The following is a D’var Torah given by NFTY President Debbie Rabinovich on the first day of the summer session at the URJ Kutz Camp.
This week’s parsha, Chukat, is filled with contradictions. We just stood at Sinai, completely healthy and whole, and received the Torah, which brings us life. Suddenly we are confronted by the deaths of Miriam and Aaron. Directly between these two extremes, life and death, God or the writers of the Torah decide to throw in some good old ritual law, a b’nei mitzvah student or NFTY President’s favorite treat. The ritual described is the burning of a red cow, whose ashes will be used to purify those who have touched death. So maybe this portion provides a healthy dose of foreshadowing… but as it is with the Torah, there has to be more.
This ritual commandment is not a logical one. The Torah isn’t asking us to be kind and try not to kill people. This decree is hard to understand. The mitzvah of the red cow confused even King Solomon. Of this commandment he conceded, “I said I would be wise, but it is far from me.”
The ritual seems simple, but the “why” is not. The Torah tells us that the red cow must be burned with cedar wood and hyssop. This is where things get interesting- cedar is the strongest of all the trees and hyssop is considered the lowliest of all the plants since it grows in cracks.
The haftara tells us that Solomon spoke of the cedar trees in Lebanon and of the hyssop that grew in the walls of the temple, and that people came from all the nations to hear his wisdom.
Solomon’s wisdom came from the plants in which the red cow was burned.
Perhaps it is not the main ingredient, the red cow, but the other parts of the flame, that are the key to understanding this parsha.
The cedar tree is considered to be the strongest of all the trees, but it is not without its weaknesses. It is rigid and unmoving, it is not flexible. Hyssop cannot grow on it’s own, but it grew in the temple, the holiest of all the places.
The plants contradict each other, but perhaps most importantly, they complement each other. When burned with a red cow, they have the power to heal those who have touched death. Purity comes from the actual burning of the cow and wisdom comes from what burns the cow
This is remarkable. Without both the cedar and the hyssop, the burning of this cow and finally making up for the previous worship of the golden calf, is meaningless.
Without being mighty but humble, sturdy but adaptable, independent but supported, akin to the hyssop and the cedar, our work is impossible. The many incredible qualities of the people in this room must come together for us to be successful. Being strong is important and being able to ask for help is perhaps even more important, but it is finding the balance that is the most important of all. As this summer progresses, we will all take risks and think big…and we will also ask for support and support each other in our goals. I told you all last night that my goal last summer was to grow just a little bit wiser. I said I would be wise, but it is far from me, and that is not a bad thing.