PARSHAT CHUKKAT: Finding A Sacred Cow (Numbers 19:1-22:1)

PARSHAT CHUKKAT: Finding A Sacred Cow

(Numbers 19:1-22:1)

“Spring up, O well –sing to it –

The well which the chieftains dug,

Which the nobles of the people started

With maces, with their own staffs” (Numbers 21:16-18).

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Our Jewish tradition encourages hope in so many ways. Every single day, when we wake up, we thank God for restoring our soul – Modah Ani, thank God I’m alive – and, every week, we celebrate the coming of the Sabbath, as we have done for thousands of years, with thankfulness for our blessings and with hope that the week to come will bring good things. And sometimes, even in a time of grief when the aging leadership a people have depended on for all these years in the desert finally succumbs to death– as Moses, Aaron, and Miriam (leaving the Israelites bereft of water) do in this Torah portion, something that seems impossible happens, a little miracle. They find a red heifer, one so rare it can almost never be found, one without blemish, one that has never known a yoke. Perfect. Holy. Sacred.

In biblical times, as we learn in the Torah portion for this week, Chukkat (which means “decree”), the ancient Israelites offered sacrifices to God through their priests, the Cohanim. So, at the time of the new moon, along with the red heifer (whose ashes were later embedded in the cleansing waters of lustration), they offered two yearling lambs without blemish, accompanied by the sacred libation of wine.

Many centuries later, in rabbinic times, after the Second Temple was destroyed, the rabbis substituted prayer for sacrifice – in other words, conversations with – and about – God. Conversations that reaffirm our faith in the future.

For thousands of years, our history has encompassed the story of building and rebuilding in the aftermath of destruction, and of an unceasing effort to make the world a better place, even when we are building on sand. When we cling to hope as never before, when our grief or despair forces us to search for a red heifer.

So this week, even as the world around us – even at home — seems to grow more uncertain every day, hope remains a fundamental element of our Jewish faith. All faiths, in fact, are based on hope. Faith is the flame that keeps hope alive. And the reverse is true as well. Hope is the flame that keeps faith alive. The Jewish religion is the story of that faith, that hope. For Am Yisrael, it is the ability to maintain hope in the direst of circumstances that has helped us to survive until this day – lazman hazeh. Even when we have to protect our heritage with the life force of every Jew.

Even though at times we may be consumed with grief and mourning, both of which also flow from the subject matter of Chukkat.  As Rabbi Dr. Cheryl Weiner writes, “While the import of the ritual of the Red Heifer remains somewhat of a mystery, the power of its legacy remains with us in our rites of spiritual passage from one state of being to another through death, and also in our understanding of sex and birth being linked to mortality” (

A concept most students of Talmud learn is conveyed by the Hebrew word, ye’ush, which oddly means the abandonment of hope. What the rabbis of the Talmud were trying to determine was the specific point at which one abandons or does not abandon hope. At what point does one give up hope and say: “It’s time to move on”? And what motivates someone to cling to hope, no matter what the circumstances?

The leadership of the Talmudic rabbis is long gone. But the same questions, in circumstances remarkably similar remain.

As Yossi Klein Halevi reflects in his new book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,

“Can we draw on our souls, neighbor, to help us overcome our wounds and our fears? What is our responsibility as religious people in a land sanctified by the love and devotion and expectations of myriads of souls through the centuries? What is our responsibility as ‘custodians’ of one of humanity’s most intractable conflicts, in the most dangerous moment in history?”

(Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor, Digital Edition, May 2018).

I believe with all my heart and soul that it is one of our custodial responsibilities to maintain hope. As we read Chukkat each year, which describes in part how the ancient Israelites searched for water as they moved past hostile tribes, we are mindful that in June, 2018 — with a modern State of Israel still preoccupied with implementing innovative, technological methods of conserving water, and still surrounded on all sides by nations that avow its destruction — we are mindful of your protective presence, God, of your many blessings. And we continue to hope for peace.  Although it may seem unreachable at times, the conditions – unblemished, never yoked, a red heifer almost impossible to find — we must never give up. Peace lies just beyond the vision that it exists. That’s why all our Hebrew greetings — whether in the joyous birth of arrival or in the sad moment of departure – begin and end with Shalom.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.