Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, June 23, 2018
Rabbi Michael Friedland
I read an opinion piece this week that suggested if “your pastor is not speaking about the forced separations between asylum seeking parents and children on the border, find a new congregation”. I guess my response would be if a pastor has to give a sermon explaining how wrong these separations are to his or her congregation, the pastor should find a new congregation. It should be obvious to all how horrific and immoral this is. Even the President’s biggest supporters have criticized him about this terrible injustice.
However it is worth mentioning the statement which Jewish organizations signed, representing Jewish organizations across the religious spectrum and representing many causes and perspectives, criticizing this policy: https://rac.org/blog/2018/06/13/jewish-organizations-trump-administration-families-belong-together
But let’s talk about something else because reading what our nation is doing regarding asylum seekers, undocumented workers, the environment, LGBTQ, women’s health issues, etc on a daily basis should make all of us feel dirty. Thank God this week’s Torah portion is Chukat – how to reclaim purity! Ritual purity at least.
According to Professor Ed Greenstein, professor of Bible at Bar Ilan University: “The ritual of the red heifer is the only way to rid a person of ritual pollution (tum’ah) after the person becomes tainted by contact with a dead person. Although there are many forms of ritual pollution, the type derived from contact with a corpse is the most severe form. Such a person is purified (taharah) by means of a mixture made from the ash of the sacrificed red heifer, some additional components that reinforce its redness, and pure (freely flowing) water. Curiously, the red heifer ritual entails a well-known mystery on account of a seeming contradiction: the people who handle the heifer—who burn it and collect its ashes—purify themselves prior to their activity, but they become tainted afterward.”
The modern bible scholars, Jacob Milgrom and Ed Greenstein, maintain that purity symbolizes life, which is what God favors, and pollution symbolizes death, which God abhors. The red heifer concoction, comprising a sort of enhanced blood (red-skinned cow blood plus reddish cedar wood and red dye), purifies the tainted person from the strongest form of pollution. Accordingly, if the most purifying matter purifies the most tainted of persons, why should it pollute the purified ministrants who handle the purifying stuff? It seems illogical.
A midrashic compilation known as Pesikta D’Rav Kahana explains it this way: We have learned in another place: All those who handle the (red) heifer from beginning to end become polluted in their clothes—but the heifer itself purifies the polluted! But the Blessed Holy One says: “I have given an ordinance (hukkah), I have laid down a decree, and you are not allowed to violate my decree”—This is the hukkah of the teaching (torah) that Adonai has commanded” (Num. 19:2).
The Sages in trying to understand certain Jewish laws in the Torah distinguished between a “judgment” (mishpat)—a law for which you can find a reason or justification—and an “ordinance” (hok)—a law for which there is no known reason. According to the Rabbis, the rite of the red heifer, which purifies the tainted and taints the pure, is the classic example of an ordinance.
However Dr. Greenstein argues that for modern Biblical scholars, using tools the rabbis either did not have or did not have as advanced as we do today offer different ways of looking at hukkim, these non rational rules. One set of tools is comparative studies with what was done or legislated elsewhere in the ancient Near East—a tool that grows more powerful by the day by means of new discoveries and new insights. The second set of tools is anthropological, and especially structural anthropological analysis, which Professor Greenstein writes, lays bare ideas and themes that find concrete expression in the search after the underlying principles of the law.
Using those tools he offers two models how to make sense of this strange law that purifies the impure, while impurifying the pure.
In the first model he asks us to imagine the ashes of the red heifer and the purified individual who handles it as two sponges, soaked with water. Neither can absorb another drop. When the two sponges are brought into contact, water seeps out and they begin to empty. The ashes of the red heifer are pure in their very essence. Consequently, the person who is purified in order to handle the ashes is the party in the interaction that is diminished by the contact. One who cannot become any purer who comes into contact with pure essence must suffer a loss of purity—a depletion.
There is a spiritual message in this. Satiety is not the ideal. For in fact one who is completely satiated with ritual purity can only deplete. Likewise, it preferable to be lacking a little bit – in wisdom, in various virtues, in skill sets. Better to be a little bit short of perfection, in order to motivate one to keep working hard, in order to know there is always room to grow. Maimonides suggests this in terms of eating. Always leave the table short of satiation he recommends in his Laws of Ethics. And our tradition hints at this as well when it teaches that one who is a baal teshuvah, that is a person who has failed and corrected her faults stands in a place that even a person who has never done wrong can stand. The imperfection leads one to a higher standing than one who is without imperfection.
Professor Greenstein’s second model of this non-rational ordinance is “Consider a person who ails from a certain disease and takes medication in order to treat it. The medicine fills a lack or corrects a condition. Someone who does not have the ailment can be injured by the medication, for there is no lack to fill or condition to correct. The medicine cannot be absorbed without effect—the surfeit can cause damage.”
Here too we can find a message for our own lives. Again to borrow from Maimonides on his discussion of virtues: He recommends the Golden Mean for most virtues. Thus generosity – one should be generous and not miserly. But one should also not be a spendthrift with money. Thus if one is tightfisted and has a hard time giving tzedakah, one should be lavish in gift giving until it becomes part of one’s nature. On the other hand if one is constantly giving away funds so that one’s family is impoverished, he should practice being parsimonious until the balance is right.
Ritual purity, like proper virtuous behavior, is about balance – in a state of ritual purity attempting to add to it is unhealthy, whereas in a state of impurity, the purifying force of the red heifer potion is useful.
So perhaps when we stray from the path of compassion and human kindness so far that we simply become inured to the violence around us, the cruelty and hypocrisy that comes from our nation’s leadership, we need to be confronted with images that are so stark in their malice and brutality that we are shocked as a society that we have fallen so far. May we learn from this lesson. And June 30 come out to the Families Belong together march here in South Bend while others march in other cities.