July 6, 2006
The Ultimate Enigma
Parshat Chukat-Balak (Numbers 19:1-25:9)
Zot chukat haTorah begins this week's parsha, telling us that the subject of the Red Heifer is the chok of the Torah. A chok is a law that is simply incomprehensible. It makes no sense to us whatsoever.
When I tell you that a person who had become ritually defiled by close contact with a human corpse could purify himself by counting seven days, and on days three and seven have the ashes of a red heifer sprinkled on him, you'll understand what I mean.
There is logic to honoring one's parents. There is a rationale for not stealing or murdering. But for purification in a ruddy, bovine shower, why would God ask such a thing of us?
I'll be honest with you. I don't know. But neither did King Solomon, the wisest of men. It seems that this is part of the definition of a chok, that its raison d'etre remains a mystery.
There are many chukim that defy a logical explanation -- keeping kosher, not wearing a garment made of wool and linen and yes, ritual impurity. We can't ask the question, "Why do we observe them?" The only correct answer is that we observe these mitzvot because God told us to -- period.
But because Judaism does not subscribe to blind faith, we must follow up with a second question. Not why, but what. What benefit is there to us by observing this law? How does keeping this commandment make our life richer, infuse our existence with a greater sense of purpose, expand our understanding of the truths of this world?
When we ask "what" regarding the laws governing the Red Heifer, we will understand why this mitzvah is singled out as the paradigmatic chok, the mother of all chukim, if you will. We will also see how intensely relevant an incomprehensible set of laws that haven't been practiced in thousands of years can be.
Spiritual impurity, tumah, is brought about by different circumstances. For example, one becomes impure, tamay, from close contact with a dead animal. One also becomes tamay if he/she contracts tzaraas, the spiritual equivalent of leprosy. These forms of tumah can be removed simply by immersing in a mikvah, a ritual bath. However, if a person comes in close contact with a human being who has passed away, the level of impurity is much more severe, and the purification process becomes much more involved, requiring mikvah immersion and the Red Heifer concoction.
The difference in the severity of the tumah can be found in the source, or the impetus, of the impurity. Emotionally and psychologically, what does a person experience when they see a dead animal or a body racked by disease? They experience a sense of revulsion and disgust at the decaying organism. They may be sickened and repelled by the diseased tissue overtaking what was once a strong and healthy body. When we chance upon a squirrel that has been run over in the street, we don't mourn the squirrel. We are grossed out from the blood and the guts, and we just want to get away from it.
Contrast that to the experience of the death of a human being. True, a corpse is not pleasant to behold, but that is not the focus of our emotional/psychological experience. It is so much more. It is the realization that in all of the universe, the deceased was unique. The person had individual talents, a singular purpose no longer to be fulfilled.
Inside every human being lies unlimited potential, and death means that it is lost forever. This most severe form of impurity stems from the recognition that every life has infinite value; that every person truly is an entire world.
The story is told that the Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, paid a visit to Anwar Sadat shortly before the Yom Kippur War and advised him not to go to war with Israel. Sadat responded by handing him a copy of the publication, Maariv. The cover had a picture of a young man in uniform who was killed and was being mourned by an entire nation. Sadat said that such a people won't endure a long war if to them, each dead person is important and precious.
As I write this, myself and fellow Jews all over the world, are praying and beseeching God for the safe return of another young man in uniform, Gilad Shalit. To us, he is not just another soldier. He is a unique and precious individual whose loss, God forbid, would be the paradigm of that which doesn't make sense. Zot chukat haTorah. That a precious life can just be snuffed out is the most illogical and unintelligible chok of the Torah.
Through the parsha of the Red Heifer, we learn to value not just life, but every life. That is why we don't lump all victims of terror together, but each one has a picture and a name, because each one represents an unimaginable loss. That is why every Shabbat, we pray for the return of the Israeli MIAs. Not to care about the fate of each and every one of them is incomprehensible to us. Yes Sadat, you were right. Every individual is precious and important to us, and every loss a sickening tragedy.
But you were wrong, too. Appreciating the worth of each individual has not weakened us. It is what has given us the strength to keep going. Death may never make sense to us, but the greatness and grandeur of life does. And as incomprehensible as it may seem to you, we choose life.
We hope and pray that very soon, the rest of the world will, too.
Steven Weil is rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills.