This Week in Torah
Shabbat Hukkat 5774 (Rosh Hodesh Tammuz)
Numbers 19:1-22:1 & Numbers 28:9-15
Each Month, Every Shabbat
As this message is being written, the fate of our children Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Frenkel, and Gil-ad Shaar is still unknown. This is the kind of moment when we put aside our political and religious differences and all The People Israel prays that, with God’s help, The State of Israel’s security and defense forces, along with whatever modicum of decency our enemies may have left, will effect their safe return.
Sadly, it often takes this kind of tragedy or some other challenge to Jewish existence in our State or in the Diaspora to spur ephemeral outpourings of ahdut (unity) and recognition of the essential value of Klal Yisrael – an inclusive concept of the Jewish People. The coincidence of Shabbat Hukkat and Rosh Hodesh Tammuz, points out the importance of these principles, not only at trying times like these but at each and every month, each and every Shabbat. This is Hukkat HaTorah – the Law of the Torah.
Nowhere is this idea expressed better than here, in the initial narrative of our parashah – the Law of the Red Heifer, the sacrificial procedure, whose essence we moderns can only surmise, and through which our ancestors were moved from the status of t’umah and returned to the status of t’horah. These biblical categories are best understood as being, respectively, ineligible and eligible to be in touch with things holy, including people. One who was tamay was excluded from sacred activities and estranged from God. An example being the menstruating woman, who was prohibited from co-habitation with her husband until, through the ritual of mikvah, became, once again, tahor – eligible. Men, likewise, would become estranged due to a bodily flux and would be reconnected to God and the community through the appropriate rituals. In Hukkat, the waters mixed with the ashes of the Red Heifer are ordained as the appropriate procedure for reuniting someone who has ‘disconnected’ with God and the community because he or she has been in the presence of the ultimate estrangement, death.
The enemies of Torah, misunderstanding or grossly misrepresenting this passage, point to it as evidence of the God of Israel being vengeful, seeking out human imperfections and dispatching the Kohanim to declare people tamay, excluded. The complete and correct reading of the Hebrew Bible clearly shows that God’s charge to the Kohanim was not to go around finding fault and cutting people out. Instead, their task was to find ways to bring those who were tamay back into a state of t’horah, connectedness, through accessible rituals, affordable sacrifices and, when necessary, the waters with the ashes of the Red Heifer. This, in part, is why the Rabbis designate Aaron as the Rodeph Shalom, pursuer of shalaimut, the wholeness, of the People of Israel. His goal was to bring all Israel together, not only during a crisis, but at all times.
Rosh Hodesh, the beginning of each new month is, in part, a reminder of the consistent effort required for the maintenance of Jewish unity. Each time we join in communal prayer on the Shabbat prior to the molad, the rebirth of the moon, we pray for many things, including long life, peace, economic security and freedom from embarrassment. In addition, addressing God who did miracles for our ancestors, we pray for the ingathering of nedachaynu, those who are estranged, because, haverim kol Yisrael, all Israel is connected one to the other. Choosing the verb nadach (nun-dalet-het) is significant because it means something other than physical exile or diaspora. Initially, it is used to warn against mistaking heavenly bodies as gods and there is little doubt that the authors of our The Blessing for the New Month (Mevorhim HaHodesh) had Deuteronomy 4:19 in mind when composing this text. Like the moon, whose brightness is diminished when any part is missing, so, too, is each Jew’s ‘light’ reduced when any part of the People of Israel is estranged.
After the new month has been ‘born,’ as the moon waxes toward fullness, usually at the end of Shabbat after the third day of the month, our Tradition prescribes Kiddush HaLevannah, sanctification of the moon, that is now growing brighter each night. During this lovely ritual we reach out to at least three (creating the Halakic presumption of intent) of our fellow Jews with the greeting “Shalom Aleichem” to which we receive the response “Aleichem Shalom.” Noting that ‘aleichem’ is in the second person plural (properly translated by us Brooklynites as ‘yous’) here, at the monthly time of renewal, it means more than ‘peace’ it also includes a reaching out to each other for shalaimut -wholeness and connectedness for all the People of Israel.
This week, as on each Shabbat Rosh Hodesh, we conclude our Haftarah with Isaiah’s vision of a renewed heaven and earth and a secure and an enduring Household of Israel. This can result from finding our spiritual “Red Heifer,” the individual and communal path toward healing the rifts and reversing our estrangement from one another. We are called to do so – not only when our enemies steal our children, at moments of fear and vulnerability – but truly and continually from New Moon to New Moon and all week from Shabbat to Shabbat.
Rabbi Steve Denker