Sunday, July 03, 2011

Drash on Khukkat

I was so busy last week making my Aternen Jew video, I forgot to post this drash (analysis) I wrote for Parasha Khukkat, 2005 (Numbers/Viyekra 19:1 to 22:1).

Drash: Khukkat, 5765, July 9, 2005 

Today's sidrah has an unbelievable number of huge issues in it, many absolutely inexplicable.  Most obviously: 

1) the Parah Adumah (the red heifer) and the whole issue of the transmission of tumah, whatever "tumah" is; 
2) The death of Miriam, which is accompanied by a midrash so embedded and taken for granted, that one can hardly talk about Miriam without talking about water and particularly, a well that follows her like some kind of puppy. 
3) The death of Aaron, a death laid out like a sacrificial ritual. The "ritual" includes the stripping of Aaron of his vestments, an event which in the modern sensibility generates emotions in the key of revulsion, but which, I might add, could also be seen as the foundational definition of a living will. 
4) There's the punishment of Moses and Aaron which stands as a permanent challenge to those who insist the Torah (aka God) would never impose a punishment inappropriate to the crime.  
5) This sidrah contains the mapping of the vast majority of moves the people made while in the wilderness.  This is not mysterious, true, but it is embedded in an entirely fragmented and non-sequential narrative, which troubles not a few commentators.  And finally, it contains 
6) the military encounters with Sichon and Og, whom the midrash elevate to the status of giants.

That's quite a lineup of topics, all of which I am going pass over. I would like, instead, to look at 3 minor details and show how they provide a gorgeous little opening into the writing, editing, and literary history of this Book, a Book that for most of its existence has been forbidden to be viewed thru a literary lens.
Let me begin with what is far, and try to bring it near.   Shemot Rabbah 5:22 explains that the Hebrew slaves had in their possession various scrolls, relating the incidents of the book of Bereishit (Genesis), which they would enjoy reading during their rest every Shabbat.  So here is the midrash talking about early documents, written before Moses was born, telling the stories that Moses (et al) would eventually incorporate into this Divine and human collaboration we call Torah.
For me, this is the key to understanding how the Bible was written, and particularly these first 5 books. Like any major interdisciplinary text, I believe it was composed using multiple sources, over an extended period of time.  This was not the result of some Ginsbergian 3 day binge.  I imagine that Moses worked 40 years to put together a first comprehensive draft.  But what does this have to do with our sidrah this week?
Khukkat is one of the few parshiot that provides tangible and clear references to Torah source texts.  We're not talking about genealogical lists, or narrative subplots, or architecture plans, or ritual prescriptions, etc, etc.  Every sidrah has this kind of thing in abundance embedded in the text.  But in Khukkat we have more.  First we have, in 21:14 what I believe is the only reference in Torah to a named external text: "Therefore the Book of the Wars of the Lord speaks of..." and Torah quotes this book for at least a verse and a half, and possibly more.  Would that we had a full bibliography of source texts.  I imagine it would read like a card catalog from the Rare and Ancient Books section of the Library of Alexandria.
Second, we have The Song of Khashbone, 21:27 thru 21:30.  This enigmatic poem that Torah says, "the bards would recite" is worthy of a good long drash in itself.  From Tannaitic authors to modern commentators, this poem is widely considered to be an Amorite text, borrowed and then tweaked for Israelite purposes.
And finally, my favorite literary detail: a song that reminds me in a very special way of a remarkable film, Andrei Rublev, by the Russian, Andrei Tarkovsky.  I am speaking of the song or poem that is perhaps only 8 words long, and perhaps as much as 12 or even 14 words, found at 21:17 to 18.  Here's one translation of the long (14 word) version, with it's introduction:
"17. Then Israel sang this song: Spring up, O well – sing to it – 18. The well which the chieftains dug, which the nobles of the people started with maces, with their own staffs.  And from the wilderness a gift!"
The poem has a couple of words that create particular difficulty for the Hebrew reader and the translator, most notably "mekhokek," translated variously as "maces", "scepters," and "styluses of Law".  But even disregarding this and the other hard words, the poem is not so easy to understand.  Not a few commentators have suggested it is a murky tribute to Miriam's well.  Or perhaps the people are praising Moses for striking the rock, objecting to God's punishment for this act.  Maybe.  But let's read it over again.
"Then Israel sang this song: Spring up, oh well.  Respond!  The well which the *chieftains* dug, which the *nobles of the people* started, with *maces*, with *their own* staffs."
What an ominously evocative beginning: "Uz y'sheer Yisroyel et ha-sheera ha-zote." Does that sound familiar?  The song of the Sea begins, "Uz y'sheer MOSHE u'venay Yisroyel et ha-sheera ha-zote L'ADONAI.  Our song today strips from acknowledgment both Moses and God!  The midrash resorts to a mashal, a parable, to justify these notable deletions.  But let us, instead, consider why Moses doesn't sing and God isn't addressed.
Who are these "chieftains" and these "nobles of the people."  I suggest, we know them very well.  We just read about them... last week.  They are Korakh and the rebels, who with maces and with their own stylus's of law, challenged the existing order and the existing power structure. They had just learned (in Sh'lach Lecha) that they weren't getting out of the desert alive.  For them the exodus didn't bring them to milk and honey.
So how is this song like the movie Andrei Rublev?  Andrei Rublev is a deeply subversive movie, that utterly delegitimizes the existing Soviet government. But it makes its points so subtly that the censors sensed something out of order, but they just couldn't put their finger on it.  In the end it was banned, with no reasons given, and it had to be smuggled out of the Soviet Union.
This song in Khukkat is really a literary bombshell, a powerful but subtle statement of rebellion.  But I think it's in Torah, not because it was able to slip past Moses and his editors, but precisely because Moses (et. al.) wanted us receivers of Torah to know that all authority is subject to question.  Korakh's rebellion was a popular uprising, and subtly Moses wanted us to know that perhaps his punishment was not so much about hitting rocks, but about striking down people.
Shabbat Shalom.

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