Hertz p. 664-667
Is Halakhah Binding No Matter What?
Rabbi Joel Roth, Louis Finkelstein Professor of Talmud and Jewish Law, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Rosh Yeshiva of the Conservative Yeshiva, Jerusalem.
The beginning of this week’s parashah presents the description of the red heifer ritual. In a nutshell, a perfectly unblemished red heifer must be killed, certain rituals performed with it, and its body burned to ashes. Those involved in the preparation of these ashes become ritually impure. The ashes, however, are mixed with water and sprinkled on those who have become impure through contact with the dead in order to render them pure again. The strangeness of the whole procedure did not escape the attention of the sages.
A passage in Midrash Tanhuma has Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai explaining the ritual to a non-Jew in a very “magical” way. His students then say to him: “You may explain it that way to him, but what do you say to us?” He answers: “The dead body does not literally make impure, and the water with the ashes does not literally effect purity. Rather, it is the decree of the King of Kings. The Holy One, blessed be He, said: Hukkah hakkakti (I have made a decree), I have issued an edict, and you may not violate My edict.”
In the halakhic system a hok is understood to refer to a law of the Torah the logical underpinnings of which and the reasoning behind which are cryptic, unclear, or unknown. The name of our parashah means “the hok of,” and the midrash above clearly supports the claim that the red heifer ritual is a hok – cryptic and unclear.
The fact that some of the commands/laws/mitzvot of the Torah are not easy to understand has never stopped rabbinic scholars and leaders from attempting to understand them. Indeed, there is a whole genre of rabbinic literature called Ta’amei haMitzvot (the reasons of the mitzvot) which is devoted to seeking to understand what motivated the Commander to command the specific mitzvot. BUT, as is the case with all legal systems, especially those in which the ultimate basis of authority is perceived to be God, the “commandedness” of the commands is NOT determined by the ability of the commanded to understand them or to agree with them. The ultimate basis of their authority is that they are mandated by the legal system to which the commanded are bound. As an American citizen, I am bound by the legal mandate of the American legal system to act in accordance with the law that the president must be native-born, whether I understand it or agree with it.
The Jewish legal system, halakhah, is no different. It is a legal system which the classical/rabbinic Jewish tradition has defined and accepted as binding upon Jews. That premise is no less true of the Conservative Movement than of Orthodoxy. The Conservative Movement, regrettably, has not done a very good job at educating it constituents to understanding this premise or to accepting it. The premise, however, has been an essential part of Conservative Judaism since its founding.
May this week’s parashah strengthen our commitment to the authority of halakhah, even those elements of it which we may not yet understand, or with which we may think we do not agree.
A Vort for Parashat Hukkat
Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb, CY Faculty
The Torah tells Moses and Aaron to “take a red heifer without defect or blemish, that has never been under a yoke (asher lo ala aleha oal),” for the purification of ritual contamination. Ha-Chozeh MiLublin (the Seer of Lublin, R’ Jacob Isaac Horowitz, Hasidic rebbe, Poland, 1745-1815) said any person who considers himself “complete, without blemish,” is in trouble. Clearly he has not been under the yokes – of Torah, which would make him aware of his own deficiencies; and of derech eretz, of the worldly burdens and the problems of others.
Vered Hollander-Goldfarb, CY Faculty
We have reached the 40th year in the desert. Now some of the leaders that led us out of Egypt die, and land in trans-Jordan is conquered. We are, geographically, on the threshold of Eretz Yisrael.
1) We open with a special ceremony of purification. Who is purified by the ashes of the red heifer (19:11-16)? What does the purification ceremony look like (19:17-19)? What kind of water is involved? Try to think of a reason for this.
2) 20:2-13 is the famous episode of Moshe hitting the rock although he was instructed to speak to it. Read the text carefully. How would you describe the mood of Moshe and Aaron during the event? What effect might this have had on their actions?
3) When it is time for Aaron to die, Moshe is instructed to take Aaron and his son Elazar up the mountain (20:22-29). What will happen to Elazar up there? What do you think is the meaning of that? What do you think is the significance of this for Aaron?
4) As the people grow tired of the traveling they grumble against Moshe and God (21:4-9). What happens to them? How is Moshe instructed to deal with the problem? Why do you think that this would make people heal?
5) As the Israelites move northward on the east side of the Jordan, they reach the kingdom of Sihon, king of the Emorites (21:21-35). What do the Israelites ask for? What response do they receive? How does this conflict end? Where have the people parked by the end of the Parasha?