Hukat 5776: A Matter of Life and Death
“There is a gust of eternity in every fleeting moment.” ― Marty Rubin
Reading Parashat Hukat, it seems that almost everything in it is a life and death issue. Its first verses open with the Para Aduma (Red Heifer), and the purification process for one who has come into contact with death. Miriam and Aharon die, and Moshe is sentenced to death. Masses die by snakebite, and it is here that we are told that the entire adult male population that left Egypt died in the desert. The parasha is clearly death-heavy. But fittingly, it is also life-heavy. It is here that a whole new and hopeful generation of Israel is born. We read of their first victories and the great battles they waged en route to the Promised Land. Having experienced death and loss, they learned to embrace life. They found, ironically, that their lives were important enough to risk dying for.
The idea that death gives life its luster may sound odd, but let us consider — what meaning would a life have if it never ended? What would ultimately define it as a life? Knowing that our days will inevitably come to an end and that our lives are finite makes every day — indeed, every moment that we live — utterly unique and special. Losing consciousness of our mortality inevitably leaves life without meaning, for when life has no end, it has no definition. When a society does not include death as a vital part of life its days lose their vigour and deteriorate into the generic. Time then becomes something to “pass”, “fill” and even “kill” rather than something prime and precious.
Perhaps the worst outcome of this is that it creates a society submerged in ennui whose highest bar of achievement is set firmly (and safely) at mediocrity. This may be an exaggerated description of our modern world, but it is not, at least, unfamiliar. When we choose to forget that our hours and days, months and years, are the only ones we’ll ever have, we let life pass and before we know it, it does. We stop caring enough to do our best and instead of living life, it lives us.
We settle for, and often hide behind, the unexciting, the unexceptional and the undistinguished. In all of this the greatest casualty is our own identity. We steadily become convinced that we don’t matter, we find refuge in indifference and we fail to find and create the beauty that only a finite existence allows for. We regularly say we’ve done our best (which, by definition, is the most one can do) when instead, we’ve merely done what we were comfortable with. Perhaps, at the core of it all, we fear that achieving our greatest self is just too great a weight to bear. Hukat teaches us in its theme that the greatest motivation to living a vibrant and meaningful life is to know that it is the only one we will ever have.
We must come to remember that no one will live our lives for us and that the existence we have will be great or small, powerful or weak, successful or failing because of what we choose to make it. Knowing that it is utterly unique and irrevocable is what fills our days with glorious beauty.
Rabbi Joseph Dweck
67 Para aduma: laws of purification (19:1-22)
68 Miriam dies. People complain for water (20:1-6)
69a The story of Moshe, Aharon and hitting the rock
69b Punishment for Moshe and Aharon (20:12-13)
69c King of Edom refuses passage through his land
70a Aharon dies. Kohen Gadol clothing is passed on to
70b Successful war with Cana’anites (21:1-3)
71a Complaints lead to fiery snakes and salvation by a
brass snake. Journeys (21:4-16)
71b Well song. Journeys (21:17-20)
72a Conquering the Emorite Kingdoms. Defeat of Og
the King of Bashan (21:21-22:1)
Taken from, ‘Torah for Everyone’ by Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum, Dean of LSJS