The Sephardic Community of Fair Lawn, New Jersey

The Mystery of the Jewish People- Parashat Hukat


Parashat Hukat begins with the Misva of “Para Aduma,” the red heifer whose ashes were used to make the waters through which people would be purified after becoming Tameh (ritually impure).  The Torah refers to this Misva as “Hukat Ha’Torah” – the “statute” of the Torah.  Para Aduma is the quintessential “Hok,” or law whose reasoning eludes us.  We have no way of explaining why specifically waters made from the ashes of this particular cow makes somebody pure, or why the Kohen who sprinkles the water becomes Tameh.  The Sages teach us that even King Shelomo, the wisest of all men, waved the white flag, so-to-speak, when he tried to find the underlying reason for this Misva.

We find in the Midrash an astounding statement concerning the Para Aduma.  The Midrash writes, “Para – Elu Yisrael” (“A heifer – this refers to the Jewish people”).  Why does the Midrash compare Am Yisrael to a cow?  In what way are we like the Para Aduma?

The answer, perhaps, is that the existence of the Jewish people, like the Para Aduma, is a “Hok,” a law that defies all logic and cannot be explained according to human reasoning.  Logically, Am Yisrael should have disappeared centuries ago.  As a tiny nation that that has endured more persecution than any other, and which has been scattered about throughout the world, wandering from place to place, there is no logical reason for it to have survived.  Our continued existence is a “Hok,” a reality that is no less mystifying and incomprehensible as the Para Aduma.

In a famous essay, celebrated author Mark Twain observed the astonishing miracle of Jewish survival:

If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one percent of the human race.  It suggests a nebulous dim puff of star-dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way.  Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of.  He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk.  His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are also away out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers.

He has made a marvelous fight in this world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him.  He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it.  The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished.

The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind.  All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?

Rabbenu Bahya Ben Pakuda, one of the Spanish Rishonim (Medieval Sages), wrote in his Hobot Halebabot that if one wants to experience miracles like the miracles of the Exodus, all he really needs to do is contemplate the miracle of Jewish survival.  There is no greater miracle than the Jewish nation’s continued existence after centuries of persecution, pogroms, Inquisitions and Holocausts.

 This is not to say, however, that we can just sit back proudly and confidently and bask in our triumphs.  To the contrary, we must remember that every station along the difficult road of Jewish exile was just that – only a station.  As comfortable and confident as the Jews felt in Spain, in Germany, and in other places, they were eventually forced to leave.  In fact, this pattern began much earlier in our history, in the time of our patriarch Yaakob.  He married Laban’s daughters, tended to his sheep and became very successful.  Everything was fine and good, until one day he heard Laban’s sons, his brothers-in-law, complaining that Yaakob stole all their wealth.  Yaakob had no choice but to flee.

If this sounds familiar, that’s because this has repeated itself many times throughout the last two millennia.  The Jews settle down, work well with the native population, accumulate wealth, and feel very comfortable where they are.  But then, eventually, the people around them take notice, feel envious, and begin to resent the Jews, leading to persecution and yet another exile.

 As grateful as we are for all the opportunities America has given us, we cannot feel too comfortable here.  If we are successful, we must not flaunt it.  The last thing we need is to catch the attention of the people around us.  True, our existence and survival is a “Hok,” an extraordinary miracle.  But we bear the responsibility to handle this miracle with care, not to allow our feelings of pride to lead us to outward displays of triumphalism and overconfidence.  We must instead carry ourselves humbly and quietly, and do all we can to ensure that we continue to be welcome on these shores, rather than ignite jealousy and resentment.


Weekly Parasha Insights by Rabbi Eli Mansour


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