Dvar Torah Parshat Chukat 5775 2015 – Who drinks first?

When the people complained that they had no water Hashem instructed Moshe to go speak to the rock and water would flow. Hashem says: When that will happen, וְהִשְׁקִיתָ אֶת הָעֵדָה וְאֶת בְּעִירָם, “…and give drink to the assembly and to their animals.” (Num. 20,8) This implies that first the people should drink and then they should take care of the animals.

This is interesting because of a certain law whereby the Rabbis insist that one must follow. The Rabbis of the Talmud tell us that before someone sits down to eat he must first tend to the needs of his animals and feed them before he can eat. This is based on the Biblical passage which we recite in the Shema: וְנָתַתִּי עֵשֶׂב בְּשָׂדְךָ לִבְהֶמְתֶּךָ וְאָכַלְתָּ וְשָׂבָעְתָּ, “I shall provide grass in your field for your cattle and you will eat…”. (Deut. 11,15) Here the Torah mentions first the food for the animals and then food for man. Why is drinking different from eating food?

The answer may be that a person can go longer without food than without water. Hence, when he sits down to eat he should first fulfill his obligation to his animals and then take care of his own needs. When it comes to drink, he may first tend to his own needs.

This stresses how the Torah is concerned that we treat animals properly.

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Dvar Torah Parshat Chukat 2014 5774

The opening words of the law of the Red Heifer start with זאת חקת התורה, “This is the decree of the Torah…”. (Num. 19,2) Onkelos does not translate the word חקת as he always does, קיים, meaning lasting forever. Here he translates it as גזירה, an edict.

It is coincidental but one of the great tragedies that happened to the Jewish people during the Galut took place on Friday before this particular Portion of חקת was read.
In 1242 the Catholic Church collected all the copies of the Talmud and all Jewish religious books in Europe and bought them to Paris and burned them in the central square of the city. This was a great calamity for the Jewish people. We must remember that in those days these books were not printed but were manuscripts hand written. If no copies were left תורה שבעל פה, the Oral Law would be forgotten. With the help of Hashem some copies were found and Torah survived.

In commemoration of this calamity the Rabbis of that time established a fast day but not in the usual manner. Usually a fast day is based on the date in the calendar. In this case they decreed that the fast date should always be on the same day of the week when Chukat is read, rather than a calendar date.

It has been suggested that they changed the way of proclaiming a fast day from the usual way, on the calendar, to the day of the week just as Onkelos changed his usual interpretation of the word חוק from קיים, lasting forever, to גזירה, an edict.

It is also interesting that the Maharam of Rothenberg wrote a Kina (lamentation) about the event which begins with the words “שאלי שרופה באש”, “Inquire, consumed in fire…” and is read on Tisha B’Av.

Dvar Torah Parshat Chukat 5773 2013

The Torah in the beginning of the Sidra presents the laws of the פָרָה אֲדֻמָּה, the Red Heifer. This is a special law that requires a heifer, that is completely red, to be taken, sacrificed and burnt. The ashes were to be mixed with water and the mixture was to be used to sprinkle on one who has become טמא or spiritually contaminated, having come in contact with a deceased body.

This is the least understood Mitzvah in the entire Torah. The Torah calls this a חוק, a statute, which implies a Mitzvah for which we have no understanding. The Midrash tells us that even King Solomon, the wisest of all men, had no explanation for this Mitzvah.

The Torah Portion starts with the words: זֹאת חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה, “This is the statute of the Torah…” (Num. 19,2) Many of the Biblical commentaries ask, “Why is the wording the statute of the Torah?” It should have said, “the statute of the Red Heifer”.

Someone proposed a unique answer for this question. There are two types of Mitzvot. There are those that we can readily understand. For example, the prohibition against stealing and the Mitzvah to give charity are Mitzvot we can explain. There are other Mitzvot for which we have no rationalization. An example of this would be טומאה, spiritual defilement.

If one observes the Mitzvot he does not understand, we would assume his reward would be greater than when he observes the Mitzvot he can explain. Hence, the Torah emphasizes here that one who observes the law of the Red Heifer demonstrates that he fulfills Mitzvot, not because he understands them, but because it is the command of Hashem. Thus, the rewards for even the Mitzvot he does understand will be as great because he practices them, not because they are logical, but because they are Hashem’s command.
That is why the Torah says: “This is the statute of the Torah…”. It implies that observing this Mitzvah is an indication that all Mitzvot of the Torah are observed because they are divine and not because they are rational.

Dvar Torah Parshat Chukat 5772 2012

The Mitzvah mentioned in the beginning of today’s Sidra is very puzzling. A red heifer had to be slaughtered, burnt, and the ashes were to be mixed with water and sprinkled on one who has become spiritually defiled, or טמא. With this ritual the person will be purified. The Talmudic Sages tried to understand the rationalization of this procedure but did not succeed. They tell us that even Shlomo Hamelech, the wisest of all men, could not understand it. Indeed, the Torah itself tells us זֹאת חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה, “This is the decree of the Torah…”. (Num. 19,2) A decree implies we cannot understand it. It is a decree from Hakadosh Baruch Hu which we must observe though we cannot comprehend its meaning.

Despite all that has been said, Chazal in the Midrash do give us a reason why this law had been given. They tell us that the red heifer was to atone for the sin of the golden calf. This in itself is an enigma. What connection is there between this law and the terrible sin committed by the Children of Israel with the golden calf when Moshe was receiving the Tablets of Stone?

A very unique explanation had been suggested. Why did the sin of the golden calf come about? The reason was because the Children of Israel lost their faith in Hashem when Moshe did not return from the mountain. Losing faith after standing at Mt. Sinai and hearing the Ten Commandments proclaimed was a great shortcoming of the people. To atone for this failing they were given a law that they could not understand but had to keep simply in good faith that this was what Hashem required.

In keeping this incomprehensible law the people demonstrate their faith in Hashem and thus can atone for the lack of faith they displayed at Mt. Sinai.

Dvar Torah Parshat Chukat 5771 2011

We read that the Israelites in the Wilderness complained to Moshe that they were tired of eating the Manna. Hashem punished them for their complaint by sending serpents among the people and many died. Moshe prayed to have this plague stopped and was told to make a copper serpent and place it on a pole and anyone who was bitten will look at this and live.

Moshe did so and the people stopped dying from the plague. The copper image of the snake lasted until the days of King Chezkiya. The king then destroyed it since the people worshipped this image as a god. (II Kings 18,4) The Gemorrah asks (Hul.6b) why the other kings before him, Assa and Yehoshofat, who also got rid of idolatry practices in Israel during their reign, why did they not destroy the copper serpent as well.

The answer given, though strange, tells us that sometimes things are left for later times to be corrected. The Gemorrah then says that this implies that when a scholar offers a suggestion that sounds strange, it should not be rejected out of hand. Because no one came up with this idea previously does not mean it is not worth considering.

We often hear people come up with strange ideas that we feel at first glance seem untenable. We should not be in too much of a hurry to reject them.

Dvar Torah Parshat Chukat 2009 5769

The Halacha states that one is prohibited to sit down to eat before he feeds his animals. (Orech Chaim 167;6) This is derived from the Pasuk we recite twice daily in the second paragraph of the Shema. Hashem promises He will provide grass in the fields for the animals and you will eat and be satisfied. Since Hashem first mentions He will feed the animals and then man hence we should follow the same practice.

With regard to drink this rule does not apply. Man should drink first and then give the animals to drink. This we cans see in our Torah Portion of the week. When Moshe is instructed to extract water from the rock, Hashem says to Moshe: VEHISHKITA ET HA’EDAH VE’ET BE’IRAM, “…and you will give drink to the assembly and to their animals.”(Num 20,8) Here we see that when it comes to drink people come before animals.

This is also seen even more forcefully from Rivka. When Avraham’s servant asked her for water she first gave it to him and then offered to give water to his camels.

Perhaps the reason for the difference between food and water is that a person can go without food a longer period of time than he can without water.

Dvar Torah Parshat Chukat 2008 5768 דבר תורה פרשת חקת

In introducing the Mitzvah of the Para Aduma, the Red Heifer, we read the words: ZOT CHUKAT HATORAH, “This is the law of the Torah…” (Num. 19,2) Rightfully the wording should have been ZOT CHUKAT HAPARA, “This is the law of the heifer”, since what follows is the law of preparing the Red Heifer whose ashes mixed with water were to comprise the water of purification.

The rationale for the Red Heifer is not understood and one would think that since there is no logical explanation for performing this law then we are really not duty bound to carry it through. Hence the wording is “This is the law of the Torah…” That means, this it the Torah, whether you can comprehend its meaning or not, this is the Torah and you are obligated to perform it.

Many of the Mitzvot in the Torah are logical and their motive is understandable. What the Torah wants us to realize is that when we perform a Mitzvah it should be because Hashem commanded us and not because it makes sense to do so.

If one asks why is it so important to perform the Mitzvah because we were commanded and not because we understand its value, the answer is simple. If we act properly because it is logical, we can always find a justification why in a specific case we do not have to perform it due to particular circumstances. One can always rationalize his actions without much effort.