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Parashat Chukat 5776 — 07/16/2016

Parashat Chukat 5776 — 07/16/2016

Bamidbar 19:1-22:1

Why is the account of Miriam’s death juxtaposed to the section on the red cow? To inform you that just as the red cow effects atonement, so does the death of the righteous effect atonement. (Talmud, Moed Katan 28a)

Since I am writing this is on the days leading up to Pesach, I will paraphrase R. Steinsaltz’ question on this Talmudic passage: Why is this death different from all other deaths? Why does the death of a tzaddik/tzadeket have such a profound purifying effect on the nation and on the cosmos?

In this context, the Talmud makes a distinction between two types of loss. The first type is the death of someone whose absence, at least in a certain sense, can be measured. It is possible to define certain things that are missing and how much they are missed, and all of them are deficiencies that can basically be filled. …

The second type of loss is the death of a truly irreplaceable person, which creates a deficiency that cannot be filled. The issue of the death of the righteous is partly connected with the fact that a tzaddik cannot be completely replaced by anyone else. … when a tzaddik leaves the world, the concern is not about a function whose performance is now lacking, but about the absence of a spiritual essence. … When a person cannot be replaced by another, this is an essential deficiency, and the death of such a person can be treated like the death of the righteous.

 This is all very well and good, but why does the loss of an irreplaceable person bring atonement to the world? The truth is, any death brings some atonement. There are some sins for which we can atone through t’shuvah alone. There are others for which some suffering is required, and there are others for which only the death of the sinner completely atones (R. Steinsaltz refers us to Sanhedrin 6:2). R. Steinsaltz likens this concept of death’s bringing atonement to the tumah (impurity) that occurs when someone dies.

I’ll summarize R. Steinsaltz’ argument briefly. Tumah is created when there is a transition between life and death. Thus the most powerful source of tumah is a human corpse,, but a woman also acquires tumah after childbirth. Both menstruation (loss of potential life) and ejaculation (also loss of potential life) convey tumah.

In this sense, the idea of atonement resembles the idea of tumah. Just as death, whether full death or partial death, leaves tumah in its wake, death similarly generates a point of purity, of atonement, which likewise results from the fissure, the temporary connection, between the worlds [i.e. of the body and soul, the material and spiritual]. The more alive the person who dies is, the more complete the nature of this purity will be.

To be quite frank, I don’t really understand the connection between tumah and atonement/purification. In this I am apparently not alone. The ritual of the Parah Adumah / Red Cow is full of such contradictions. The whole point of preparing the Parah Adumah is that water mixed with its ashes purifies those who are impure from contact with a corpse, but conveys tumah to those effecting this purification. King Solomon himself despaired of understanding these apparent contradictions. Yet the contradictions themselves testify to the linkage between tumah and purification. And those who have been present at the time of someone’s passing often report that at the moment of passage there is an air of sanctity, purity and even bliss, as the soul leaves the body and returns to its source.

I’d like to suggest an approach, based on R. Steinsaltz’ idea that the transition between life and death is the trigger for purification. The operative word here is “transition.” Any time there is a transition, there is a change of state from the prior state (call it A) and the final state (B). If this is the case, there is a junction point between state A and state B which is neither state A nor state B. This junction point, which may be infinitesimal, is a moment of transcendence, a point which is beyond the duality of A/B. One can think of A and B as two curtains that stand in front of a screen or stage. At the junction point of the two curtains we can catch a glimpse of the reality that the curtains are obscuring. The wider the gap between the two curtains, the bigger the glimpse we get.

How does this relate to t’shuvah? The word t’shuvah comes from the root “to return,” and in its essence means return to Gd or to our source. That source is transcendental to all the changing values in our world. The way we “repent” is we destroy, or repudiate, our old way of thinking and behaving, and adopt a new style that is more in accord with Gd’s will. This is a transition, and there has to be a moment of transcendence in which the “old” you dies and a new “you” is born. The greater the moment of transcendence, the greater the change between the old and the new that can be effected.

Let me turn for a moment to the punishments for various sins listed in Torah. Desecrating the Sabbath – death by stoning. Adultery – death by strangulation. Having relations with a menstruant – spiritual excision. Yet the rules of evidence that apply to Jewish courts make a conviction on these, and most other counts, virtually impossible. The Talmud tells us that a court that executes one person in 7 years (and according to others, 70 years) is called a murderous court. It seems to me that Torah’s main intention in listing the various punishments is to indicate the relative severity of each sin, and the level of atonement it takes to erase them or, alternatively, to counteract their influence both on the individual and on his or her surroundings. Those that are subject to the death penalty then would be those for which only death – an extreme form of transcending/t’shuvah – is sufficient.

Now to return to the death of the tzaddik. A tzaddik is one who has elevated himself to a level where the transcendental underlying reality informs his daily consciousness. When a tzaddik passes from this world, it is painless, “like drawing a hair out of milk” in the words of our Sages. Perhaps as the last vestiges of the tzaddik‘s individual personality drop away with the body, it is as if the curtains are completely pulled back and the transcendent shines into the cosmos in its full glory. This would then be a kind of transcending/t’shuvah for the entire community – it is called mahasamadhi / great transcendence in Sanskrit – and produces communal atonement on a level commensurate with the tzaddik‘s stature, i.e. the level of transcendence his life actualized.

Whatever the exact mechanism by which the tzaddik atones for us by his or her death, there is no reason why we need to wait for one to die. Our Tradition gives us plenty of opportunities to have transcendent moments, paths by which we can ourselves become tzaddikim. This is living a life of t’shuvah – reconnecting with Gd. This is what we were put on earth to do.

Haftarah: Judges 11:1-33

Our Haftarah is the story of Yiftach (Jephthah), who was the Judge of his generation. He defeated the Ammonites when they tried to reclaim the land that they had lost to Sichon the Amorite, and which was in Israel’s possession due to their subsequent defeat of Sichon, as recounted in our parashah (hence the choice of this passage for the Haftarah). Perhaps the most famous part of the story is Yiftach’s ill-considered vow to sacrifice the first thing that would come out of his house to greet him on his return from his victory over the Ammonites. His daughter comes out and is “sacrificed.” It is perfectly clear that she could not have been killed, as such a sacrifice would have no validity whatsoever and would in fact simply be murder (like sending your child to be a suicide bomber). The Sages debate the outcome, but it seems that she was forced to become a recluse, never marrying or having a family.

In any event, Yiftach is criticized for his vow, and the Sages even call him an ignoramus. This too cannot be taken literally, for he was a Judge, after all. He may not have been the greatest of the Judges, but he was the Judge for that generation, and if Gd placed him in that position, he must have been uniquely suited to it. As the Sages put it, Yiftach b’doro k’Shmuel b’doro / Yiftach in his generation was like Shmuel the Prophet in his generation.

Every generation is different – it faces its own challenges and has its own resources upon which to draw to meet those challenges. Each generation therefore requires its own leadership, leaders who are in tune with the generation and not leaders who are fighting “the last war.” The inadequacy of our response to international terrorism and our inability sometimes even to think in terms that are appropriate to the situation, will illustrate this point. It does no good, and Torah forbids us from trying to seek specific advice from past generations, although it is certainly appropriate to learn Torah from the great works of past masters of the tradition, and to cull possible responses to challenges from their responses. Even if we feel that a previous leader was greater than our leaders, he is not in a position to answer our specific questions. Moshe Rabbeinu was certainly greater than any other leader either before or since, but we live now and require solutions to our current problems.

The best solution is for each of us to transcend all our problems, and find our own solutions in the infinite field that is at the basis of our lives, and that is beyond time or generations.