Chukat: The Only Question

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Life presents us with millions of questions.  Some of them are small like, “What do I wear this morning ” or “What should I eat.” (For those who are poor, these might not be small questions).  Some of the questions are huge like, “Who should I date” or “What is my career,” Where will I live?” For many of us, myself included, life is full of questions and it can feel like there are very few answers. But there is a question that every single one of us faces that has millions of answers.  In fact, for those who are on a spiritual journey through life, it is the most important question. Perhaps it’s the only question. 

Let’s explain through a true story:

When I was in training as a chaplain in the US Navy, our commander, a Catholic priest made sure that we, as new recruits, learned the heroic story of the Four Chaplains. He told us of the night in February of 1943 when the USS Dorchester, a troop transport carrying more than 900 soldiers bound for Greenland, was struck by a German torpedo just after midnight.

On board there were four chaplains -John Patrick Washington a Catholic Priest, Alexander David Goode a Rabbi, George Lansing Fox a Methodist Minister, and Clark Vandersall Poling an Evangelical Minister. That night in icy water the Dorchester suffered a sudden and fatal blow.  The German torpedo hit the ship’s electrical system knocking out the power and the lights. The decks went black, and the Dorchester drifted in the dark as water poured in. 

As the men ascended in darkness from below deck they were directed to lifeboats and handed life jackets by these four chaplains.  It soon became clear that there just weren’t enough jackets to go around. Each chaplain took off his life jacket and handed it to others. While the lifeboats rowed away the four chaplains remained on board linking arms and sang prayers and hymns as they went down with the ship. 

I’m still moved by this story fifteen years after I first learned it. The idea that these men of different faiths and backgrounds faced with their mortality, would choose to help others live is truly inspiring. Each of these men on their own spiritual journey stood over the endless black of the sea and heard life’s deepest question:  

Now that you know that you will die, how will you live?

You don’t have to be a hero, a chaplain or a soldier to hear this question. All of us, at some point or another will slip below the surface of life. I see it almost every week when I comfort families who lost loved ones. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve sat holding hands with families in bedrooms and hospital rooms as we wait for death.  Death is simply part of life. The wild kingdom needs death to sustain life. The loam that sustains plants and animals is itself sustained by the death of those plants and animals. Death completes life. All of us, from the moment we were born are, as it were, on a sinking ship. This is not morbid to me. It is simply a truth.  

I am dying. You are dying. Knowing this, life’s most important question is how will you live. 

In this week’s Torah portion Chukat, the Torah calls out life’s question. The Torah portion begins with the ritual of the Red Heifer, which is meant to cleanse those who deal with death. (Num. 19:1-12). We also read of the death of both Miriam and Aaron, (Num. 20:1 and 28). Finally we read the death sentence pronounced over Moses for striking the rock in the wilderness (Num. 20:12) The motif of this week’s reading is morality itself. 

Nestled inside of these stories the Torah hints at the mortal fact.  “This is the law. (lit. Torah) Human beings will die in their tent….” (Num. 19:14).  There is but one universal law for all who live.  One Torah for all that breathe. Each of us, as our prayers say, is “a fragile vessel, a fading flower, a dream half forgotten.”  We are born, we grow, we break, we die. This is the decree. This is the law. 

And yet. 

The Torah continues just three verses later, “Take…from the dust and ashes of the sin offering and pour upon it the living waters into a vessel.” (Num. 19:17)  I see in this verse an echo of creation. God created the first human beings out of dust (Gen. 2:9 ) by placing within that earthen vessel the holy breath of life. The Chasidic Master Mei Hashiloach sees within this moment the spiritual balance that is needed for the most purposeful life.(M.S. Ex. Bo)  You are born from dust and return to dust. What is given to you is living waters – your imagination, your dreams, your creativity, your sense of grace. Your soul. 

Death is certain, it is life that is not.

It is into your body, that God has given you a soul to create, to sing, to dance, to achieve. And it is into your hands God has placed the Torah, the blueprint for life. The Torah is not for the perfect and the whole, but for imperfect and the broken. The Torah is not for angels, but for you and me – earthen vessels made alive through its words. (Tachuma Bechukotai 6:5

Mortality makes us understand how consequential life is. It gives us the canvas to paint the masterpiece of our lives. The Torah shows us the way to author memories, make lasting change, repair the breach and heal the sick. Being mortal gifts to us the holy responsibility to love beyond yourself – to make justice and pursue peace and to bring holiness to the world.

You are mortal, but capable of immortality.  

These four chaplains heard life’s question. They knew in their hearts that their purpose was to serve and to help, for that is what they learned in the Bible. It was Tolstoy who said that because each of us will die, we are insignificant. The Torah teaches us exactly the opposite. Because each of us is mortal, our lives are of the most significance.  This is what religion must do – to teach you that you are mortal and yet strive to break the limits of your life by living fully.

There has never been someone exactly like you before. There will never be someone like you again. It is for your sake the world exists. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5

You must hear life’s only question and answer it.

You know that you will die. Now how will you live?

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