D’var Torah: Chukkat

| June 14, 2010

Photo Courtesy Alexander Smolianitski (http://flickr.com/photos/smolianitski/)

This week’s parsha is called Chukkat. The meaning of this word is ‘decree’ or ‘rule’, and refers to instructions – the rules of a sacrifice, specifically the rules regarding the sacrifice of the red heifer, an animal that does not exist in our world today.

This sacrifice was at once unique: the animal itself was unique and the purification process was also unique; and on the other hand, it was just one more sacrifice in a collection of such rituals. But what is it about this process that is so special, other than of course cow’s red color? According to Midrash Rabba, even King Solomon was confused by this ritual, “[Solomon] said: “All of the Torah’s commandments I have comprehended. But the chapter of the red heifer, though I have examined it, questioned it and searched it out – I thought to be wise to it, but it is distant from me.” We therefore have quite the challenge, to understand that which was elusive to even wise King Solomon.

To us, the sacrificial cult is a series of ancient rites that, although having had meaning and import to the people of Bible, might be devoid of modern day relevance. We don’t sacrifice animals – we protect them. When we kill animals for food, we care what kind of lives they led, and the ways in which they were killed.

Let’s look closer at some of the ‘hukkim’ – the rules and regulations of this sacrifice, and through that process, we may some gain insight into it’s pertinence in our lives today. The Torah reads:

“The clean person shall sprinkle [the ashes of the sacrifice] upon the unclean person… and he shall be clean at evening… [But] he that sprinkles the water of sprinkling… shall be unclean.”
(Numbers 19:19-21)

This is somewhat odd: the agent of purification makes the purifier impure, and makes the one who needs to become pure, pure. This is comparable to the doctor becoming infected by giving a sick person the cure. Nonetheless, the kohen is ordered to follow the ‘decree’ and put himself in harm’s way, even certain harm. Perhaps here is where we might understand best what the message of this week’s parsha is. The Lubavitcher Rebbe put it this way:

“The fact that the ashes of the heifer ‘purify the contaminated and contaminate the pure carries an important lesson to us in our daily lives: If your fellow has been infected by impurity and corruption, do not hesitate to get involved and do everything within your power to rehabilitate him.”

Inaction is unacceptable. Sacrifice is not just what happens when something is burned on an alter. Sacrifice happens when we see others who are in need, and devote our actions to their betterment. Sacrifice is communal awareness and responsibility, even at the cost of one’s own fortune.

The second message being sent through this ‘decree’ deals with the role of the kohen – the priest that ensured the holiness of the community. The kohen could not fulfill his role sitting at home in the comfort of his tent. The kohen had to be where the problems were, and in order to fix them – he had to get his hands dirty.

Certainly, we need not look far for opportunities to become involved; certainly there is no lack of missions one can undertake to better the lives of others through personal sacrifice. What that mission is, is different for each one of us. How much time we can devote to that mission, is also different for each of us.

The Torah teaches us that, as Jews, we are a “…kingdom of priests, and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). Reading this verse in light of this week’s Torah portion, it is not just the kohanim that have the ‘decree’ to ultimately be responsible for their fellow, but rather it is everyone’s duty to speak up, act, and work for a better tomorrow, today.

Let’s look at our situation today. 1.02 billion people are hungry worldwide. Like the kohen, we live in a community. More than seventeen million children in America are food insecure – they don’t know if they’ll have dinner tonight.

What can we do about it?

The “Child Nutrition Programs” line in the National Budget needs to be expanded. We need additional funding to help alleviate the suffering of more than seventeen million hungry children. We need to tell our representatives in Congress that it is time to wake up to this horrible reality, and plan for a better tomorrow, today.

Please, do this: Go to


Print out the letter, mail it to your senator, representative or both, and don’t let the unacceptable status quo continue indefinitely. We are commanded to be better than that. I encourage you to discuss these issues with your friends, congregations, and families.

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