This week’s reading begins with the laws of purification for coming into contact with death.
The name of the parshah- Hukat- is from the word hok, which means “decree”, or “statute”. The particular hok in this parshah contains strange instructions to burn up a completely red cow- a parah adumah- and to mix a magical purification potion from the ashes. Due to the particularly obscure and bizarre nature of this practice, the rabbis came to see the word “hok” to refer to any of the mitzvot in general that don’t seem to make rational sense.
After describing the process with the red cow, it says (Bamidbar 19:14)- “Zot hatorah Adam ki yamut b’ohel- this is the torah for when a person dies in a tent…”
The beginning of this verse can also be read in a completely different way- “Zot haTorah, Adam- This is the Torah- a person!”- hinting that a person is like a holy book, containing all spiritual wisdom within oneself...
One Shabbos, in the year 1840, Reb Yitzhak of Vorki attended a festive meal in the synagogue of the Seer of Lublin who had passed away twenty-five years earlier. When it was time for the meal, the hassidim tried to convince Reb Yitzhak to sit in the Seer’s chair.
Reb Yitzhak declined, saying, “When our rebbe was alive, I always kept a distance from him of at least half the length of the room out of sheer awe.”
But as soon as he sat down in one of the regular seats, scores of hassidim eagerly crowded and pushed their way to be close to him.
Reb Yitzhak gently spoke to them about their rude behavior: “You know, every person is like a holy book; that’s why you mustn’t lean on or push one another.”
One of the hassidim countered, “But aren’t we allowed to stack holy books on top of other holy books?”
Replied Reb Yitzhak: “Yes… but even though you should see every person as a holy book, you shouldn’t see yourself as a holy book.”
One of the Hassidim at that gathering later commented, “If I had come only to hear that remark, that would have been sufficient!”
Recently, my wife has been learning about a parenting method called, “Positive Discipline”. Positive Discipline encourages firmness in correcting children, but instructs you to first connect with them in empathy before correcting them.
The catch phrase for this (which I find incredibly useful) is “Connection Before Correction”. In other words, speak to your children first, connect with their hearts, let them know you understand why they are upset or why they might have done whatever they did. Only afterward you speak to them about how they need to change their behavior.
But this approach is not only better for the children, it’s better for the parent! It’s possible to correct children through harshness alone, but what effect does that have on your own soul?
The answer comes from looking at the motive behind the child’s misbehavior. Why does the child misbehave?
Generally speaking, they misbehave for the same reason the hassidim in the story misbehaved. The hassidim misbehaved because they were desperately seeking something. In their case, they wanted the juice from the tzaddik, they wanted Shekhinah, the Divine Presence.
The Tzaddik is telling them- “your desperate seeking is keeping away the very thing you seek! Learn the middah of composure, of respect, and the Divine Presence will open Itself to you.”
He could have communicated this harshly, and after the hassidim get over the initial shock of the harshness, it would have the same effect. They would still learn the lesson.
But in expressing the teaching through anger, the teacher would have separated himself from the Presence! After all, anger demonstrates a lack of patience, a lack of composure. So while it may have the desired effect for others, it would have the opposite effect on oneself.
We can also see this in the parshah, beginning with chapter 20:
First, Moses’ sister Miriam dies. Metaphorically, this means that connection with the Divine Presence (represented by Miriam) is lost. We are then told that there is “no water to drink”. Meaning, there is a “thirst” for connection with Presence.
The people then gather against Moses and Aaron, angrily demanding water. The child is misbehaving! The hassidim are leaning and pushing!
Hashem then instructs Moses to “take the staff”- meaning, take hold of your own inner power- and “speak to the rock before their eyes”- meaning, bring awareness to the hard barrier (the rock) created by the seeking.
Then it says, “hotzeita lahem mayim min haselah- you shall bring forth water from the rock and give drink…” The barrier to what you seek can be removed through gentle words of instruction.
As you may know, that’s not what Moses does. He becomes angry and instead yells at the people, calling them “rebels”, and then strikes the rock with his staff. The water comes forth anyway and the people drink- but Moses is told he cannot enter the Promised Land. His anger puts his own soul into exile.
You can apply this principle not only to correcting others, but perhaps more importantly, to correcting yourself! How often do you beat yourself for not living up to your highest intentions?
While beating yourself up might motivate you to change externally, it creates more negativity internally. Try talking to yourself gently, but firmly.
As the teaching goes, a person is a Torah!
Meaning- you have the wisdom within to teach yourself, to get back onto the path you want to be on, if only you take the time to open to that wisdom and really work with it.
In this sense, you should indeed consider yourself- your deepest self- to be a holy Torah!
I bless you that in this hok of life, this life that is often incomprehensible, that you remain steadfastly committed to embodying the wisdom, compassion and positive transformation that you came into this world to embody.