Parshat Chukkat introduces us to the Red Heifer ritual, by which tumat met (the ‘impurity’ of death) is neutralised, or purified, when the Israelite who has been in contact with death is sprinkled with hyssop which has been dipped in water mixed with ash from a perfectly red heifer, without blemish, burned by the high priest. This is not a passage of the Torah easily translated, taught or understood. Indeed – the parah adumah (red heifer) is the exemplary chok – that is, amongst those commandments which cannot be justified by any kind of rationality, this one is first and foremost (see Bamidbar Rabbah 19.3).
But we can make some progress in understanding, and that must begin with our translations. Tumah – so often rendered as impurity, or uncleanliness – does not in the Hebrew carry any of those terms’ necessarily hostile connotations. This is not to say that there haven’t been Rabbis, like David Zvi Hoffman, attempting to connect tumah with sin, but such connections are not necessary and are often freighted with ideological baggage.
And I do believe that the law of the Red Heifer teaches us something essential about the nature of tumah, as has been elaborated Rabbi Ahron Soloveitchik:
The verse “Yirat Hashem tehorah omedet la’ad – the fear of God is pure, it is everlasting” (Psalms 19:10) gives us a clue as to the real meaning of taharah (purity). Purity is that which is permanent. Purity is to be equated with permanence, continuity, and everlastingness. Impurity, on the other hand, is to be equated with deterioration, decomposition, and temporality. The corpse of a dead person is tameh (impure), because it represents the decomposition and deterioration of a heretofore noble existence. Neveilah (the carcass of an animal) is impure because it represents the deterioration of a former animal existence.
“Torah Tzniut versus New Morality and Drugs,” (1972)
Or, in Rachel Adler’s powerful and oft-quoted formulation:
Tumah is the result of our confrontation with the fact of our own mortality. It is the going-down into darkness. Taharah is the result of our reaffirmation of our own immortality. It is the re-entry into light. Tumah is evil or frightening only when there is no further life. Otherwise, tumah is simply part of the human cycle. To be tameh is not wrong or bad. Often it is necessary and sometimes it is mandatory
“Tumah and Taharah-Mikveh,” (1973)
To me, this suggests something like an Arcadian pastoral:
Once upon a time there was a people who feared not death’s sting, for they had been given the Parah Adumah. Their people still died, but the sting was gone, for with a few splashes here and a few splashes there – the tang of mortality receded, the shadow was lightened, and one week later life continued as normal. But then the potion-master left these parts, his laboratory fell into gross disrepair, and these formally blemish less cows took to sporting spots and stripes. Without their bovine spray, death’s sting returned; and when it struck, shadows lingered in the camp. Now, those who came in contact with death were forced into confrontation with mortality’s complex spectre.
I am writing this after our college community has been shaken by the death of our chairman and friend Steve Herman – yehi zichro barukh. Although I only had the pleasure and good fortune of meeting Steve on a handful of occasions, he made a deep and warm impression. He was a wonderful leader of the College. I would not have had the pleasure of the year groups below me but for his sound and principled leadership, ensuring the future of the college.
Back to my imagined pastoral. Which world would we rather live in? The world in which, by the burning of the Parah Adumah, the shadow of death is at least partially swept away? Or would we rather live in this world – in which death hurts; loss hurts; and tumah lingers? In Shacharit this morning at the college, our dean Rabbi Charles Middleburgh wrote of Steve as an individual who held both a thorough realism, and a deep positivity, and brought both attitudes to bear in his many communal roles. The pervasive tumah of this world without purifying rituals also establishes the necessary grounds to evaluate just what we have lost, to recall the values of those we miss, and somehow to rededicate ourselves to the causes in which they inspired us.
Following the parashah of the parah adumah we read of Miriam’s death. In the Talmud (Moed Katan 28a), Rabbi Ami suggests that the adjacency of Miriam’s death and the Red Heifer ritual indicates that just as the death of the red heifer effects atonement, so too does the death of the righteous effect atonement. The atonement of the red heifer is entirely supranational. Just so, to position the deaths of the righteous as some kind of rational sacrifice, or trade, as does Rashi, would be to posit a kind of cosmic economy which I cannot conscience. But this does not preclude that moments of loss and mourning might also be moments which lead to atonement; because in this world they must be moments for taking stock, enriching our values and rededication to our purpose.
And with this, I close five years of semi-regular Divrei Torah for Leo Baeck College. I have enjoyed writing them, and I hope you have sometimes enjoyed reading them. Thank you.
Anthony Lazarus Magrill, 5th Year Rabbinic student
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.