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.”
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.