Shabbat Shalom everybody and welcome to my Bat Mitzvah. This day has finally come and I am excited to celebrate with you all. This week’s Parashah is Parashat Chukat and over the past few months I have been learning all about it. I would like to take a few moments to share some of these ideas and my thoughts on what I can learn from this Parashah.
There are 613 mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah and we can categorise them in lots of different ways. We can group them by whether they are positive or negative, for example there are mitzvot which we must actively do – such as “Give Tzedakah” and there are mitzvot which we must not do – such as “Don’t murder”. Or we can group them by gender. There are mitzvot which men do – such as wearing tefillin – and there are mitzvot that women do – such as going to the mikveh each month. The title of this week’s Parashah gives us another way to split our mitzvot.
The word “Chukat” comes from the word “Chok”. There are two types of mitzvah – Chukim and Mishpatim. A mishpat is a mitzvah that is explained or logical. If it didn’t say “Honour your parents” in the Torah, we would probably still do that as it makes sense to us. A chok is a mitzvah that has no reason or explanation, for example, eating kosher food. If the Torah didn’t tell us the laws of kashrut, we would be unlikely to come up with them as an idea. There have been many people who have tried to think of logical reasons for the laws of kashrut – like suggesting that they are connected to eating healthily – but these are just guesses and aren’t definite answers. Later we will think about why it is that we feel the need to try and explain laws which don’t have explanations.
Our Parashah begins with the description of the laws of the Parah Adumah – the red cow – which is one of the most famous Chukim in the Torah. If the Jewish people find a cow that has completely red hair, no marks or damage on it, has never worked and has not had any calves; then that cow is a Parah Adumah and is used as an offering to Hashem to repair the sins of all the Jewish people. It seems like a very unusual and specific instruction and there is no explanation why we must do this. Instead of trying to come up with a reason why we do this, let’s understand why we even have rules without explanations.
Nowadays, when we don’t know the answer to something, we can turn to the internet. It sometimes feels like the internet knows everything. When was the last time we googled something and didn’t find what we were looking for?
This is the opposite of what Judaism tells us life is about. Judaism is all about asking questions. We don’t expect to know the answers to everything. When someone knows the answers to everything then they become arrogant, they are a know-it-all. But, as Socrates said, “True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing”. Chukim teach us that there isn’t always an explanation or answer. When we keep the Chukim even though they don’t necessarily make sense to us, we recognise that we aren’t perfect. People who try to come up with explanations of the laws of Kashrut are missing the point. They are saying that the laws need to fit into their logic. However, life is about growing through challenges. It is much harder to keep a mitzvah that seems illogical than to keep a mitzvah which is moral and obvious – nobody is going to give you a prize for not stealing!
The Chok of Parah Adumah isn’t the only place in this week’s Parashah where we learn the lesson of being humble. As Bnei Yisra’el travelled from Egypt, Hashem gave them water through the miracle of a well which appeared wherever they went. It was known as the Well of Miriam in honour of Moshe’s sister who protected him when he was a baby in the River Nile. However, when Miriam died the well stopped appearing and in the very next sentence of our Parashah, the Jewish people start complaining to Moshe that they want to go back to their lives in Egypt. Where does their frustration come from? In Egypt, they had a routine. It may not have been enjoyable, but at least they knew what to expect. When Miriam’s Well dried up, they faced the unknown. When we can’t control life and things don’t happen how we want them to, it makes us feel powerless and frustrated. But these two feelings are signs of arrogance.
An arrogant person wants to be in a position of power and thinks they know how everything should be. A humble person is happy to accept someone else’s power and that things don’t always go to their own plan.
Since I was born, my parents have given me many instructions that I need to follow. Sometimes they come with explanations and reasons – I learnt how to cross roads carefully so that I would stay safe. When I was younger, some instructions would come with slightly odder explanations which I’m amazed I used to believe – it turns out that watching too much TV doesn’t actually make your eyes square! But the main thing I have learnt is that because my parents love me and care about me, I can trust their instructions and follow them whether I have an explanation or not.
After Bnei Yisra’el complain, Moshe speaks to Hashem and is told to gather the people together, request water from a rock and then Hashem will make water come from the rock for the people to drink. When Moshe gathers Bnei Yisra’el, he says “Now listen, hamorim, can we draw water for you from this rock?” The word “hamorim” is usually translated as “rebels” but Torah commentator Rashi says it can also mean people who try to instruct their teachers. What is the connection between the frustrated rebellion of the Jewish people and someone who tries to teach the teacher? In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) it says, “Who is wise? Someone who learns from every person.” Accepting that we have more to learn is also a sign of humility. Someone who tries to teach their teacher is, again, arrogant. Answers and knowledge are limited, whereas questions have no limits.
In my life, I always try to learn from people around me no matter who they are. I believe that everyone has something that they can teach me – it might be something small but I try to always be humble enough to recognise what I can learn from each person. I am also interested in the world around me and although I like to find answers to questions, each question that gets answered usually leads to even more! I am just at the beginning of my life journey and I see every moment as a chance to learn and explore. Hopefully even when I’m old I will never stop being inquisitive.
Back to the Parashah, once Moshe has his audience, he makes a strange choice. Instead of speaking to the rock as Hashem tells him to, he hits the rock. Moshe was the closest person to Hashem and would know better than anyone how important it is to follow Hashem’s instructions. So why does he do the wrong thing?
Maybe it is because he is so close to Hashem that he is overwhelmed by the pressure and is frustrated on Hashem’s behalf. Bnei Yisra’el’s reaction was unreasonable but when someone is being unreasonable, the worst thing to do is to be frustrated in return. Even if he knows they are being ridiculous to want to go back to Egypt, he should not have let that get to him. He had good intentions being frustrated on behalf of Hashem but only Hashem can know how everything should happen.
By studying the concept of Chukim and the actions of Bnei Yisra’el and Moshe, I have realised how much emphasis the Torah puts on the characteristic of humility. We should be humble enough to accept the opinions and decisions of others.
However, that doesn’t mean we can’t be confident in who we are. Whilst arrogance is a sense that you are better or more right than other people; confidence is an awareness of your own skills and abilities, separate from the skills and abilities of others. The ideal balance is to have good self-esteem and an ability to accept our own limits. This idea was beautifully summarised by Rabbi Simcha Bunam in the 1700s. He used to keep two pieces of paper in his pocket. One of them said, “Bishvili nivra ha’olam” (the world was created for me). The other one said, “Anochi afar va’efer” (I am dust). We are all important, but we are only small parts of the bigger picture.
At this stage of my life, I am starting to develop a better understanding of my strengths and capabilities as well as the areas I need to work on. An awareness of my strengths gives me confidence and motivation to achieve in those areas.
At the same time, because I am not scared to admit my limitations I know that I can learn from other people and improve myself.
For example, there are times in my life when I am not as patient or relaxed as I would ideally be. However, my Dad is one of the most laid back people I know, to the outside at least, and I could learn a lot from his calm personality, strength, discipline and work ethic and from my mum I can learn to be loving, kind, warm, very caring and a good listener.
As I go through life, I hope to always surround myself with people that I can learn from. Though there are many successful arrogant people in the world, I truly believe in the lesson of Parashat Chukat – that a balance of confidence and modesty is the key to achieving what I want to achieve in my life.
To end, I’d like to take a moment to say thank you to everyone who came to join me to celebrate this special day and an extra thank you to family who have travelled from Israel, Germany and France. I’d also like to thank Oma, Opa, Grandma and Grandpa. You are such amazing grandparents - I love you very much and can learn a lot from each of you. Most importantly Mum and Dad, you are such lovable parents who are supportive and are amazing role models to me. And as for Isabelle and Dani- I couldn’t ask for better siblings. My life would be boring without you and the fun we have together. Finally, a special thank you to Jo Jacobsen, my Hebrew teacher who unfortunately isn’t here today but she helped me prepare for my Dvar Torah.
Thank you again to everyone.
Shabbat Shalom and Gut Shabbes !