Shabbat Hukkat: The World in a Word

This week’s parashah is called Hukkat, a word that can be translated as “statute,” “ordinance,”, or, simply, “law.” We often find it as half of the hendiadys hukkim umishpatim, which you might have seen translated as “laws and ordinances” or some such. Of course, one of the basic rules for Torah study is that there is no such thing as a simple synonym; the Rabbis of antiquity sought to understand what nuance was inferred by the use of two words where one was clearly not enough.
One compelling answer is revealed by the root of the second word, which is ש.פ.ת [sh.f.t], a root that refers to judges and judgements. This word evokes the world of the courtroom, and of the human process of judgement. Mishpatim, then, are laws which are worked out by human agency, wherein the Torah’s commands are applied to real life through human discernment and understanding.
The 12th century philosopher and jurist (and mystic and physician) Rambam, also called Maimonides, explained mishpatim as that category of law that we could figure out for ourselves. The revelation at Sinai was not really necessary for this category of law, since any sane society could work out for itself that murder, theft and the like must be prohibited for human beings to be able to live together.
Hukkim, on the other hand, said the Rambam, required revelation, since hukkim don’t obviously make sense; we are not able to work out the meaning of hukkim by ourselves. Our parashat hashavua offers us the chance to consider what this means.
First of all, the word itself is hard, grammatically, to pin down. The word itself, hok, plural hukkim, can also be found in the Torah as hukah, plural hukkot. The form hukkat, the name of our parashah, is an additional form used when a feminine noun is modified by another noun immediately succeeding it. Note that the word hok/hukkah can be found in both the male and female forms (all Hebrew is gendered).
Second, the word itself comes from a root that also can be translated “etch.” This is fascinating, since one would think that such a word would connote certainty, and perhaps it does, but not of the logical sort. That is, Rambam’s definition of a hok or hukkah is that it designates those Torah laws that cannot be understood with logic, and that therefore had to be revealed.
Sure enough, the Hukkah that we find at the beginnning of this parashah is not only difficult to understand logically, it is famous in Jewish tradition as a law so difficult to understand that even King Shlomo, considered the wisest of all in his lifetime, confessed that he could not understand it. This hukkah of the Red Heifer describes a recipe to create a substance, a potion that changes the status of those made tame’ by death to tahor, and therefore capable of approaching G*d in ritual communication. The part that is most difficult to understand is that the one who creates the substance is made tame’ by contact with it…..
Or perhaps the part that is most difficult to understand is the way that Jews and non-Jews alike have seen this mysterious potion as essential to the summoning of the End of Days. The logic goes like this: until the ancient Jewish sacrificial system is reinstated in Jerusalem, the Jewish End of Days cannot come. There are Christians who believe that their End of Days cannot arrive until all the Jews are returned to Israel and to their ancient form of ritual communication with G*d.
And since the potion requires an all-red heifer, there are actually people who scour the world looking for one, for upon it all depends. (And if you have not read Michael Chabon’s novel The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, I recommend it for a highly enjoyable treatment of this topic.)
Hok, as the Hebrew word which refers to all the laws that we cannot logically understand, comes to signify something much larger than the guiding law of Judaism; hok or hukkah reminds us that many of our rituals are not logical, even as much of our lives will not yield to logic. And how glorious and vital that is! There is a mystery at the heart of life which commands our humility and our gratitude. Not all can be understood, not all is subject to human discernment and understanding.
Like everything else in our spiritual tradition, we balance that which we can know with that which we will never understand. The two terms are not, however, opposites; they inform each other in a necessary dance, just like another common hendiadys in Torah Hebrew, which is tzedek umishpat, “righteousness and judgement.” Here is our same root, ש.פ.ת [sh.f.t]. Here it is contrasted and balanced with tzedek, “justice” or “righteousness,” to remind us that even when we understand the law, it is quite possibly not just, for it is only human law, humanly arrived at.
Even as we must infuse the mishpat of law with the tzedek of righteousness, may we find ourselves able to recognize the presence of the mystery of hok and hukkah even within what we believe are our logically-derived judgements of mishpatim.
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Shabbat Hukkat: Where Anger Will Get You

This week we read beginning from Numbers 20 verse 7, in parashat Hukkat, as we continue in this second year of our Triennial Cycle to start not at the beginning of each parashah, but at the beginning of the middle third of it. We begin with a simple story, nothing out of the ordinary: the Israelites are complaining and G-d commands Moshe to act in response to the complaint. (One thing worth noting about our ancestors’ concept of G-d: complaints did not fall on deaf Divine ears.)

The people complain that there is no water. In the second verse of this year’s reading of Hukkat, G-d commands: Take your rod, assemble the congregation with Aaron your brother, and speak to the rock in front of their eyes; tell the rock to bring forth water, so that the people and their flocks may drink.” (Numbers 20.8)

If only it were that easy. Moshe assembles the people, but then, instead of speaking to the rock, he hits it, hard, twice. Water comes pouring out, and everyone slakes their thirst, flocks and herds too. That’s good, but the fact that Moshe hit the rock when he was supposed to merely speak to it is counted as a grave sin against G-d, so grave that it is for this disobedience that Moshe is informed that he will not enter the Promised Land.

Most commentaries on this reading spend a great deal of energy responding to the absolutely appropriate question we all have at this moment: for this Moshe is not allowed in? Some comments point to the higher standard a leader is held to; others suppose that this is emblematic of a larger leadership problem. My favorite suggestion is that G-d is desperately searching for any pretext at all to save Moshe, G-d’s friend, from the disappointment of what life will really be like in the Land when they reach it. (No reality is as good as the promise of it, after all.)

But there is another way to understand this reading and what was so terribly wrong with Moshe’s response, and that is the anger with which he speaks to the Israelites, and strikes the rock. Anger is one of the most destructive forces in our world; even when it is justifiable, one must be as careful with it as with fire, or any potentially destructive force. The sages of the Talmud rule that one may not discipline one’s child when one is angry, since anger causes irrational behavior and whatever we’re doing at that moment is not for the child’s good, but only to express the anger. (Talmud Mo’ed Katan 17a). Anger is defined as idolatry by Maimonides; he sees anger as the result of the disruption of our illusion of control.  (Maimonides Laws of Behavior 2:2). Only G-d has control, so what are you upset about?

One might forgive Moshe for forgetting that he was not G-d occasionally, since the Israelites sometimes treated him as if he really was G-d. Go back to their complaint just before creating the Golden Calf for an example. There, the people say make us a god who shall go before us; for as for this Moses, who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him. (Exodus 32.1) Yet Moshe Rabbenu, “Moses our Teacher”, was all too human. We have enough proof of it: from murdering an overseer through this week’s evidence, Moshe was not always entirely in control of his emotions. Even Moshe.

What happened on that day, with that rock, was all too sadly, humanly ordinary. Human beings lose our temper, and cause damage to animate and inanimate things around us. Worse is what happens when human beings with power over others become angry, because in our anger, those of us who control others’ lives – our children, our employees, and in some cases whole communities and nations – do terrible things which cannot be undone.

It is not only Moshe who couldn’t enter the Land he longed for because of his anger. We distance ourselves from that land – of peace, of serenity, of safety –  with each harsh, careless word and act. As it was said in a powerful phrase in an old siddur:  we continue to wander the wilderness for our sins, which are confessed in the daily papers. Anger, it is said in our tradition, is the most dangerous of emotions. While we cannot do without its energy, it is a power that must be wisely harnessed, and always feared.

From the perspective of Jewish mysticism, every act echoes in every other act. There is no such thing as looking on aghast and unconnected; all our acts, small and quotidian or nation-altering, echo throughout the world. Let that make us cautious; let that make us hopeful. And most of all, let that make us count to ten before we act, that it be not in anger but in kindness.