This week’s sedra describes some of the events of the fortieth and final year of the Israelites’ journeying through the desert.
These events include the deaths of Miriam and Aharon, and Moses’s error in (according to our principal rabbinic commentator, Rashi) hitting the rock to provide water instead of speaking to it as God had instructed. For this he was punished by being denied permission to enter Israel.
Nevertheless, the initial phase of the conquest of the land of Israel takes place, with victory over the kings of the lands on the East of the Jordan (the modern-day Golan Heights and parts of Jordan).
But perhaps the most striking section of Chukat is the opening chapter which gives the sedra its name - the inexplicable law (“Chuk”) of how the ashes of a red heifer are mixed with water and used to purify people or objects that had become impure through contact with the dead.
It is not just the content of this chapter that defies explanation – its position in the Torah also seems to lack reason as the section appears out of place. It connects to neither the narrative episodes that precede or follow it. More significantly, every other law relating to purity and impurity is found in the early sections of Leviticus. The laws of impurity arising from death – the strictest of all – should be in that book as well.
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik explains the location of these laws, by pointing out that the Torah lists in detail the events of the first and fortieth years in the wilderness but remains totally silent on the intervening 38. During these long years a terrible tragedy befell the people as the entire generation, which had sinned by wanting to return to Egypt after they believed the negative report of the spies concerning the land of Israel, died out.
This catastrophe of the generation, whose only purpose in life was to die so that their children could take their place, is not explicitly mentioned in the Torah. There is silence. But the silence is filled with, of all things, the laws of the red heifer which are located here, precisely filling this gap.
Just as the laws of the red heifer are beyond comprehension, so is the tragedy of death a mystery beyond our understanding. But the red heifer is, in a sense, a response to this mystery. Jewish law has a response to every human situation, up to and including the point of death. Many mourners can testify how the process of shiva and sheloshim provide a framework for moving from grief to acceptance to memory. The laws of the red heifer – the most momentous halachic response to the reality of mortality - gives us a mechanism by which the impurity of death can be transformed into purity.
The sedra of Chukat marks the transition from the generation that were doomed to die, to the generation that were destined to live, and the laws of the red heifer - the halachic codification of death itself - are, perhaps, the most fitting way to mark the moment.