This portion Chukkat can be a little confusing if we take it simply in its literal sense without understanding the process through which the Creator was taking the children of Israel. From יציאה the yetziah, the exit from Egypt to the Promised Land, they had passed through many trials and now we would see this new generation like their parents, fail in their trust of the Creator. After the first two years, we now jump thirty-eight years to the fortieth year as they are about to enter the Promised Land. We don’t know much about the in between years but we will see the influence of the parents upon their children which they get from their behavior and attitudes.
Chukkat from the word Choke, means statute or ordinance which our sages say have no logical reasons and that even King Solomon, the wisest king who ever lived, was unable to understand them. The Ten Commandments are divided into three sets. The first three are called Mitzvot – מצוות, Commandments, which pertain to our relationship with the Creator; the second two are the Chukkim – חקים, the Ordinances which are specifically directed at taking car of ourselves and the last five, the Mishpatim – משפטים, Judgments or Regulations pertain to how we treat our neighbor. This draws our attention to the fact that the “Chukkat” are specifically meant for us as individuals.
Modern psychologists and neuropsychologists in their study of the human brain, speak of two parts of the brain which play a very important role in how we function; one is the frontal lobe with which we reason, and the other is the amygdala which deals with the intuitive or instinctive. When we learn to play an instrument, at first it takes a lot of practice but as we grow proficient, we no longer need to look at the keys; playing then comes naturally. It is the same with typing or driving a car. The Creator takes us through a similar process of training, using the Chukkim where His precepts will become more intuitive than rational. When we are in danger, our amygdala kicks in and our sense of preservation takes over; we act, not within reason but in that moment upon our instincts. That’s what the Creator was doing with Israel to train them to trust in Him. The environment of Egypt that they had just left was completely pagan, with its worship of all types of animals, insects and especially death. The people would have to be cleansed from these rituals. The Bore Olam was teaching them that He is the God of the living and we do not worship death which is only a passage.
In Mishlei, Proverbs 1:8, we read, “Listen, my child, to your father’s instruction, do not reject your mother’s teaching:” This idea is repeated again in Prov. 6:20-24 23 For the commandment (Mitzvah) is a lamp, the teaching (Torah) is a light; reproofs and instruction are the way to life”. We acquire new capabilities as we are trained. The tsitsit, the mezuzah, everything He gave us are to always keep us aware of His Presence with us and to help us develop wisdom through a slow training process. The Torah teaches us to separate ourselves from all bad influences. The Creator equips us by giving us tasks to do in order that we train ourselves until it becomes second nature to turn to Him and not to return to our pagan ways.
Now in the fortieth year in the desert, this second generation was complaining to Moshe about the lack of water. Moshe, now 120 years old was tired and fed up with these cry-babies. The Creator gave him the simple solution to the problem… teach them by going to the rock and “speak” to it so that all Israel would see His power and trust Him when Moses would bring forth water from the rock. In a moment of sheer frustration and impatience, Moshe struck the rock, not once but twice, bringing forth a gush of water. This caused the people to look up to Moshe their hero and not the Creator. The problem is that we humans love to make idols. The Creator punished Moshe because he gave the people a reason to trust him instead of the Creator. If Moshe had continued into the Promised Land, the people would have made him a god. That is why no one knows where he is buried today. Can you imagine if we did? Today, Orthodox Jews rush in droves to the tombs of their rabbis to the point of practically worshipping them. Are they honoring their memories or worshipping them? That, only the Creator can know. Moshe took it personally when the people complained about not having water. He lost his temper and hit the rock instead of talking to it. Whenever our ego reacts to someone and we take their insults personally, we lose.
At the end, we read the story about the fiery serpents which were sent by God to punish the people for their complaining. The Creator told Moshe to put a bronze or copper serpent upon a pole and to tell the people that whoever would look up at it would be healed from the burning bites that they had received. Isn’t that promoting idolatry? No, the Creator was showing the people that He was greater than the serpents which were looked upon as gods in Egypt. Those who trusted in the Bore Olam by looking up would be healed.
Who do you trust? Many of us prefer to trust in a form (a religion) instead of having a true relationship with the Creator. We need to “practice” having our relationship with Him until it becomes instinctive in us. This helps us develop trust as it would in any human relationship which takes time. This is how we learn about the heart and the loyalty of another person. How can we know whether our Creator is trustworthy if we don’t spend time with Him; if we only call upon Him when we are in trouble? The Chukkim are to train us in how to develop a relationship with Him. The principles of the Torah are not only to be heard but to be put into practice in our lives otherwise we are simply wasting our time.
Ranebi (Rav Netanel ben Yochanan)