Portion of Chukat and the Case of the Red Heifer
This is a bizarre Torah reading from our perspective. We start with a dead body- habeus corpus- like a murder mystery.”Adam ki yamut ba-ohel” –“This is the Torah: A man dies in his tent- everything and everyone who comes in contact with the body is impure. What do we do.? We take a pure red heifer that never pulled a plow, slaughter it, burn the ashes, mix the ashes, pour them on the one who is impure, then the one who did the purifying becomes impure also becomes impure.
It is an example of one of a few mitzvoth that are defined as “ chukim”—Statutes, and opposed to most of Jewish law, which is” mishpatim”, judgements. Most of Judaism is premised upon logical behavior—either social justice dictates it, or historic events, to the point that some medieval philosophers suggested that we would have come to these on our own, without need for the Torah.
So what of these” Hukim”, very arbitrary rules,similar to Shatnez- the prohibition of not mixing wool and linen.
Said one of our great sages, Rabbi Jochanan ben Zakkai—God didn’t care particularly, if the ritual was offered one way or another- He instituted these rules as a discipline for us. They are behaviors to train us to focus on who we are, what is expected of us, how do we serve God.
There is another aspect, though. As much as we Jews like to see ourselves as rational, and our religion as a religion of reason, ours is also a religion of mystery, Commandments that have no logical basis are intended to make us focus on that part of existence that is mystery.
Truth is, as logical as we are, we seek mystery. The trouble is, that unlike our ancestors who worked very hard to achieve that sense of mystery, we want it now.
Back when in the days when everyone had too much hair, I met the noted poet, Alan Ginsburg, who spoke of the salvation and paradise to be found in LSD. He was taken to task by Michael Wyschograd, a noted philosopher of Judaism
What was our problem then, and still is our problem today, Wyschograd pointed out: We want everything instant--instant coffee, instant TV dinners, and of course, we want instant mysticism, instant nirvana, instant heaven.
Salvation could never come from a drop of acid on a sugar cube.
We are still looking for the gateway to paradise. We still want to grasp hold of the mysterious.
I once received a bizarre phone call from a Mr Princeton.
" I belong to the Church of Seth. We worship Satan. "
Now, I am tolerant, truly,believe me. I believe in the words of Shammai, Hevey mekabel et kol adam be sever panim-- greet every human being with respect--even if he is a great nudnik.
" I respect the Jewish people and their language as the most ancient on earth. I want to know where I can learn Kabbalah--No one wants to teach me."
I explain about different schools in LA.
"I want to learn Black Magic Kabbalah."
" There is no black magic in Kabbalah--Judaism never believed in appeals to dark and evil powers--the only power that can be is from God."
" But what about doing things with Kabbalah like that, magic, powers".
"You have to have a personal master teach you."
"How can I find one?"
"You don't-They are not allowed to teach anyone--unless they have known their student personally for many years."
"How do the students find them?"
" They don't. The great masters know who they want to teach."End of call.
Well, to each his own.
Recently, the key to heaven, for many Jews, has been Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism. What was labeled, in an earlier generation as "Nonsense" today has gained respectability.
But , here too, there is real mysticism and ersatz, the phony, cheap imitation.
Ersatz mysticism is any attempt at utilizing the ideas of kabbalah for personal gain, for any magical purpose, Ersatz mysticism is pretending it is designed as some magic guidepost to every day problems in life. There are lots of would be Kabbalists who claim to solve every problem in life. More power to them if they really can!
The great Hasidic master, Rebbe Menahem Mendl of Kotz decried those who offered superficial answers to the problems of life. He warned against making a mitzvah, the doing of an ideal, into a matzevah, an idol. The observance, the ritual, the literal letter of the text can be confused for end in itself . This is, the ancient mystics warned was a cardinal sin, it was to uproot the very Garden of Eden itself.
Then, there is real mysticism, which can be without Kabbalah as well. It seeks to bring the worshipper into a higher state of inner being, it seeks to lead the worshipper to a sense of the pervasiveness of God all around. When the words of the Kabbalah are taken as symbols and images to help us guide our conception of God, then it is real, then it can indeed be a pathway to Heaven . This is, indeed, at the heart of the teachings of Kabbalah and Hasidut.
A true Jewish mysticism never takes us out of this world--it always put us right in the midst of this world. True spirituality in Judaism never runs away from life. Instead, it embraces life whole-heartedly, because Judaism embraces life whole-heartedly.
Our sages always spoke of kedushah--sanctity. Every moment of life, every object, every action, could be one filled with kedushah, with sanctity.
This is how the Rebbe of Medziboz taught it:
"The Lord placed sparks of holiness in everything in nature, whether live or dead matter. It is his will that man bring forth these holy sparks by his holy deeds and elevate them to their source. By reciting grace over food, he raises sparks of holiness upwards. By using bitter and inedible substances as medicine for the ill, he unlocks the sacred in them."
Jewish spirituality embraces the act of eating and drinking, up to the point of indulgence, because these actions bring redemption to the very elements themselves.
Jewish spirituality embraces human love, physical love. For the seeker of Jewish spirituality, there is no shame in the human body itself, and the act of love in marriage is an act of divine redemption.
Our Jewish idea of the Holy -kadosh-- is not some weird mysterious halo in heaven. Rather holiness is to be found and made, here on earth, when we walk by the way, when we lie down and when we rise up. It is in the day to day, the nitty gritty, that we find our uplift. That has always been goal of our mitzvot, of our observances.
An observance, as odd and strange to us, as the ritual of the red heifer, then, serves to remind us. There are things in life that we do not understand, cannot understand. A physicist can tell us the events of the Big Bang; he cannot posit the question “Why”.
That answer is intuited and experienced in our lives if we allow it to happen. That is the purpose of Jewish observance.
In our Jewish lives, in our commitment and devotion to our heritage, may we find the sense of the ultimate, the infinite, the sacred, that which is the presence of God. Amen.