Parashat Chukat-Balak contains rich themes to reflect upon. The Para Adumah (Red Heifer), the death of Miriam, the people's complaint about the lack of water and the reaction of Moses and Aaron, with its consequences, the Edomites refusing to let the children of Israel pass through their territory, the death of Aaron on the summit of Mount Hor, Israel defying the king of Arad and destroying his cities, the plague that required a bronze serpent to be appeased, and finally the battle between the kings of Sihon and Og. This is just about the first portion of both- just Chukat. Let’s walk through it.
The paragraph regarding the red heifer, “Para Adumah”, is perhaps the classic example of the tradition of a CHOK: a law whose purpose, origins, and understanding are not clear. The ashes of the red heifer present the paradox of making the impure, pure, while at the same time making the pure impure. The paradox in this case is that those who prepared the ashes would become impure until the following day. This demands that we ask ourselves: How can something that purifies the impure, at the same time, contaminate the pure?
I would add another question: Do we find it easy to sanctify the profane or the desecrated with our actions, or is it easier and more common to desecrate that which is already sanctified? This question and paradox apply to all aspects of life, and each person must answer it based on their own actions. Paradoxes embody contradictions that point to important tensions in our understanding of the world, society, our own sensations and feelings, and in this particular case, the mysteries of theology.
This portion addresses the topic of purity required to perform religious rites and the place of purity in Jewish spirituality. An impure individual had no right to approach the Tabernacle (later the Temple) and could not participate in any significant and/or public ritual. It was a grave offense to do so before undergoing a process of purification. The Talmud directly relates the concept of purity to the concept of spirituality. Physical purity and moral purity are closely linked.
To the question "Are you pure?" it is difficult to answer simply. Purity in a human being is a concept loaded with meanings: immutability, cleanliness, integrity, perfection, honesty, moral transparency, spiritual authenticity. By antinomy, we can easily deduce what impurity is.
With the commitment we assumed more than 3300 years ago in the midst of the desert, at the base of a mountain, we cannot abandon the defense of our ideals; we must not be distracted, even if the journey towards them is slow and difficult or the adversaries seem invincible.
Staying pure amidst so much impurity is a challenge that doesn't escape the circumstances and adversities of life. It's an ideal we mustn't give up on. Striving towards it, demanding it from our leaders, will undoubtedly contribute to our well-being, both morally and physically, as well as spiritually. It will allow us to recharge our batteries, regain all our abilities, reconcile with the life our grandparents chose to tread, and live a more dignified life.
Rabbi Gustavo Geier