Shabbat shalom everyone. I will be in Vancouver over the weekend officiating at the wedding of Ben Rolph, son of Wendy and Glenn Rolph Ben will be marrying his beloved Anna Klenin. We wish them and their families mazal tov.
Chukkat, our Torah reading for this week, is one of the strangest sections in Torah. With shades of magical realism we encounter the פָרָה אֲדֻמָּה the parah aduma, the Red Heifer, and the נְחַשׁ נְחשֶׁת, the Copper Serpent coiled around the staff of Moses. It is always interesting to ponder both the original intentions (speculation) of these origin stories, and consider how they carry meaning forward from nascent Biblical Judaism through Temple/Israel Judaism through Exile and Rabbinic Judaism to our own Modern era. We have had many phases as a people and as a religious tradition. As we read these origin stories year after year, we hope to glean from their primal telling, a glint of application into our lives today.
The Red Heifer was a cow brought to the Kohanim, the priests, to be a sacrifice; its ashes were then used for the ritual purification of Tum’at HaMet (the impurity of the dead), to purify any Israelite who had come into contact with a corpse. The Heifer had to be perfectly red – every hair on its body red as the ground, adamah, as the first human, adam. This purity, of course, proved to be elusive, even death continued to be a source of tumah, of ritual impurity. We thus evolved other rituals involving the elements of water and earth to achieve states of ritual purity.
Similarly, the copper serpent that we read about later in Chukkat, incorporates in the Hebrew, an alliterative bonding, (נְחַשׁ נְחשֶׁת), even as the serpent is coiled around the staff. The Israelites were threatened by plague of serpents in the wilderness, after complaining yet again about their conditions in the Wilderness. Many died, and their only safety was for them to look at the copper serpent, in a homeopathic like-to-likeness cure.
These readings remind us in many ways that the wisdom of our Torah is literally grounded in connection of people and Land. Ritual purity and impurity calls to mind the theories of Mary Douglas, and her writings about cultures and dirt. In her book Purity and Danger, Douglas attempted to explain the cultural nature of taboos around what was considered unclean – or polluted (dirt). If death is a source of ritual impurity then there must be a cultural response, a mechanism for regaining ritual purity.
When the people Israel were confronted with death from the plague of serpents, they needed a mechanism of regaining control – and survival. By gazing into what was now a copper symbol of potential death, they lived.
Every day we awake and thank God for returning our soul. Sleep is understood to be like a mini-death, and to awaken is to live. And consider that whilst modern medicine has evolved over the centuries the symbol for medical doctors is this:
On July 19th our last Friday night service until September, Kolot Mayim will host a “Shabbat is in the Bag” dinner. Please RSVP, so we have a sense of how many members will join us for a traditional and fun Friday night dinner. We will begin at 6 pm, with Gary Cohen arriving for Kabbalat Shabbat at 7:30. The idea is for each family to bring their “dinner” in a container, as well as the utensils, plates, etc. you will need. When done, we will just pack up our bags to take home. No one needs to cook for 40 – and cleanup is easy. What could be better!! I will bring a surprise dessert! Looking forward to a Kolot Mayim Shabbat dinner with everyone.