Parashat Chukat takes its name from its opening passage, which describes the rite of purification from the defilement of death, using the ashes of a red cow. This rite is described as a chukah—a Divine legal “decree” without any rational explanation.

After describing the purification rite, the parashah begins the historical narrative of the people’s final years in the desert, starting with Miriam’s death and continuing with a further argument over water, the decree that Moses and Aaron die in the desert, the confrontation with Edom, Aaron’s death, a second confrontation with Amalek, the incident with the snakes, the miracles at the Zered River, and the conquests of the territories of Sichon, Ya’zer, and Og, leading the people to the edge of the Promised Land.

The Torah concluded its narrative of the first years in the desert—culminating in God’s decree that the generation of the Exodus die out in the wilderness, and its aftermath—in the previous parashah. Inasmuch as there is nothing really to say about the intervening years, it is quite logical that the narrative continue now with the events of the final years in the desert. But why are the laws of the purification rite wedged in between? These laws, like most of the laws in the Torah, were given during Moses’ first 40 days on Mount Sinai, long before the people began their trek into the desert. It would seem that the proper place for these laws is some where in the Book of Leviticus, together with the other laws of defilement and purification. If they belong anywhere in the Book of Numbers, it would be together with the narrative of the inauguration of the Tabernacle on the first of Nisan, 2449—somewhere in the second half of Naso or the first half of Beha’alotecha—for these rites were performed for the first time on the following day. Why are these laws placed here, and how does the name describing them, Chukat, apply to the historical events that make up the bulk of this parashah?

The answer to this enigma is to be found by examining the meaning of the term chukah and the underlying theme of the events in the latter part of the parashah. As we have seen previously, a chukah is a legal decree, a rule for which no logical reason is given. As opposed to the other two types of legislation in the Torah, “ordinances” (mishpatim) and “testimonies” (eiduyot), God does not appeal at all to our sense of reason in asking us to observe these rules. To observe them, we must invoke our supra-rational connection to God, our commitment to follow His instructions implicitly, whether they speak to our mortal sense of logic or not.

This idea is allied with the more fundamental meaning of the word chukah, “chiseling” or “engraving.” A letter chiseled into a block of stone is part and parcel of that stone—not a second entity grafted onto it, as is the case with a letter written in ink on parchment or paper. The engraved letter cannot be erased from the stone (at least not without wearing away the stone itself); the connection between the letter and the stone is permanent, immutable. As such, it is the perfect metaphor for the level of our relationship with God invoked by observing His “irrational” rules: our irrevocable connection with Him, which transcends and overrides any considerations of logic.

The events described at the end of the parashah express this same level of relationship. We have seen previously that God originally promised Abraham the territories of 10 nations: seven Canaanite nations who lived between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, and three others who lived on the other side of the Jordan. The Israelites were supposed to conquer the land of the seven nations first, when they entered it, and leave the conquest of the land of the other three nations for the messianic era.

But because Edom and Moab refused them passage, the people had to enter the land through just these territories that God had promised them in the future. Circumstances thus enabled them to conquer large parts of these lands even before they entered the lands of the seven Canaanite nations to conquer their territories. The originally intended order was reversed; they began to consummate the future even before actualizing the present. And once these lands were conquered, some of the people even started to settle them, aspiring to bring God’s promise into reality in its fullest sense.

We see, therefore, that the new generation, having grown up immersed in God’s presence and teachings in its desert academy, was fully imbued with the idealism of God’s mission and had its sights set on the ultimate goal of its Divine destiny. This new generation had learned from the mistakes of its predecessor’s spies and rebels, and did not subject its connection to God to the approval of human intellect. Its relationship with God was as pure as its parents’ had been when the Torah was first given and the Tabernacle first stood, and God’s mission and promise—in its fullest sense—was as much a part of their being as a chiseled letter is part of the stone in which it is engraved.

The lesson of parashat Chukat, thus, is that if we inspire ourselves to fulfill our Divine mission unconditionally, optimistically focused on our ultimate goal, God will grant us the opportunity to make our dreams come true and lead us to the threshold of the Promised Land, ready for the final Redemption, when the impurity of death will be but a memory and God’s promise to Abraham will be fulfilled in its entirety.1