Parshat Chukat: The Fulcrum of Jewish History by Rabbi Steven Prebor
Although Parshat Chukat is primarily a narrative, there is a section at the beginning that deals with the Mitzva of Parah Aduma. It is generally assumed that the order of topics in the Torah is based on a thematic scheme. As we read the narrative section that immediately follows Parah Aduma, it becomes difficult to understand how the two topics are connected. As we explore this narrative further, however, a link may emerge.
At the beginning of Perek 20 the Torah tells us ויבאו בני ישראל כל העדה מדבר צין. Rashi claims, based on the word “Eidah,” that the Torah has jumped close to forty years into the future here. Those arriving in Midbar Tzin are only the Jews who will conquer Eretz Canaan. Everyone from the previous generation has already died. One striking reality of this “new generation” is that they do not appear to be any different than their parents. When there is no water, Bnai Yisrael complain that Yetziat Mitzrayim should not have taken place if its result was going to be the death of all Jews in the Midbar. Sound familiar? This same theme was articulated by the previous generation several times. In Perek 21, Bnai Yisrael complain that there is neither food nor water, and they have some negative things to say about the Manna. Once again, it is a familiar story. It does not seem like Bnai Yisrael have changed. Presumably, the forty years in the Midbar was supposed to give Bnai Yisrael an opportunity to get used to the demands of the Torah and political independence. However, thus far in Parshat Chukat, Bnai Yisrael appear ill equipped for that lifestyle.
Nevertheless, as we go on, something happens which has never happened before. In Perek 21 when Hashem sends the Nechashim Haserefim, the Jews respond by saying “We have sinned.” This is truly unprecedented. Even though some Jews (the Mafilim in 14:40) do say, “we have sinned” in the aftermath of the Cheit Hameraglim; they say this as they embark on a military campaign against Hashem’s and Moshe’s orders. This time, however, Bnai Yisrael say “we have sinned” in the midst of a pattern of following Hashem’s orders of whether or not to fight. Clearly, change has taken place. Bnai Yisrael are not perfect. However, they now have the ability to see their mistake when someone points it out to them. The forty years in the desert has achieved its goal.
Back in Parshat Behaalotcha, Bnai Yisrael at one point comment about the fish that they ate in Egypt for free.” Rashi, dealing with the fact that Bnai Yisrael had not received anything in Egypt for free, claims that this means free of Mitzvot. Apparently, Bnai Yisrael were uncomfortable with the moral obligations that their new life entailed. Now, however, one generation later, they are ready. They are not perfect, but they are fundamentally committed to the idea. This may explain why Parshat Chukat starts with the Parah Aduma. The Parah Aduma is the epitome of Chok, since it includes the inherent contradiction of purifying the defiled while defiling the pure. It therefore is a symbol of the central issue behind the inability of the previous generation to succeed in Hashem’s plan, and what sets them apart from the new generation.