Posts Tagged 'Chukat'

Being Mortal and Moral: Gawande and the Red Heifer

In 2014 Atul Gawande wrote Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End addressing end-of-life care, hospice care, and his reflections and personal stories. It is one of those paradigm busting must reads.

Being Mortal is a meditation on how people can better live with age-related frailty, serious illness, and approaching death. Gawande calls for a change in the way that medical professionals treat patients approaching their ends. He recommends that instead of focusing on survival, practitioners should work to improve quality of life and enable well-being. Gawande shares personal stories of his patients’ and his own relatives’ experiences, the realities of old age which involve broken hips and dementia, overwhelmed families and expensive geriatric care, and loneliness and loss of independence.

I got to thinking about this in the context of reading Chukat, this week’s Torah portion. There the Israelite people are instructed to bring a red heifer without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid to sacrifice. The critical ritual involved the ash from this perfect cow. There we read:

Another party who is pure shall take hyssop, dip it in the water, and sprinkle on the tent and on all the vessels and people who were there, or on the one who touched the bones or the person who was killed or died naturally or the grave. The pure person shall sprinkle it upon the impure person on the third day and on the seventh day, thus purifying that person by the seventh day. [The one being purified] shall then wash those clothes and bathe in water—and at nightfall shall be pure. If any party who has become impure fails to undergo purification, that person shall be cut off from the congregation for having defiled God’s sanctuary. The water of lustration was not dashed on that person, who is impure.

Numbers 19:18-20

While Israelite society was much more at home with death than our own, there is an interesting notion that there is no room for death in God’s house. Just as Gawande points out, there is a taboo of death that we are struggling to make sense of in their lives.

Gawande also points out how this dynamic impacts how generations deal with each other. This comes into focus when we think about the exceptional and rare case of actually finding a perfect red cow as we learn about in our Torah portion. In the Gemara we learn an amazing story about Dama ben Nesina. There we learn:

Rav Yehuda says that Shmuel says: They asked Rabbi Eliezer: How far must one go to fulfill the mitzva of honoring one’s father and mother? Rabbi Eliezer said to them: Go and see what one gentile did for his father in Ashkelon, and the name of the son was Dama ben Netina. Once the Sages wished to purchase precious stones from him for the ephod of the High Priest for six hundred thousand gold dinars’ profit, and Rav Kahana taught that it was eight hundred thousand gold dinars’ profit. And the key to the chest holding the jewels was placed under his father’s head, and he would not disturb him. The next year the Holy One, Blessed be God, gave Dama ben Netina his reward, as a red heifer was born in his herd, and the Jews needed it. When the Sages of Israel came to him he said to them: I know, concerning you, that if I were to ask for all the money in the world you would give it to me.

Kidushin 31a 

Gawande offers us a lens to see our distance from death and an older generation. Like Being Mortal, the ritual of the Red Heifer gives us a window into how we might reconnect with our own mortality and morality.

Other posts on Gawande:

Don’t Be an Ass: Chukat Balak and this Moment in History

In Chukat-Balak, this week’s Torah portion, we read various stories regarding animals.   Long before we get to the climax of this story where Bilaam’s donkey talks to him, we meet Balak. There we read:

And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. ( Numbers 22:2)

Balak the king of Moav was afraid of the Israelites and  he sent messengers to Balaam. We wants this prophet to curse the Israelites.  But what is his name? Balak the son of Zippor- Balak the son of Bird. And of course this story of animals fits into the larger context of the book of Numbers where the people of Israel are acting like animals. We saw this last week from when they were being struck down by snakes and at the end of this week’s Torah portion when they succumb to animal-like sexual promiscuity. What do we make of all of this “parsha menagerie“?

To understand this we need to focus in on the story of the Bilaam’s donkey. In the story the donkey understood the Angel’s presence while Bilaam just did not understand. And Bilaam a prophet of God not only missed the Angel, but in the process also revealed his own ugly side by striking the donkey. The donkey is able to perceive the divine in ways that Bilaam is not initially able to perceive the divine in the Israelites. What happens to us when we do not see the divine in each other?

Balaam, the Ass, and the Irony of the LORD – naSlovensko

Well it seems that we are in the situation we are in this moment in history. This is the moment when people are not observing social distancing because it is perceived as more of an infringement of their rights than a protection of the vulnerable. It the pervasive and unchecked violence of police against black and brown people. It is the rising levels of antisemitism. We do not need perfection, but we must do better. We do not need to be angels, but we need to strive to see the divine in each and every person we come across in our path. If I do not, I am just being an ass. Don’t be an ass.

All of Them: Hearing the Question, Adaptive Change, and Parshat Chukat

In Chukat, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the continued travails of the Israelites in the desert. Here we learn the people were kvetching and Moshe struck the rock to get water.  There we read:

The community was without water, and they joined against Moshe and Aaron. The people quarreled with Moshe, saying, “If only we had perished when our brothers perished at the instance of the Lord! Why have you brought the Lord’s congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there? Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink!” ( Numbers 20:2- 5)

Moshe’s response to their myriad of questions was to come with Aaron to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and they fell on their faces. God instructs him to go and speak to the rock to get water for the people. Instead of speaking to the rock he admonished the people and stuck the rock.  The water poured out and God punished Moshe. There we read,“Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” ( Numbers 20:12) He spent his life to get his people to the Promised Land and just like that he could not join them. The punishment seems to far outweigh the crime. What did Moshe do that was so wrong?

From their herd mentality to only thinking about food and water, throughout the book of Numbers we see the Israelites acting like children. On the simple level in our case they were complaining for water. One of Moshe’s missteps is that he reacts to their childish kvetching instead of actually answering their questions. Yes he does get them water, but their questions linger.

I was thinking about this recently when a friend recounted a story about  Libi, our three-year-old who is about to turn four this week. My friend asked Libi, “How many legs does an octopus have?” As it was shared with me, Libi looks at my friend with indignation as if it was a stupid question and said, “All of them”. All too often we get swept up into the questions that we think people are saying without just dealing with the simple level of the actual questions they ask.

Why did God need them to go into the wilderness and almost die? Why was it important for them to leave Egypt to subside without “grain or figs or vines or pomegranates”? There is some depth to their questions. Why do we suffer? How do we make meaning when things do not go as planned? Surely they were thirsty, and they were also asking questions which could not be quenched by water.

The notion of ever getting to a Promised Land without suffering or issues of theodicy might always be beyond our reach. Moshe gave them a technical solution to what was clearly an adaptive problem.  In words of Martin Linsky, “An adaptive change that is beneficial to the organization as a whole may clearly and tangibly hurt some of those who had benefited from the world being left behind. “(Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading) The Israelites needed an adaptive change which would help them as an organization, but sadly to achieve this Moshe needed to be left behind. 

-It is crazy to imagine fOuRLOW turning four. Happy Birthday Libi. Thank you for reminding us to not lose the question in the process.

The Trump Holy Bible: Lessons from the Red Heffer

At the start of Chukat, this week’s Torah portion, God tells Moshe and Aaron to instruct the Israelites regarding the ritual law of the Red Heifer (פָרָה אֲדֻמָּה‬) used to create the water of lustration. The cow was to be without blemish, have no defect, and not have borne a  yoke. Eleazar the priest was to take it outside the camp, observe its slaughter, and take some of its blood with his finger and sprinkle it seven times toward the Tabernacle. The cow was to be burned in its entirety along with cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson stuff. The priest and the one who burned the cow were both to wash their garments, bathe in water, and be unclean until evening. The ashes of the cow were to be used to create the water for purification from having had contact with death.

It is noteworthy that all other communal sacrifices were of male animals, but the Red Cow was of a female animal. Rabbi Aibu explained the difference with a parable: When a handmaiden’s boy polluted a king’s palace, the king called on the boy’s mother to clear away the filth. In the same way, God called on the Red Cow to come and atone for the incident of the Golden Calf. (Numbers Rabbah 19:8)

To me this parable is relevant in at least four ways to the horrid events from this last week when the Trump administration took to separating children of immigrants from their parents. On the most basic level, this Midrash suggests the sense of connection between a mother and her child. Just as the Red Cow has to clean up for the Golden Calf, children cannot be separated from their parents. On a second level it points to the fact that it will take a miracle for this administration to cleanse themselves  of their sins. Ain’t no magic burnt dust going to help them at this point. Thirdly we need to have more female leadership to clean up Washington. I am having trouble believing that a female commander-in-chief would have suggested this idea.I might be wrong about the gendered assumption, but we do need to clean up our government.  Finally this use of this Midrash comes to point that you could take almost any proof texts from almost any where to prove almost anything you want. AG Sessions will be damned by any God he believes in.  Immorality is immorality, it has no place to hide behind religion or scripture.

 


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