This week’s portion is one of those readings that presents us with curious, even mystifying, events. Its very title, Chukat, comes from the Hebrew word, chok, which is the name given to a law which defies human reasoning and logic. In other words, chokim (plural of chok) are instructions which we find difficult to impossible to truly understand but which we accept in faith. They are paradoxical.
For example, in the beginning of the parsha, the procedures regarding the Red Heifer are outlined. It is a rite of purification to be performed by the purified priests who in the course of performing this service for the sake of purifying the congregation are themselves defiled. A paradox! How can the same elements both purify and defile at the same time?
The paradoxical nature of this event, while questions may remain unanswered in our minds about the actual procedure, nevertheless teaches us something about the concept of process and achievement.
The Baal Shem Tov put it very simply in commenting on this principle: To pull someone else out of a muddy ditch, you must be willing to get dirty yourself. This is a life principle that applies in many areas. To achieve goals, we must be willing to work hard, to ‘sweat’, to suffer exertion temporarily for the purpose of achievement. We say, ‘No pain – no gain.’ Pirkei Avot 5:26 says it this way, “The reward is commensurate with the suffering.”
Essentially, those tasked with performing the ritual of the Red Heifer worked hard in order to purify others but the temporary impurity they endured in the process, they considered a small price to pay for the goal of bring blessing into the lives of others.
Another inherently mysterious event in this week’s portion is recorded in Bamidbar/Numbers 21:4-9. The children of Israel resorted to complaining once again and G-d sent poisonous snakes into the camp as a result. Many people died. The congregation appealed to Moshe to pray for them which he did. G-d instructed Moshe to fashion an image of a snake and attack it to a pole and to tell the people that whoever was bitten by one of these snakes should look (literally stare) at the image of the snake and they would be healed and live. This is truly strange – mysterious.
Why did G-d determine to heal the people by having them stare at an image of the very animal that had fatally wounded them?? Couldn’t they have just repented, prayed and been healed?
And why would G-d command Moshe to fashion something that could easily be interpreted as an idol, something which is forbidden in the Torah???
And why did Moshe choose to make the snake of copper??
The Hebrew word for snake is nechoshet, which has the very same root as the word for snake, nachash. This leads us to the root of G-d’s basic method of healing: “like” cures “like”. It is the very concept upon which the concept of vaccination is founded; the same process used in Homeopathic medicine as well.
By staring at the very cause of their affliction, the people were reminded of why they were afflicted in the first place and led to repent and then be healed. The copper snake was a tool for complete healing, not just of the body, but also of the inner man. “Stare” at it and see the reflection of your own soul which is the vehicle to sanctify you or to destroy you, depending on your personal choices. Which will you choose?
There is a great and profound lesson here that puts a whole new light on our mistakes and failures. There is a saying of the Sages that applies: Turn your mistakes into mitzvahs. The process of spiritual growth necessitates that we be willing to confront our own errors and failures, not to dwell on them and get depressed, but to LEARN from them and GROW! The process requires taking responsibility and making the choice to learn from what happened, profit from it and become a better person.
In Tune with Torah this week: if there are any past failures that haunt you, instead of trying to push them out of your mind or let them depress you, turn to Hashem with them and ask Him to show you what you can learn and take appropriate steps accordingly. Turn your mistake into a mitzvah!