Chukat-Balak, two Torah portions that could connect on one Shabbat abroad to make up the difference between Israel and Outside Israel, but this year, don’t, extending the gap a little further —-
Chukat opens with the strange description of the Red Heifer: the priest takes a special, red, young cow, who hasn’t done any work, and burns all of it, mixing wood of a cedar tree, hyssop and crimson stuff (from a silkworm) and throw them into the fire consuming the cow (Numbers 19:6). The ashes of this mixture are later used to purify the “impure”, turning the impure to pure, while causing the one preparing it to become impure. This is one of the biggest riddles in the Torah. Commentators explain that in its core, it is the Torah’s objection to death.
We take death for granted, as if it is an absolute must of human reality. How can we even begin to imagine life without it? It is so much of our experience and pain; and so much defines our daily actions: if we thought for a moment that we live for-ever, we would treat life very differently! And yet, the Torah teaches that death is not an inseparable part of the human condition. Rather, it is part of life’s “impurities” which one day will be dealt with and gone.
Balak son of Tzipor opts to fight the Children of Israel through blessings and curses; through speech. The whole Pesach story is folded into this encounter, like a bookend: Speech being the power that G-d reveals Himself in the world, and the aspect most challenging for Moses. Couldn’t G-d find someone who can just speak without hesitation? And Moses, he can do so, so many things, and yet he is challenged right where it’s toughest and most painful for him; and his struggle is so public, so hard; every move is documented; everyone can see, struggling; struggling with no “discount”; not for a minute does the Torah say, ‘oh Moses, let’s go easy on him, he has such a full schedule’…
Towards the end of the Book of Numbers, we learn that the midbar (desert) is the place where divine dibur (speech) is heard most clearly and where the one who’s speech is cumbersome, becomes a medaber. Soon, Moses will be the one speaking for the whole book of Deuteronomy, coming up very soon. Perhaps, this is his journey, to find his own voice. I’d like to imagine he learned Egyptian and Midyanite and other local languages in the palace and throughout his prince-hood, but speaking Gd’s language is a different skill. Perhaps that’s our journey too.
At the Jewish Peoplehood / Diapspora Museum in Tel Aviv there’s a humor corner for when we wish / need / are able to to use language for a little laughter. If you go there, you’ll be invited to sit on two happy gefilte-fish pillows