Literary Lucidity, Pivotal Purity and Tie Tolerance: Chukat 5774 by Cantor Lipp

Tue, 07/01/2014 - 10:34am -- AJ Blog

We’re not used to ties in our professional sports. 

Basketball can’t end in a tie. Five minute overtimes until one side wins.

Football can tie in the regular season but only after at least one sudden death overtime. Playoffs require sudden death overtime until, well, ‘death’ occurs.

Hockey, since 2005, requires a 5 minute overtime and then a shootout.

Baseball requires extra innings.

Now that the US seems, for the first time, truly invested in professional soccer, we had an experience we’re not used to: A normal, non-overtime tie with Portugal. 

Just as the the tolerance for ties is sport-specific and seems to have no overarching logic, our portion, Chukat, has come to mean a rule or law that is not rationally defensible. It is a rule that is observed because God commanded it, period. After all, why should sacrificing a red/brown heifer and mixing its ashes with water and other materials create a purifying formula for those charged with handling the dead?

But if there’s no rhyme or reason for the purifying ritual, the literary lucidity of its placement is striking. It’s the only text that bridges the first couple of years of the desert trek and the 40th.

The story of Korach from last week clearly follows the disappointment felt at the 38 year desert sentence. Those who joined Korach’s rebellion experienced their own ‘sudden death’ rather than waiting for nature to take its course. 

Following the rule of the red heifer, the death of Miriam and the death sentence of Aaron and Moses are understood to occur during the 40th year in the desert.

So the purifying protocol with the red heifer seems necessary to deal with the generational deaths before and the end of the leadership that follows. A pivot of purification.

Anton Chekhov’s rule of literary minimalism seems vindicated: Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there.

It’s almost as though the rule of the heifer is chapter 2 but rather than merely foreshadowing the need to handle the deaths of Miriam, Aaron and Moses in chapter 3, it also follows the slave generation’s demise in chapter 1.

But still -- it seems a strange fulcrum for the see-saw between the death of the slave generation and the upcoming decease of the leadership.  

Because even though the rule for the slave generation was to die during the forty years, we might be forgiven for assuming that the three Moses-keteers might escape that fate after all the kvetching they put up with in the desert trek, after all the times they literally saved Israelites’ lives by intervening with God. I know at least one lawyer who would argue the case for Moses if not for his siblings. The attorney would have argued zealously for a leadership loophole.

There’s a hint for God’s justification. The place where the scouts return to before the trek isKadesh Barnea. Miriam also dies in place called  Kadesh. Many commentators have weighed in that these are not identical sites -- one is in the desert of Paran and the latter is in the desert of Sin.  

But why the same name? Again, literary lucidity: Everything before the first Kadesh is about the Exodus and the slaves being freed. Everything after the second Kadesh is about the the preparation for the entrance to the promised land. The word Kadosh, holy, literally means separation. Everything between the two locations encompasses the desert trek. 

As a literary technique, it’s a way for God to tie together two disparate events that are related and which balance one another, creating a measure-for-measure paradigm. Rules are rules. Decrees are decrees. Protocols are protocols. 

Kadesh represents a tie between those who lost the right to enter generationally and those who couldn’t because the strength of the rule overroad seemingly obvious exceptions. 

It doesn’t seem fair. But we have to learn to tolerate those kinds of ties.

Every sport has its logic vis a vis whether a tie is tolerated. A consolation for Miriam, Aaron and Moses is that they merited special mention. We might think that placing all the deaths of the generation on one side of the see-saw and the three siblings on the other would be out of balance. But it’s a tie. They continue to sit in their places, balancing one another perfectly. 

Or perhaps, as the US was able to advance to the next level based on points even though they lost to Germany, so the Levitical Troika has moved forward in our collective soul and imagination for millenia even though none of them were able to enter the promised land.

They may have lost the ability to enter the promised land. But they won on points. 

Shabbat Shalom. 

David Lipp

Hazzan