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Parashat Chukat 5775 — 06/24/2015

Parashat Chukat 5775 — 06/24/2015

The quintessential Chok of the Torah is the opening subject of our Parashah – the Red Heifer. The Red Heifer is a young cow, that is all red (not even two white hairs on it) and has never carried anything, even a needle. It is slaughtered on a hill opposite the Temple Mount, its blood is sprinkled by a kohen in the direction of the Temple, then the entire cow is burnt, along with some other items, and the ashes are gathered up and stored for the purpose of purifying those who have become impure through contact with a corpse. The ashes are mixed with spring water and sprinkled on the person or utensil that had become impure, on the 3rd and 7th days after the contact. Afterwards the person would immerse in a mikveh (ritual bath) and would become pure. The kohen and ones who are involved in the preparation of the Red Heifer, or who prepare the sprinkling water, all become impure (to a lesser degree than one impure from a corpse). All of this ritual seems to make no sense, and in fact King Solomon, the wisest of men, said of the Red Heifer laws: I thought I would attain wisdom, but it is distant from me. (Eccl 7:23). In fact, the whole concept of ritual purity and impurity, and its relationship to death, doesn’t make a lot of rational sense. This mystery, in fact, is the source of the definition of a chok as a commandment of Gd’s that is beyond human rational understanding.

If I may interject another personal anecdote – I was privileged to be by my friend Marie’s bedside when she passed away. About an hour before the end she apparently exited her body, as her breathing became very mechanical, almost as if she were on a mechanical ventilator. The lady who was attending her told us that this was just her brain-stem running her body on auto-pilot, and that it would presently shut down. And indeed, over the next hour her breathing and heartbeat slowed down, and finally ceased. I stood up, said Baruch dayan ha’emet, and embraced her sister, who had come to be with her. It hit me with great force that there was an absolute radical difference from one moment, when she was still alive and breathing, to the next moment, when she wasn’t. It was a great shock, but in that moment I understood on some level how a dead body is a source of tumah (impurity). Somewhere in that radical shift from life, animation, potential growth, to death, inertia and decay, there is a dislocation that throws you out of your normal way of thinking and being. It leads you to question everything, even Gd.

I will paraphrase Rav Kook’s rather long discussion of the Red Heifer. The Talmud relates that the Red Heifer is actually an atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf – in the words of the Sages, Let the mother [i.e. the Heifer, lit the Red Cow] come and clean up the mess of the Calf. What is the relationship between the two? The Golden Calf was not meant to be an idol to be worshiped. Instead, in Moses’ absence (see Parashat Ki Tisa) it was meant to be a vehicle through which the nation could maintain its closeness to Gd. The trouble with this reasoning is that Gd had specifically forbidden any graven images. What had happened is that the people had substituted their own reasoning for Gd’s. Why? Presumably because they didn’t understand Gd’s reasoning and therefore felt they had to take matters into their own hands. As we know, the results were not what they wanted. Rav Kook goes on:

Why did Gd forbid us from using our powers of reason to establish new mitzvot and modify existing ones, using methods that, according to our understanding, would allow us to become closer to Gd?

If we want to know what Gd wants, we need to examine His actions and the ways through which He governs the world. Theoretically the percipient individual should be able to discern wonderful aspects of Gd’s rule of the universe, and thereby understand His ways and Divine Will. This would work had Gd organized creation in such a way that all paths leading to the final goal reflect Divine perfection. Then all aspects of the universe would provide an accurate understanding of Gd and His Will, allowing us to recognize the proper way to serve Him.

Gd, however, in His lofty wisdom, organized the universe differently. He decreed that purity might be the end result of impure paths. Even those means which contravene Gd’s Will will lead toward the final goal….

There are actually several examples in Torah where the path to Redemption takes an unusual detour. When Lot is saved from the destruction of Sodom, he and his two daughters hide in a cave in the mountains. Thinking that their father was the only man left in the world, they get him drunk and get pregnant by him. The elder becomes the progenitress of the nation of Moav, from which came Ruth, from whom came King David and eventually Mashiach. In a similar story a couple of generations later, Yehudah is tricked into sleeping with his daughter-in-law in a kind of levirate marriage. From this dalliance comes Peretz, ancestor of King David and Mashiach, in the male line. The Rabbis say that Gd took this circuitous path to “fool the Accuser.”

What does “fool the Accuser” mean? On a simple level, it is as if Gd tells the Accuser, “I know you’re doing everything in your power to prevent the Redemption, but there’s nothing to see here – just some incest going on, nothing pure and holy from which the Redemption can sprout.” In other words, Gd decreed that purity might be the end result of impure paths. Even those means which contravene Gd’s Will will lead toward the final goal. I think what the Sages might be telling us with their “fool the Accuser” analogy is that there is a balance of forces in the universe. There are forces that integrate divergent tendencies and there are forces of dis-integration, positive forces and negative forces, forces of progress and retrograde elements as well. This means that whenever there is an increase in holiness in some place or at some time, there is also an increase in the resistance to holiness in order to maintain this balance.

The reason for this balance is to give human beings freedom of choice. It would be very simple for Gd to let his radiance shine through all the darkness and confusion that surrounds us, all the multiplicity of choices that face us. Gd could reach down and lift us up to Him in a heartbeat, but that would defeat the whole purpose of our creation – which is for us to find Gd for ourselves. Otherwise, we’d be simply robots. This way, we’re partners with Gd in creating a more perfect universe.

Just as there are two forces in nature, so there are two forces in the heart of each individual human being. There is what we call the yetzer tov – the inclination to do good, to follow Gd’s Will, to prioritize our spiritual nature over our physical nature. On the other side is the yetzer hara, the inclination to evil, to rebel against Gd, to follow our body’s demands for physical pleasure. In general, the yetzer hara is to be resisted, as it generally leads to no good. But our Sages tell us that a higher level of service of Gd is to serve Gd with both of our inclinations. That is, we are to sublimate the yetzer hara to Gd’s service – to use the force of impurity to increase purity in the world. We take our inclination to do something wrong, and do something right with it – the example often given is a person who is by nature bloodthirsty should become a ritual slaughterer (shochet), turning a negative tendency into something positive and life-affirming. Maybe this kind of service of Gd is the ultimate in “fooling the Accuser”!

Pirke Avot, Chapter 5

Mishnah 2

There were 10 generations from Adam to Noah, to tell you how patient Gd is, for all these generations angered Gd until He [finally] brought the Flood upon them.

Why is Gd patient with sinners? Why does He let evil flourish? These are, of course, age-old questions that are relevant to every generation. If we look at our own lives, however, we should be thanking our lucky stars that Gd is patient. If He “rewarded” us immediately for everything we did, we wouldn’t survive very long. Instead He gives us a certain amount of corrective medicine, enough to induce us to figure out what we’re doing wrong and make the necessary course corrections. This is “justice tempered with mercy.” And if He does this for individuals, how much more so for an entire generation, an entire world! The trick is, both for us and for humankind at large, is to get the message and make the necessary corrections. Otherwise, the influence of our negative actions continues to build up until only a Flood can wash them clean.