Avoiding Pain Parshas Chukas

The Parah Aduma, the Mitzvah of the Red Heifer, is introduced with the words, Zos chukas hatorah, this is the LAW of the Torah. Rashi explains that this Mitzvah is called a chok, an absolute law, as a response to the taunts of our evil inclination and the nations of the world. Says Rashi, when they hear about the laws of the Red Heifer, they mock us and persuade us to not follow the Torah. They say: “Look! This law makes no sense! None of them make sense!” and they laugh at us. And we respond, “You’re right, this Mitzvah makes no sense, but it is a law, a chok, a decree from our King and so we accept it.”

Now I’ll be honest, my evil inclination is very talented and very clever, but he has never woken me up in middle of the night, and said, “Psst!”

What is it?

“Don’t go to shacharis tomorrow morning.”

Why not?

“Parah Aduma”

That’s never happened. 

There are many things I don’t understand that do keep me up at night, such as:

Why my children who never want to hear a helmet, or a seatbelt, who jump off porches and wrestle viciously with one another, are afraid to walk outside because of cicadas.

Or, why Seven Mile Market switched from their blue bags to white bags? That makes no sense.

Those blue bags are the punchline of every Baltimore joke I have ever heard. It’s iconic. It’s like switching the colors of the American flag…

Or, I don’t understand how Naftali Bennet’s kippah stays on his head. And yes, I heard about the chewing gum, I don’t buy it.

There are many things in life that make no sense, Parah Adumah just doesn’t make the cut. And yet, our Sages see the Parah Adumah as the quintessential irrational law.

Why is that? What is it about this law that is so hard to understand? That could be used as an attack on our faith more than any other Mitzvah? There are plenty that are hard to understand – why this?

Let’s take a step back and describe the ceremony of Parah Adumah that we’re discussing. In the times of the Bais HaMikdash, when a Jew came into contact with the dead, they would assume a status known as tamei, or impure. While impure, there were certain foods they could not eat, certain places they could not go, and certain contact that need to be avoided. To remedy the situation, a Red Heifer is burned, its ashes are mixed with water from a spring – known as a mayim chaim – and the mixture is sprinkled on the individual who is tamei. At that point, two things happen – the individual who was tamei becomes pure and the individual who was previously pure who handles this mixture of ash and water, that person becomes tamei.

The Rambam in Mishna Torah shares his opinion that this entire process, from beginning to end, is beyond our comprehension. The notion of impurity, the process of purification, and of course the strange finale where the purifier becomes impure and the impure becomes pure – none of it can be understood. But Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch develops an elegant and profound idea which I want to share with you this morning:

Rav Hirsch explains that Tumah is not simply a mystical state, it reflects a psychological reality. When we come into contact with death, not just physically, but when we come face to face with tragedy, when we become cognizant of our mortality and the fleeting nature of existence, when we acknowledge our pettiness and how small-minded us humans can be, our natural reaction is to recoil, to shut down. What’s the point of trying? What are we really accomplishing anyway? What are we doing here?

The laws of Tumah create a space for such feelings and emotions. We mourn. We cry. We stop and we sit with those dark thoughts.

But then, after a period of time, we’re invited to change those thoughts – we are told that we can return to society, we can reintegrate, we can move beyond the debilitating feelings of loss and small-mindedness. And the way we do so is profound.

Many people mistakenly respond to sadness by fighting it, by pushing it away and ignoring it, by candy-coating the pain of life with sugar.

“I’m having a bad day” – “It could be worse.” 

“I lost my grandmother.” – “At least she lived for so long.”

Or, my favorite, “Just be positive!”

Ignoring or belittling pain doesn’t take it away, it makes it worse. The Torah instructs us that the way to counter the psychological state of tumah is by taking mayim chaim, water from a bubbling spring, which represents life and all that’s good and positive, and we mix it with eifer, with ashes from the corpse of the heifer, representing death and sin. We heal by feeling the pain and the darkness and also making room for everything else that’s beautiful and uplifting as well; ashes of death and water of life – the full gamut of human experience and existence. Destruction, loss, sin are a part of who we are, but so is creating, so is new life, so is purity! It’s the tension between these two that makes life so beautiful. The most gorgeous time of day is sunrise and sunset, when the darkness clashes with the light. It’s when we allow those contradictory feelings to rub against one another that we are at the peak of our creativity and the heights of our spiritual experience.

This idea stands at the core of monotheism, the co-existence of good and evil within one being, and this is what the nations do not understand and what our evil inclination deceives us with. They persuade us to believe that light clashes with darkness, that we are either close to G-d or distant from Him. That we are either good or bad. That we are either happy or sad. What they don’t realize is that G-d “forms light and creates darkness” that “even as I walk through the shadow of death, I fear no evil, because G-d is with me,” that even when I hide from G-d, He’s right there, holding me up, giving me life. It’s the mixture of light and darkness, that’s where the beauty is found.  

***

Earlier this week, I was flipping through the latest copy of the WhereWhatWhen, and I saw a letter to the editor that caught my eye. The anonymous writer took the publication to task for publishing the many stories involving someone struggling with mental health, the news items that described tragedy, and the columns that speak of people in different forms of distress.

My gut reaction, “This is ridiculous! Life’s tough. Deal with it. More toxic positivity, that’s all we need.”

None of you wrote it, right?

But on further reflection, there’s some validity to what the author wrote. You see, I didn’t share with you the entire piece from Rav Hirsch. He continues this beautiful piece with something that took me, and is still taking me, time to digest. It’s an idea which at first glance contradicts what he just said, but I don’t think it does, and it goes like this:

Rav Hirsch addresses the most mysterious feature of the ceremony. Why is it that the man or woman who was impure becomes pure and can now reenter society, but the individual who officiates the ceremony, he becomes impure? How are we to understand that?  

He Hirsch explains that yes, the way to move away from darkness is by embracing it. But the individual who is not thinking about his or her mortality and the fleetingness of life, the individual who is not awake to the feebleness of our minds and the self-deceptions that we allow ourselves to be guided by, that person must not be exposed to the ashes of death. Because when they are, they become tamei, they cannot escape its impact.

Rav Hirsch is arguing that death and darkness should not be a part of our everyday thinking; that darkness is acknowledged but never invited.

*** 

Maybe he’s right. Maybe as a society, we have gone too far in our rejection of toxic positivity and become a little bit too negative, too cynical, and a little bit too dark. Listen to the music, the literature, the way people talk – I love it, but it’s depressing. Maybe as a people, we should start to take our birthdays as seriously as we take our Yahrtzeits – a little more life, a little less death. Maybe we should utilize our laser sharp cynicism that allows us to see right through the words and deeds of others and ourselves and use that penetrating scrutiny to find the good which is right there as well. The individual who is not tamei must not touch the ashes of death.

I struggle with this idea because being happy all the time, being positive, strikes me as superficial. But it’s not.

The Baal Shem Tov was once asked why his followers always seem so happy. “Are they deaf to the pain in the world? Are they blind to all the suffering around them?”

The Baal Shem Tov responded, that no, they weren’t deaf or blind at all. On the contrary, they had developed such an exquisite sense for the beauty of the world that they could find it where others don’t see it at all. They see the positive that exists around them in a far more sophisticated fashion than everyone else.

So yes, when we find ourselves in a pandemic, we acknowledge the angst and pain. When we heaven forbid, lose a loved one, we acknowledge the gaping hole. When we find ourselves in a cloud of fog or darkness, we embrace it and see its beauty. And that’s a hard lesson that our Yetzer Hara prevents us from understanding.

But perhaps even harder, perhaps something that at least for some of us, takes even more work, is the ability to avoid tumah, to seek out the good, to buck the trend of cynicism, to think more positively, to speak more positively, to surround ourselves by positivity, and to develop the sophistication needed to see the good that surrounds us at all times.

 

Defying God Parshas Shelach

This may possibly be the most radical idea you will hear from an Orthodox rabbi’s pulpit:

In the Torah portion we read today the Jewish People send spies to the land of Israel. They return with slanderous reports which the Jewish People believe. As a punishment G-d says, this generation will not enter the land of Israel. Most of us know this story quite well. But what happens next is fascinating:

The Torah tells us that the next morning, the Jewish People wake up and they feel terrible. They messed up royally! They made a terrible mistake! How could they believe in the spies and not believe in G-d? What were they thinking? How could they reject everything Moshe had taught them after experiencing the miracles of the Exodus?!

When this horrible thought sinks in, a large group of Jews gather together and declare: “Hinenu v’alinu el hamakom asher amar Hashem – ki chatanu./ We are ready, and we will go up to the place that G-d spoke of because we have sinned!” And they start travelling to Israel.

Moshe tries to stop them. He says, “Don’t go! G-d is not with you! G-d does not want you to go!”

And then he adds, “Hi lo tizt’lach, this won’t succeed!”

Our commentators, ever sensitive to the nuances of the Biblical text, infer the following mind-blowing lesson: Why does Moshe say, “this” won’t succeed? “This” implies that something quite similar will succeed. What can that possibly mean? Is there ever a time when we can defy G-d, go against His command, do something when He is not, so to speak, with us, and be successful?! Is that what Moshe means?!

Says the Zohar, that is exactly what he means. The Zohar suggests that there will be a time, a time much, much, later in Jewish history, a very dark time, after centuries of exile, when G-d will say no, and the Jewish People will say, yes! And the Jewish People will be successful.

Sounds heretical, no? Moses is telling the Jewish People that in the future you can defy G-d. G-d will say no, and you will say, yes, and in that situation, you will be successful?!

As heretical as it may sound, it is also exactly what happened.  

80 years ago, G-d communicated to us through His hand in history, that He was not with us, that He was, to use the Biblical term, hiding His face, turning away from His people. The consequence of that turning away led to concentration camps, gas chambers, and the decimation of half of world Jewry. G-d made it abundantly clear, for reasons we do not dare explain or understand, that He was not among us.

And while this was happening in Europe, there were Jews who were fantasizing – they had a crazy dream of a Jewish State, of Jews emigrating to their historic homeland en masse. And again, G-d said, no. He said no by allowing local Arabs to terrorize the Jewish who were trying to build a homeland. He said, no, through the British and their infamous white paper, severely limiting emigration to Israel. And shortly thereafter, G-d said, no, through the mighty and powerful neighboring Arab countries who swore to destroy the Jews if they dared declare statehood.

Everything was stacked against us, every Divine sign you could ask for pointed us to throw in the towel, to give up on our heritage, to bury our dreams. G-d said, no!

And the Jewish People said, yes. 

V’hi lo sitz’lach, and this time, said Moshe, you will not be successful. But in the future, you will.

***

This idea helps explain a bizarre sounding passage in the Talmud. The Gemara writes, Kol ma’she’omer l’cha ba’al habyis, aseh. Chutz mitzei. Whatever your host tells you to do, you should do. Except for when he tells you to leave.

Let’s say my host tells me to eat asparagus, I should eat it?! Really? I don’t like asparagus! In all seriousness, what does the Talmud mean to say?!

And then the second part of the statement, “Listen to everything except for when he tells you to leave.” Really?! Did they have no etiquette in ancient Babylon where they wrote the Talmud? When your host tells you to leave, you better leave! What in the world is going on here?

Rav Tzadok HaKohein explains, in line with the Zohar we just learned, that the Talmud is not talking about a regular host. It’s talking about a capital-H, host. G-d Almighty. G-d, after all, is the real ba’al habayit, Host of all hosts. And whatever He tells us to do we need to do – He is in charge.

But when G-d, our host, says, “Get out of my land,” when He says, “Go away from me,” then we don’t have to listen. We could stay. We should stay.

You know what this means practically?

There are times when G-d makes it very difficult for us to live in His home, the land of Israel, but we are told to ignore all the signs that tell us to leave. Instead, we are encouraged to stay.

Why He does this to us, we don’t know. Maybe it’s a test, maybe it’s a punishment, who knows? Hanistarot laShem Elokeinu, these are things beyond our comprehension. But what we do know, what the Talmud is teaching us is that we can ignore it and stay put.  

And this is true, by the way, not only for G-d kicking us out of His physical home, but also when G-d seems to push us away from Him.

We have many people in this room today, who were born in a country where it was almost impossible to maintain any connection to their faith. A country in which G-d allowed people, diabolical people, to indoctrinate generation after generation with the notion that religion is evil, irrational, an “opiate.” G-d blocked all the doors, literally – closing the doors of the synagogues and Jewish schools, but even more impactfully, by blocking Jews of the former USSR from connecting to Hashem and to His Torah.

G-d said, no. G-d said, tzei, go away.

And once again, the Jewish People said, yes. We are not going anywhere. G-d, you can make it as difficult as you’d like; we’re staying put.

Elan, when I was your age, I remember being blown away by stories of Resfuseniks like Natan Sharansky, Jews in the former Soviet Union, who made their aspirations to make Aliyah to Israel clear to all. I was inspired by stories of the clandestine learning of Torah that was taking place. I was humbled by the men and women, the teenagers (!) who knew nothing and were struggling their way through the Alef Beis. Jews who said, no. They said no to the Communists, and ultimately, they said, no, to G-d. We’re not leaving our heritage.

But you, Elan, you do not need stories and you do not need books. You wake up every morning and you see a mother and father who defied the odds to bring you to a point where you can stand here and comfortably read the entire Parsha, where you could share a D’var Torah that you wrote, where you can talk freely and easily about your commitment to G-d and Judaism.

Judaism is more than Mitzvot. It is a shared heritage that taught us values that we treasure. You, Elan, you are a living testimony to the uniquely powerful trait and value that we as Jews inherited, of being defiant. Of never giving up. Of fighting everything that stands in the way of our spiritual dreams – even G-d Himself.

(I told you it was a radical idea.)

But this is not just history. This need for spiritual defiance, of staying put even when the Master of the House seems to be pushing us away, that battle is not over.

I’ve had so many conversations these past few months with people, who after not being in shul for over a year, they don’t feel so inclined to come back. I’ve heard from so many people who say they feel jaded, disillusioned, disheartened, distant from G-d and from our Torah. People who feel like all the signs are pointing them away, almost as if G-d is nudging them away from Him.  

Elan, there will be times in your life where you may feel that way. We all do at times. But I hope and I pray that you, and all of us, are reminded of what Moshe taught in your Bar Mitzvah parsha, that there will be a time in the future, a time that we are clearly living through, where G-d will seem to be pushing us away. And Moshe tells us, don’t give in. Don’t give up. Keep pushing. Keep fighting. Even if the Master of the House says, leave, you can ignore Him!

If you keep fighting, eventually you will have a State of Israel. If you keep protesting, eventually those walls will come down. If you keep trying to come closer to Me, says G-d, eventually, you will.