A DRASH ON CHUKKAT
This parsha, Chukkat, takes place about 39 years after the last parsha, when the 10 scouts and most of the Hebrews proved they weren’t able to leave their slave minds behind and so God has them wander the desert until that generation dies off. They’re near the end of this journey, and in the first part of the parsha they are instructed in two important rituals that they are going to need once they arrive and begin leading relatively normal lives.
Both set of instructions are introduced by the phrase, “This is the ritual” The first tells us how to find and sacrifice a perfect red cow so that its ashes may be used for the makings of the waters of lustration, to be used in purification rituals. The second tells us how to proceed when someone dies: how to treat the body, who may touch it, what to do with the unclean person when they have touched the body – Spoiler Alert: waters of lustration.
Then we read of how the people are thirsty, they have no water, Miriam is dead so there's no easy water. They complain for the umpteenth time to Moses and Aaron, Moses talks to God who tells them to take their staff, assemble the community before a rock and order the rock to provide water. So Moses and Aaron go to the rock with the staff but the people are rebellious and whiny. So instead of doing the simple ritual as instructed, Moses raises his hand theatrically and then strikes the rock twice with the staff. Water gushes out of the rock. But God tell Moses that because he did not trust God enough to affirm God’s sanctity with the required ritual, Moses will not be allowed into the Promised Land of Israel. Ya make one mistake….
So what did Moses do that was so wrong? Why are the first two rituals right and the third one wrong? What is a ritual?
Ritual separates the mundane from the special and creates sacred time and space and helps you get from there to here. Rabbi Larry Hoffman says in his book “The Art of Public Prayer”,
Ritual ”arranges our life into relatively small packages of moments that matter.”
I have personal rituals. Some are mundane, like in shower I wash in the same order every time. I don't feel clean unless I do. Some rituals involve magical thinking, like for years after 9/11, scared that a bomb would go off on the subway, I said the Shma to myself whenever the F train left York Street station (going under the East River)-- Shma over and over until we arrived at Fulton Street. It set the fear apart, helping me name and contain it.
Hoffman recognizes the distinctions between empty rituals, which he calls ritualizations, and true rituals. He characterizes a ritualization as “boring, meaningless, seemingly silly in the way the participants do a multitude of things with no inherent pragmatic connection to the job at hand…vacant words, empty gestures, vacuous activity. “ Perhaps that’s how at least part of the Shabbat service is for you? I hope not, but maybe so?
That’s how it was for me, growing up in my suburban non-egalitarian Conservative temple on Long Island. And that’s how it was for me when I first started coming back to a Jewish life. I wanted the community and the learning but so much of the service just looked and felt silly. Particularly the bowing.
I used to refuse to bend my knee and bow during the Blessings. Who was I bowing to, a being I didn’t believe in? A male King figure, antithetical to every feminist democratic bone in my body? Screw that. But people I respected bowed and they weren't delusional royalists, so I decided that I would start bowing regardless of how ridiculous it was and see how it felt. See if I could find a reason to bow, see if there was indeed something I could bow to. And I did. I bow to history, community, my fears, my need for something bigger than me. I bow because others are bowing. I bow because my ancestors bowed. I bow because I am not the center of the universe, shocking thought that might be. And sometimes I bow because it's just time to bow. So bending and bowing went, for me, from ritualization to ritual.
Back to the parsha. How was the Red Cow or the rituals for the dead true ritual and what Moses did with the rock false enough to bar the way to the Promised Land? To our 2011 eyes the first two rituals are much sillier than the third. Find a perfect red cow and burn it and use those ashes to create the water of lustration so if someone touches the dead they can be purified by the ashes of a dead cow? On the face of it this is a ridiculous performance. But if it is a ritual, if it is repeatable, done within and for community, if we all understand what it means, if it separates the mundane from the holy, if it takes us from one state to the other, it is a ritual. It’s a performance but in the service of sacred separation.
And when Moses knocks on a rock a couple of times calling for water? That’s a grand empty gesture of desperation. That’s pandering, that’s show biz and Moses knows it. Ritual, writes Larry Hoffman, “culminates in ritual moments that provide satisfaction of closure and a sense that life matters.” Banging on that rock did not matter.
Moses doesn’t get to go to the Promised Land because he lost faith in the ritual that means something, that in this case makes the simple act of looking for water filled with God, connection, history. Moses proves to be as stuck in the slave mentality as the others who had left Egypt with died off. He was of the past, not the future.
But we who create ritual moments alone in the shower, quietly on the subway and together in front of the Torah ark, we are now. So, a suggestion:
Pick a ritual,
One that is done in your community.
One that you don’t usually do.
One that you almost never do. Just one.
Then do it.
Maybe put on a kippah, Or maybe you wear a tallit,
Or point your pinky finger when the torah is raised,
Or, during the Shma, gather the four fringes of your tallit together.
Or, at the start of the Amidah, step back three times, step forward three times.
Or a home ritual: Shabbat candles, havdallah, mezuzah, whatever.
Just pick one.
Do it without a reason. Do it for a month or two.
See if it takes on meaning for you,
See if it creates sacred space.
See if it creates sacred time.
It this a ritual?
Do you know the traditional reason behind it?
What meaning does the community find in it?
And you? Do you find a personal meaning? If not, can you create your own meaning for the ritual?
Then do the ritual with meaning for a month or two.
Will you miss it? Was it a real or false?
Do you want to start doing it again? Could you keep doing it?
Did it matter?
Does it have anything to do with God, however you understand God?
Will it take you to the Promised Land?