This week’s Parasha begins with the Chok (e.g. Chukat) – law articulated by God without explanation or reason – of the Parah Adumah—the Red Heifer whose ashes are used in the purification ceremony for those who come in contact with the dead.
Our Sages speak of the Red Heifer as the most mysterious of the chukim, because in the purification ritual, the person performing the purification ritual became impure themselves. It became the example par excellance of the need for the Jewish people to follow God’s decrees whether we understand their rationale or not. We do not pick and choose among them for those that make sense to us and only observe those. The essence of Judaism is that we perform the mitzvot out of a sense of commandedness and recognition of that higher power.
Yet, just because we do not know with certainty the reasons for a Chok, does not prevent our Sages from looking for rationales. The danger though is that in articulating a rationale, one risks that the rationale will be used to justify disregarding the mitzvah. Of course, the most famous of these relates to kashrut with some saying that these were rudimentary, pre-modern science, health rules so that since we now understand how to cook pork properly, the ban on swine is no longer applicable—as if our dietary restrictions only related to pork products. Oh well. If some are not going to observe, they don’t need necessarily need a reason. The point is that as Jews, there is a sense that we do things because they are right and we know they are right because God said so.
Nevertheless, I am not immune from the rationale bug. I too like to look for purpose and meaning in the rules and if one or more can be found, it can make observing a mitzvah that much more pleasurable.
Thus, I found particular pleasure in reading a rationale for the Red Heifer conundrum—explaining why the purifier becomes impure. The Tzaddik Rabbi Yitzchak Kalish of Vorki is said to have taught that the essence of the Parah Adumah ritual was “love your neighbor.” How so? He taught that when someone forfeits something to help someone else, that is an example of love and selflessness. The sacrifice in the purification ritual is that the Kohanim temporarily give up their own purity so that others may be purified.
Helping others may require taking time away from yourself or cost you in money or other resources. Yet, when you love someone, it seems to you a pleasure and not a sacrifice at all. When you lift your child from the mud, you may get muddy yourself, but would you not do that for your child? Are we not all God’s children? Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, in relating Rabbi Yitzchak’s words states that “… the test of your level of love for your fellow human being is the amount of sacrifices you are willing to make.”
We do not have the Holy Temple. We do not have the ashes of a Red Heifer. We are thought to all be in a state of ritual impurity. All the more reason that the Chok of the Red Heifer continues its relevance. We all still need the love of our fellow men and women. The sacrifices we make purify ourselves and other and in so doing helps make the world a better place.
This Shabbat at Adat Shalom Synagogue we learn with Ruth Bergman. 9:45 a.m. Come as you are. Stay as long as you like. We finish in time for the Rabbi’s Drasha.
P.S. We will resume our Shabbat Torah Study with Parashat Va’etchanan/Shabbat Nachamu, August 1st.