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Instilling a New Culture in the Promised Land in Parashat Chukat with Eitan Cooper

Eitan Cooper
| 18/06/2020

Parashat Chukat chronicles the deaths of Moses’s siblings, Aaron and Miriam. Eitan Cooper, Executive Vice President of The Schechter Institutes, says Chukat also provides inspiration for revolutionaries seeking radical change.

The parasha teaches that contact with the dead makes you ritually impure and that ritual impure Israelites could not enter the Mishkan, or Tabernacle without first being sprinkled with the ashes of a Red Cow, there is an important connection between this scenario and that of cultural revolutions. 

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I like to think of the Torah as the ultimate revolutionary document, containing both overt and subtle messages for those seeking social and cultural change. What in Torah ignites the fire of political rebellion? What are its methods of undermining cultural norms in a call for revolution?

First for the overt: one of my mentors in Jewish education, Mel Reisfield, always stressed to young teachers and youth leaders, that 90% of education is in repeating the main messages. The Torah commands fairness to the stranger no less than 47 times. Five times it specifies the reason, stating: “Because you were strangers in the Land of Egypt”. In other words, pursue justice for all, and above all do not behave like the people who enslaved you!

A much more subtle, yet no less important example of the revolutionary method of Torah, is found in this week’s Portion, Chukat, which teaches that contact with the dead makes you ritually impure, and that ritually impure Israelites could not enter the Mishkan (the Sanctuary) without first being sprinkled with the ashes of a Parah Adumah (a Red Cow). What is the connection between this strange passage about rituals not practiced since the Destruction of the Temple 2,000 years ago, and a cultural revolution?

Recall that Egyptian religion mummified bodies to preserve them for their journey to the underworld. The pharaohs of the New Kingdom enlisted all the resources of Egypt in order to build enormous monuments: mortuary temples to glorify and worship them after they died, and elaborate tombs to serve as passageways for them to the underworld.

The rules presented in Chukat create an aversion to contact with the dead, particularly among the Cohanim (Priests). In Egypt laborers spent their lives preparing temples and tombs, and priests were tasked with overseeing ritual mummification and entombment following death. By instructing the Cohanim, whose job is to perform the sacrifices in the Temple, that being in proximity to, or contact with a dead body causes ritual impurity, the Torah is in effect preventing the culture of Egypt from following the Israelites into the Promised Land.

The rest of the purification codes and rituals performed by priests were taught back in the Book of Leviticus. What is this passage about the impurity of dead bodies doing here in the middle of Numbers? My view is that Chapter 19 of Numbers constitutes an introduction to a major new theme and the dominant narrative, for the rest of the Torah. 

Last week’s Torah Portion, focusing on the story of Korach’s rebellion, takes place in the second year after the Exodus. This week the narrative abruptly skips 38 years, forward to the final days of the leadership team (Moses, Aaron and Miriam) that led the Israelites out of Egypt and through the desert. Chukat opens with its rules and warnings about corpses. The next thing that occurs is a test case: Miriam dies and is buried at Kadesh in Midbar Tzin, (thought to be near Petra in Jordan). The Torah mentions no tomb built for her, and no marking place for her grave.

Providing water had been Miriam’s job, so right afterward, a water shortage ensues and the people complain to Moses and Aaron. Under pressure, Moses hits the rock with his staff and water flows out, resulting in the pronouncement that he and Aaron, like their sister, will die in the wilderness.

Soon afterward, the Torah describes Aaron’s death. Moses marches him and his son Elazar up a mountain. Moses removes Aaron’s magnificent priestly clothes, and puts them on Elazar. Recall that at the end of Genesis, the Torah states explicitly that Jacob and Joseph were mummified. Prominent Israelites who died in Egypt followed Egyptian custom. Here the Torah is indicating that Aaron died naked, his body left to decompose. There will remain nothing to sanctify, nothing to venerate, no journey to a mythical underworld.

Soon it will be Moses’ turn to die. Among the hundreds of Commandments that Moses pronounces in Deuteronomy, there is one forbidding the building of monuments to the dead. And unlike most commandments, the reason is given – Because the Lord your God hates monuments. The message: God abhors the entire culture of Egypt, so please, no monuments for me or any other leader! Thus the act of climbing Mt. Nebo alone to be buried in an unknown tomb overlooking the Promised Land, is actually the completion of the social and cultural revolution that Moses led in his lifetime.

In Egypt, the pharaohs of the New Kingdom oppressed their nation and enslaved foreigners in order to build great monuments that immortalized them after death. The Torah is instilling in the Israelites a new culture for the Promised Land, where a new generation of leaders would be dedicated to pursuing justice for the living.

Eitan Cooper is the Executive Vice President of The Schechter Institutes. Since coming to Schechter in 2000, he has served in various capacities, including TALI Outreach Coordinator and Vice President for Development. Mr. Cooper holds a BA from the University of Chicago and an MA from the Hebrew University. He is a graduate of the Mandel School for Educational Leadership and a licensed Israeli tour guide.

Eitan and Anita Cooper made Aliya from the United States in 1983, and are proud parents and grandparents to their growing Israeli family.

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