Numbers 19:1 – 22:1

Chukat begins by describing one of the most mysterious rituals described in Torah — the rite of the Red Heifer. The ashes of the Red Heifer are mixed with certain specific ingredients and mixed with water to create special waters of purification. This mixture is used to purify anyone who has contact with Death.

Chukat recounts the deaths of both Aaron and Miriam. After Miriam dies, the people are thirsty and complain to Moses. God tells Moses to speak to the rock in order to draw forth water, but instead of speaking to the rock, he hits it.


DURING OUR TORAH JOURNEY THIS WEEK, both Miriam and Aaron will die. The Torah portion Chukat prepares us by beginning with a ritual that purifies us at those times when we come into contact with death. It is one of the most mysterious and powerful rituals of Torah. The great blessing of Chukat is the knowledge that whatever our defilement and whatever our mistakes, we can always return to our essential purity.

Whenever I seek to learn from mistakes I have made, I look for a pattern and then try to understand the source of that pattern. It is understood by our Tradition that the quintessential mistake of our ancestors as they wandered through the wilderness was the sin of the Golden Calf. This portion begins by discussing the great ritual for purification. The first and major ingredient required for this ritual is the Red Heifer. (The heifer is a mother cow that has never been yoked.) To know the source of sin, I must lay the Red Heifer on the fires of Truth. Because she is the mother of the Golden Calf, the source for the pattern of sin, her ashes are the first ingredient that I will need for purification.

ON THESE FIRES OF TRUTH I will also place just the right proportions of pride and humility, represented by tall Cedar and low-growing Hyssop. I will need both pride and humility in order to accomplish my journey of purification. Pride allows me to stand tall enough to see the path ahead, and humility connects me to the earth beneath my feet. The last element the Torah requires for this ritual is Crimson, my passion, which adds my own holy fire to these fires of purification. Thus, the recipe includes Insight, pride, humility and passion, mixed with living waters, the compassionate flow of Life, combining to provide the perfect alchemical formula for our renewal.

The Golden Calf is built when we lose faith in an invisible, unnameable God who may have abandoned us to die in the wilderness. We are tempted to build a life around this Golden Calf, thereby placing something other than God-the-essential-mystery at the center of our attention. That life built around the worship of security or happiness or wealth or fame obscures the root fear of Death that has unconsciously driven us.

When we are ready to identify our Golden Calf, then we must trace its roots to find the Red Heifer, the impetus for our own idolatry, the clue to our own pattern of sin. Then, we are able to offer up the ashes of the Red Heifer, the insight into the nature of our root fear. When death touches our lives, we can be protected from our own tendency towards fear, by the blessing of this insight. Having faced our fear, we need not live in its shadow.


CHUKAT TELLS US OF MIRIAM’S DEATH, and immediately afterward the text notes that the people are thirsty. Their thirst drains them of strength for the journey and fills them with despair. They complain to Moses and Aaron who ask God for help. God tells Miriam’s grieving brothers to speak to the rock before the assembled community, promising that it will yield water for everyone. Moses speaks sharply to the thirsty masses and then hits the rock twice instead of speaking to it.

Miriam had a way with water. She could touch the depths with her song and call forth spiritual nourishment. No matter how difficult the journey, Miriam’s dance would bring ease and beauty to the process itself. She carried with her the feminine wisdom that could not be written down. Upon her death we are given a spiritual challenge: to reclaim the source of her wisdom, to discover the song in our voice and the dance in our step.

MOSES WAS GIVEN THIS CHALLENGE, and he failed in order that we might learn from his mistake. Moses blamed the thirsty people for their complaint and then took credit for the life-giving power that was God’s alone. When he struck the rock twice, it did pour forth water, but it also exacted a great price. Until we learn to speak to the rock, we will be denied entrance to the Land of Promise.

To speak to the rock means to be in conversation with the natural world; hitting it is an attempt to subjugate nature. Miriam knew the words and she knew the music that would open the deep and secret places of earth-wisdom. The spiritual challenge of Chukat is to call Miriam’s wisdom back to us, to re-open the conversation with the rock that was interrupted by Moses’ mistake.


The Ritual of the Red Heifer

LOOK INTO YOUR EXPERIENCE AND FIND A MISTAKE made in the recent past. It might be a misspoken word that hurt a friend, or a bitter feeling that spilled out unconsciously in a look or gesture.

EXAMINE THE MISTAKE and see if it fits any pattern in your life. Have you ever done or said or felt this before?

WHEN YOU HAVE DISCERNED A PATTERN in your behavior, hold it in your heart with the utmost compassion for yourself and ask the question, “What am I really afraid of?”

KEEP DIGGING DEEPER beneath each layer of fear until you reach the root fear.

NAME IT AND WRITE ITS NAME down on a slip of paper.

MAKE A FIRE and burn that slip of paper in it.

SING THREE SONGS into the fire.

  • For CEDAR, sing a song that expresses
    your pride and dignity and nobility.
  • For HYSSOP, sing a song that expresses
    your humility and remorse for your mistakes.
  • For CRIMSON sing a song that expresses
    your passion and joy.

TAKE THE ASHES FROM THE FIRE and mix them with fresh water from a stream or pond or sea.

SET THIS PURIFYING COMPOUND, these waters of lustration, in a special place so that when your root fear is triggered you can look upon it and touch it and remember your essential purity.

Torah Journeys: The Inner Path to the Promised Land
©2006 Shefa Gold. All rights reserved.