CHUKAS (Numbers, 19:1-22:1) — “A Sad Shabbos in New York State”

G-d said to Moses, “This is the decree of the Torah…” 

This week’s Torah Portion opens with a mitzvah that defies human logic.

There are many complex laws of ritual purity and defilement.  One who has become ritually defiled, e.g., by contact with the dead, is not permitted to enter the Temple until undergoing a purification process.  (Although it is different in many ways, 21st Century Jews can relate to this rule in a small way by the fact that even nowadays, it is customary to wash one’s hands after leaving a cemetery.)

This purification was accomplished by being sprinkled with a solution of spring water and ashes.  These ashes came, primarily, from a red cow that had been slaughtered and burnt.  Although this concoction had the ability to bring a defiled person to a state of ritual purification, the process of making this mixture caused one who was pure to become defiled.

Confused yet?  That’s ok; King Solomon didn’t understand this Mitzvah either.

The Red Cow is the quintessential “Chok,” or divine edict, with no understandable explanation.  The Talmud tells us that the Red Cow “purifies the defiled, and defiles the pure.”  The person who burns the cow, the person who collects the ashes, the person who adds the other ingredients – all of them become “contaminated” through the ceremony that purifies the “client.” The same mystical blend that allows one who has come in contact with the dead to enter the Temple causes those involved in preparing the concoction to be temporarily barred from entering the Temple!

The message of the Red Cow is that “…This is the DECREE of the Torah…” 

The key is that we recognize that we are incapable of fathoming the wisdom of G-d and His Commandments.  He is our King, and we must obey.

Sometimes we will, on some level, understand the Commandments.  Sometimes we will not.

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Other Mitzvahs are easier to understand than the Red Cow.

G-d created man…male and female He created them.  G-d blessed them and G-d said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply…” 

The man could not find a companion… so G-d cast a deep sleep upon the man… G-d fashioned … a woman, and he brought her to the man… and the Man said, “… bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh, this shall be called ‘Woman’ (‘Ishah’ in Hebrew), for she was taken from the Man (‘Ish’ in Hebrew).  Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and cling to his wife…  (Genesis, 1:27-28;2:20-24)

This is very easy to understand.  G-d wants the world to be populated.  Therefore He created men and women, with the ability and desire to engage in relationships that will cause the world to be filled with future generations of humans.

Mankind has always recognized that there is a special relationship between men and women, and has solemnized these relationships with an institution called “marriage.”

To be sure, non-conventional human attractions have been known to exist; that’s why the Torah needed to spell out the prohibition against acting on those attractions.  While some societies have not condemned these activities the way the Torah does, it was always recognized that the institution of marriage was about a man and a woman.  A man doesn’t marry his car.  A man doesn’t marry his pet iguana.  And a man doesn’t marry a man.

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Last Shabbos, we read the story of Korach.  Korach didn’t like the way the Commandments were working out.

G-d told Moses to appoint Aaron as High Priest.  Korach didn’t like that.  G-d told Moses to appoint another relative to a position Korach wanted.  Korach didn’t like that either.

It became clear to Korach that there was a conflict between his personal agenda and the Commandments that G-d was giving to Moses.  However, rather than recalibrating his agenda to be in line with the will of G-d, Korach decided that he needed to discredit Moses and redefine G-d’s will to match his own.  (For more on Korach, see “True Blue.”)

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Last Friday night, as the Nation of Israel was about to read the Torah section of Korach, the State of New York decided to emulate Korach.

There are those who will make the claim that same-gender attraction is “normal.”  I won’t, at least for the sake of this discussion, dispute that claim.

Let us look at the Seventh and Tenth Commandments.

Will anyone argue that the attraction of a man for someone else’s wife is unnatural?  There is no shortage of former presidents, vice-presidents, governors, and golf stars who can illustrate that such a proclivity is very, very common.  Should we, therefore, extend the concept of marriage to include one’s neighbor’s wife?

Is it not “normal” to covet one’s neighbor’s house, wife, and possessions? What about stealing and murder?  Are not those, too, normal factors of the human condition? Should we, therefore, in order to accommodate personal agendas, redefine Torah prohibitions to permit that which G-d has condemned as prohibited?

Or should we recognize that “This is the decree of the Torah…”; that we fulfill G-d’s will by fulfilling His  Commandments, whether or not we find them consistent with our personal preferences?

G-d put us into a world full of temptations that threaten to lead us away from the proper path.  We may want to steal, but G-d tells us to fight that urge to steal and do the right thing.  Some of us, as former President Carter admitted, lust after other women in our hearts.  And some men lust after other men in their hearts.

To all of those people, the Torah tells us, don’t do it; it is wrong.  Overcome your desire to sin.

Is it easy?  It depends upon the sin.  I personally find it very easy to avoid the sin of eating lobster, snails, and crabs.  Some people find those temptations to be overwhelming.  Yet, the Torah says to overcome that temptation and to practice abstinence.

(This is not about JEWISH Law.  This is about HUMAN Law.  [See “How to be an Orthodox Jewish Gentile.”])

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How did this tragedy/travesty in New York happen?  It’s really rather simple.

No one likes to be on the outside looking in.  No one wants to live a lifestyle that society considers aberrant and sinful.  Therefore, it’s not sufficient to live that lifestyle privately in the face of the rejection of others.  Rather, you must force society to endorse and celebrate your lifestyle and pretend that it is acceptable.

You must redefine standards of morality and call a sin an “alternate lifestyle.”  You must redefine words, such as the one that used to mean “happy.” (There should be no gaiety in undermining G-d’s will.)

That is why politicians march in parades that celebrate something that used to be considered a source of embarrassment and shame.  And that is why political leaders who are more interested in keeping their jobs (let’s see if THAT works out for them!) than standing up for what is right folded and brought about a situation that will further the eroding of society’s standards.

Typically, those who advocate for acceptance of this lifestyle will paint those of us who disagree as bigots and homophobes.  That is part of the agenda.  You define yourself as normal, and define those with traditional values as being out of the mainstream.

It is essential to keep in mind that the Torah requires us to treat our fellow man with compassion.  But that doesn’t free us from our obligation to speak out in support of what is right, and in opposition to what is wrong.  And this new law is wrong.

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The Talmud (Bava Basra, 74a) reports that somewhere out in the Sinai Desert there is still a small hole where the ground opened up and miraculously swallowed Korach and his cohorts.  If you put your ear to the ground, you can still hear their voices: “Moses is true and his Torah is true!”

Eventually, Korach figured it all out and realized how wrong he had been.  Eventually Korach recognized that G-d is wiser than we are, and that our mission is to learn from His wisdom and apply that wisdom to our lives.

Some day the modern-day Korachs will realize that lesson as well.

In the meantime, I just look at the mistake that New York State made last Shabbos, and I shake my head in amazement and sadness.  Some people are gay; this is nothing to be gay about.  I am profoundly sad.  A little bit angry, but mostly sad.

Have a great Shabbos

Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz

To leave a comment about this article, or to read other readers’ comments on this article, scroll down past the archive links.

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From the Archives

Some years the two Torah Portions of Chukas and Balak are read together, and some years they are read on two separate Sabbaths. For your convenience, here are links to both Portions:

FIRST PORTION – CHUKAS

“A Sad Shabbos in New York State” (2011)

… While some societies have not condemned these activities the way the Torah does, it was always recognized that the institution of marriage was about a man and a woman. A man doesn’t marry his car. A man doesn’t marry his pet iguana. And a man doesn’t marry a man…

Last Shabbos, we read the story of Korach. Korach didn’t like the way the Commandments were working out…

Last Friday night … the State of New York decided to emulate Korach…

How did this tragedy/travesty in New York happen? It’s really rather simple…

Read more.

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“Who’s ‘The MAN’? … YOU’RE ‘The MAN’!” (2010)

… Ezekiel cites the special relationship between G-d and Israel…

The Talmud interprets “…you are Man…”, to mean “You (i.e., Israel) are called ‘MAN; the nations of the world are not called ‘MAN.’

What does the Talmud mean by, “You are called ‘MAN; the nations of the world are not called ’MAN’”? Certainly it can’t mean to humiliate Gentiles and to consider them less than human! The Talmud is replete with references to the fact that all of humanity was created in G-d’s Image. We share the planet with our fellow Children of G-d.

So what does it mean?…

Read more .

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“Tattle-Snakes & Copperheads” (2005)

G-d said to Moses, “Make for yourself a fiery serpent and place it on a pole. Anyone who has been bitten will look at it and live.” Moses made a snake out of copper and placed it on a pole; so it was that anyone who had been bitten would stare at the copper snake and live

The symbolism is beautiful. Like the snake in the Garden of Eden, they sinned with their tongues. Since they acted like snakes, they were punished with snakes. After sinning with their mouths they repented with their mouths. They corrected the wrong by using their mouths properly. Moses undid the poison of the miraculous punishing-snakes with a miraculous healing-snake.

Great! Just one question. What’s the deal with the copper?…

Read more.

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“The Kiss of LIFE” (2004)

The “Brothers ben-Amram” both died shortly before the Israelites entered the Land of Canaan (Israel) … Our Sages point out a contrast between the nation’s reaction to these deaths. The Children of Israel wept for Moses, while the entire House of Israel wept for Aaron.

The Children (literally, sons) of Israel wept for Moses. The men wept over the loss of their respected judge. The entire House of Israel, men and women, wept over the loss of their beloved peacemaker…

Moses and Aaron had different jobs… the mourning for Aaron was more widespread than for Moses.

Whose approach was better? Who was a better advocate of proper behavior?…

Read more.

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“Stone Drunk” (2002)

… The People were thirsty. … Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff. A great deal of water gushed out, and provided water for the community and their animals.”

G-d was furious: “Since you (and Aaron) didn’t have enough faith in Me to sanctify Me in the presence of the Israelites, you will not bring this assembly to the land that I have given them.”

… the people witnessed a great miracle. A rock was struck, and water flowed from it. The Israelites hadn’t seen a miracle like that in 40 years! How is this a lack of faith on Moses’ part? …

Read more.

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“The Bigger They Are…” (2001)

Og … organized an army against Israel, and once again, we were forced to fight off an aggressor. … Moses needed some encouragement:

G-d said to Moses, ‘Don’t be afraid of him…”

G-d doesn’t waste words. He told Moses not to be afraid to fight Og. … Moses was afraid that Og would be rewarded for a Mitzvah he had done many years before…

What a Mitzvah!! Og tells Abraham to go save Lot so he can be killed and Og can marry his widow! With friends like Og, who needs enemies?! How could Moses actually suspect that G-d would reward Og for such a deceitful, treacherous act?…

Read more.

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SECOND PORTION – BALAK

“Rocky Road” (2010)

…What’s with this guy?! He’s a sorcerer, the great Midianite prophet! He is “one who knows the mind of the Supreme One.” (Verse 16) How is it so hard for him to see that G-d doesn’t want him to do this?

… it all started with a question. G-d had asked Balaam, “Who are these people?”

“Aha!” thought Balaam. “G-d doesn’t know everything! He needs to ask me who these people are! If I play my cards right, I’ll be able to pull the wool over His eyes and curse His beloved Nation.”…

Read more.

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“How Good is YOUR Tent?” (2007)

…Balak, the Moabite king, hired Balaam to curse Israel. Now why, you may ask, would an anti-Semite like Balak need to hire someone to curse Jews? Plenty of people would be happy to do it for free!

Cursing, you see, is a great talent. Some people do it better than others. Balaam was a pro…

Read more.

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“Of Television, Toilets, and Idolatry” (2003)

… There was, however, one condition demanded by the Midianites. They insisted that their “clients” pay homage to their idol, “Baal Pe’or.”

… “You don’t have to pray to our idol, or even to bow to it. All you have to do is…

Have you ever heard of anything so bizarre? …

Read more.

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“Will the REAL Jackass Please Speak Up?” (2000)

… Balaam still didn’t get it. Three times, Balaam tried to curse the Nation of Israel; three times, they came out as blessings… Fired from his job by Balak, Balaam went home in disgrace.

What was going on in Balaam’s head? How could a great oracle who was “One who knows the mind of the Supreme One,” make such a mistake? How could he be so blind to the fact that G-d didn’t want him to go on this mission? How did this brilliant prophet allow his donkey to make a jackass out of him?!

The answer can be seen from one of Balaam’s communications with Balak…

Read more.

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This is the weekly message at www.torahtalk.org. Copyright © 2000-2012 by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz. May be reprinted. Please include copyright information.

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Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a Mohel (www.Brisrabbi.com) and chaplain in Monsey, New York. For information about scheduling a Bris or a lecture, or just to say hello, call (800) 83MOHEL.

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Published on June 27, 2011 at 7:50 am  Comments (4)  

4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. One of the rabbis of my synagogue posted his appreciation of the new NYS law granting marriage rights to same-sex couples. I think I agree with his position. Clergy should never be required to perform same-sex marriages but I believe government should offer equal rights to all. We would not want government to sanction slavery, for example.

    By the same token, I would not want gov’t to outlaw circumcision, even as a religious practice, as is being discussed in San Francisco. Religious practice and government mandates should be kept separate.

    • You say that government should offer equal rights to all.

      Taking that logic to its obvious conclusion, if a man wants to marry his son, his daughter, his neighbor’s wife, twelve women, a five-year-old girl, or his horse, should the government allow that too?

      While it is true that to a certain degree, government should be religiously neutral, it is not true that there should be no enforcement of values. Society has always maintained that certain behaviors are wrong. Some members of society have, unfortunately, changed their minds about certain behaviors. I shudder to think what may come next.

      • Rabbi Seplowitz,

        I have heard the fears of some regarding the implications of tjhe sanctioning of same-sex marriage. I think those fears are not grounded- there will be no polygamous marriages, there will be no sanctioned inter-family marriages nor human to animal marriages. It isn’t going to happen. The same arguments against state approval were made with regard to interracial marriages.

        Nor will (should) religious organizations be forced to perform same-sex marriages (though I am sure there will be Jewish same-sex marriages officated by a rabbi).

        I find it interesting that different Jewish denominations refer to the Torah to validate their arguments- Orthodox point to the Torah to substantiate their claim that same-sex marriage is an affront to Divine values. By the same token, the Reform movement states that Torah teachings regarding equal rights and human justice serve as validation for same-sex marriage.

        Is it not possible that we, as a nation, is actually growing closer to Divine intent…just as technology is allowed to progress (one may presume this progression is Divinely authorized), perhaps humans are being allowed to progress in terms of our treatment of others.

        I enjoyed & appreciated your comments re Balak.

      • I normally make it a point not to write about the various so-called “movements” and “denominations.” But since you brought it up, I will respond.

        Our tradition is that G-d gave the Torah to Moses and taught us how to live our lives. Sometimes we understand it, and sometimes we don’t.

        The reform movement picks and chooses when to see the Torah as valid and when to see it as antiquated and out of sync.

        That is relatively easy to do when you don’t believe that the Torah is G-d’s unchanging message to our People and to the world as to how He expects us to act. But for the reform movement to ignore the Torah’s clear prohibition against homosexual activity and then pretend that that same Torah somehow supports homosexual marriage stretches the limits of logical credibility.

        Chukas, this week’s Torah Portion, deals with the concept of “Chukim” – decrees, Commandments from G-d whose logic we don’t always understand. As I wrote toward the beginning of this article, there is an obvious logic to the prohibition against engaging in homosexual activity. However, there are, in fact, some Commentaries who view it as a decree that defies logic.

        Either way, the bottom line is that if we don’t understand a Commandment, it becomes our job to do the best we humanly can to understand it, rather than simply deciding that we are smarter than G-d, and choosing to veto His opinion.

        As for your suggestion that society is growing closer to Divine intent, I would have to say that our tradition is just the opposite.

        “Moses received the Torah from Sinai, and transmitted it to Joshua; Joshua to the Elders; the Elders to the Prophets; and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly.” (Tractate Avos, 1:1)

        Moses, having received the Torah directly from G-d, is considered to have been the greatest of all prophets, and possessing a greater understanding of G-d and His Torah than did his disciple Joshua. Joshua, in turn, having learned directly from Moses, is considered to be greater than the Elders.

        And it goes on. The further we move chronologically from Sinai, the more removed we consider ourselves to be. Hence, the Sages of the Mishnah would never argue with Torah text, and the Sages of the Gemara would never argue with the Sages of the Mishnah. The Codes of Law are beyond our ability to amend.

        The great Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetzky was once sitting on a plane next to a very secular-minded Israeli. The two engaged in conversation about Torah philosophy and Torah Law.

        The rabbi’s travel-mate commented at one point how impressed he was with Rabbi Kaminetzky’s grandson. Every few minutes the grandson came over, checking to make sure that “Grandpa” had a drink, had a pillow, was comfortable, etc. He noted, by comparison, that his own grandchildren never gave him that much attention.

        “The distinction is logical,” responded Rabbi Kaminetzky. “We view every generation that we are further removed from Sinai as spiritually weaker. As such, my grandchildren, by virtue of the fact that I studied under great Sages who are now long gone, consider me to be wiser and more insightful than they. They see me as a link to previous generations of Torah greatness.

        “You, on the other hand, see yourself as more advanced than previous generations. You feel that you know more and have accomplished more.

        That is the difference between you and me, and that is the difference between your grandchildren and my grandchildren.

        My grandchildren view me as two generations closer to Moses at Mount Sinai. Your grandchildren view you as two generations closer to apes in caves!”


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