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Rabbi Lyon's Blog - 06_14_2013
06/13/2013 07:00 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
June 14, 2013

 

                “Because I said so!” If we’re parents or persons of authority, then we’ve said it once or twice even though we knew it wasn’t a reasoned response to one’s demands. In this week’s Torah portion, Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1), or “that portion about the Red Heifer,” we also find a command that isn’t reasoned or rational. Considered one of the most mysterious rulings in Torah, the ritual of the Red Heifer goes like this: Anyone who has been in contact with a dead body is unclean and must be purified. This is done by sprinkling a person with the ashes of an unblemished red heifer. The sprinkling has a purifying effect, but those who handle the ashes are impure until nightfall. So, the ashes purify the unclean, and make impure the clean. If you’re scratching your head now, then you’re exhibiting a traditional response to this portion of Torah.

                The Rabbis scoured the text for a rationale for these rules. Ultimately, they concluded that these rules were instituted to test Israel’s unconditional obedience to God. A Midrash tells it another way. There once was a man who came to Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and asked about this ritual of the Red Heifer. The Rabbi gave him a rationale and a reason for the ritual, but later admitted to his students that it was truly a mystery. After all, the dead were not impure and the ashes were not purifying! But the Rabbi said, “This is what God has decreed, and you may not transgress God’s law.” Part of the mystery lies in the contradiction between life and death. We learn, “They are eternally linked and eternally in tension, and whoever touches them touches both purity and impurity at the same time.”

                In some Jewish religious communities mourning rituals remain a matter of great importance. Certain people are allowed to come close to the dead and others are prohibited. Some wash their hands as they leave the cemetery or before they enter a Shiva house (mourner’s home). All are means of minding the “eternal tension” or boundary between life and death. In our Reform Jewish community we are also mindful of that eternal tension when we deal rationally with the subjects of life and death. Before, during and after a funeral, we de-emphasize the mysterious issues of ritual impurity and purity, and focus on providing dignity to the deceased and comfort to the mourners.

                 “Because I said so!” could have been a verse from this Torah portion. With much less authority than God, who commanded Moses and the Israelites, we would do well to resist the temptation to be autocratic without reason. In our moments of commanding we should give reasoned and rational messages. Our goal should be to build consensus where we can, and even where we cannot, we should strive to maintain dignity in our households and our workplaces. Begin with a more thoughtful tone and more respectful words. It’s easier to hear an authoritative voice when it’s quiet, than when it bellows in anger and fury. Now, just in case you were going to open some books to explore more deeply the mystery of the Red Heifer, the Midrash teaches us that Solomon, who was wiser than all others, studied this verse and admitted, “I thought I could fathom it, but it eludes me.” Some things simply are the way they are.

                From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

(reprinted by request)

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