Parashat Chukat
Numbers 19:1–22:1

by Jen Smith, Guest Torah Blogger

In this week’s parsha, Chukat, we encounter one of the Torah’s most enigmatic passages: the laws of the Red Heifer (Parah Adumah.) This mysterious ritual was intended for the purification of individuals who physically encounter death. Even King Solomon – the wisest of all men admitted that the full significance of this ritual was beyond his understanding.

While the law of the Red Heifer may be confounding, Parshat Chukat also provides profound insights into the human condition through the narrative of the Israelites’ journey within the wilderness. As we follow their travels, we have read in vivid detail about our ancestors’ struggles, complaints, impatience, and a deep, almost painful, longing for the familiarity and comfort of Egypt – a prison that, despite its hardships, had become the only home the Israelite’s had known in many generations of their collective memory.

This nostalgia for Egypt, a land of tyranny and slavery, seems baffling. How could the Israelites yearn for the land where they suffered so much sorrow? This paradox can teach us about the complexity of human emotions and the powerful grip of nostalgia.

I once read that Nostalgia, by its very nature, is a longing for an idealized past seen through the rose-colored looking glass of memory. It is a yearning for a time or place that feels safe and familiar. For the Israelites, the wilderness represented a painful kind uncertainty, while Egypt, despite its painfully harsh realities, represented something of a familiar home. After all, Egypt is where several generations of Israelites were born and raised, started families, and found comfort in leading (painfully) predictable lives.

This yearning for the familiar can be paralleled in our own lives. We often find ourselves looking back fondly on our past, especially when faced with uncertainty in the present. I recently returned from visiting my parents in San Diego, both of whom are US NAVY veterans. My dad regaled my kids with stories about his years in the Vietnam war, his favorites to tell are about the dark nights in the Tonkin Gulf, narrowly escaping terrible injury or death. And yet, every story ended similarly – with a nostalgic sigh and a storybook closing line like “that was the best experience of my life, I miss the Navy.”  It was always difficult for me to grasp this part, but I think it might be best understood as the same kind of paradox: of course it was a terrifying experience, but ultimately, the collective experience of existential fear and then relief created a deep and lasting bond that only comes from transcending challenges. In that sense, it may be considered a fundamental part of the human experience throughout history.  The familiar, even if imperfect, provides a sense of comfort and stability.

The challenge, however, is to balance nostalgia with growth and moving forward. The Israelites had to learn to trust God and to embrace the unknown journey ahead, always clinging to the hope that their destiny was not to return to bondage, but to embrace a new identity, community, and home in the Promised Land.

Parshat Chukat reminds us that while we are shaped by our past, the past should not shape our future. This Shabbat, let us honor our nostalgia, and embrace the journey ahead with faith and courage. May we strive to find the balance between the comfort of our familiar past and the excitement of the adventure ahead, and may our path lead us to our own Promised Lands.

Shabbat Shalom.