The Pure Makes Impure Shabbat Parah
There are two types of Jews-- if only two.
It was exposed three centuries ago, in southern Poland and Ukraine, areas of poverty, when the Baal Shem Tov began to preach a new approach to Judaism, one that spoke from the heart. No sooner than he had begun to preach, and it raised the hackles of the classic leaders of the time, the Talmudic and highly logical, Rabbis of the northern lands of Lithuania, lands of comparable wealth. There arose, in time, the two camps, Chasidim, the Pious Ones, and Misnagdim, the opponents It is not in truth a new development, as we have had, in previous generations, the mystical movements contrasted with the rationalists like Rambam, or, in thse times, very rational , anti-supernatural Reconstructionism as contrasted by New Age Judaism. A Judaism of the heart and a Judaism of the mind; two kinds of Jews and two kinds of Judaisms.
We have a sense of this paradox in our special reading for today, Shabbat Parah. We add this reading because the Red Heifer was essential for the right of purification that would allow Jews to participate in the actual Pesah as it was carried out in the Temple grounds of Jerusalem.
Most of the laws of the Torah can be explained based purely on reason; the great Sages believed that they could be derived from human experience but there were a few, very few, for which no logical explanation could be given. The Red Heifer was a prime example. Of this, the Rabbis said, even King Solomon could not find a reason despite all his wisdom.
A pagan was once taken aback at this idea that a ceremony would “make the pure impure and the impure pure”. Thus, it was said, a non-Jew once asked Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai about this ceremony. Rabban Johanan took a page from the typical practice of Roman psychiatry of the day. “ When someone is possessed by demons what do you do? “ We take some weeds , burn them, grind the ashes, mix with water, sprinkle it on the possessed fellow, and the demon flees.” To this the Rabbi answered,” Well, with us, it’s just the same thing.” The pagan was satisfied with this answer and walked away, but the Rabbi’s student were very much upset.” What answer do you give us?” He said to them, 'By your life!”[ In other words, he is stunned that they haven’t figured this out on their own] ”A corpse does not defile nor does water make pure , but it is the decree of the Holy One Blessed Be He who declared, I have issued an ordinance and enacted a decree, and you are not permitted to question My decree'" (Tanh., Ḥukkat, 8).
In other words, there are certain mitzvoth that have no rational or logical purpose except to make us face G-d and respond. It is a mix of an answer between the purely logical aspect of Judaism and the mystery behind existence. The Red Heifer forces us to face things that don’t fit neatly in our mind, a round peg in a square hole. It takes us to the core of religious understanding, not to the irrational or crazy, but to those things beyond the rational.
We are a very much quantifying and categorizing culture. We are even more business-oriented, quantity-oriented, means-oriented. Everything must be quantified, calculated, measured, and, most important, as we used to say,” It must compute” or in today’s word, we look at performance metrics . It must be able to fit into the yes-no, or the 0-1 measure of bits and bytes. God does not program well on our platforms, whether Windows or Apple based.
But, we know very well that in life, not everything fits the standard equations. The ballerina, Anna Pavlolva, was asked to give the meaning of an exquisite performance she had just done." If I could say it, do you think I should have danced it?"
We could plot every step and every movement on a computer screen, even in three-D live animation--yet we still could not understand what she meant as she danced--only Anna Pavlova herself could understand it.
What about other aspects of human life. Love, for example. In Judaism love and religion are always compared to each other as perfect parallels. What can one say about love? Can anyone speak clearly and definitively about love? Can you measure it, quantify it, and compute it on a scale? Yet all of us, in some way or other have been in love. We have no trouble feeling and comprehending something that is ineffable, undefinable. Love does not compute, but we love, anyway.
Just the same with religious belief-in this day of high technology and advanced sciences, we are beginning to realize that while we cannot define and quantify our beliefs, they are there. While we cannot define God, he-she-or that is there, but ineffable.
For all of our business-like approach to much of life's issues, we do have a thirst for something spiritual, something that extends beyond us, something past our 9-5 routines.
We Jews. as a whole, tend to be rationalist, we tend to be secular, and, we, more than any other segment of America, tend not to be affiliated with a formal religious organization.
Nevertheless, I had a conversation some time ago with one of our congregants, who had attended some popular programs on Jewish mysticism. She was amazed to discover how many Jews had been involved in one mystic or spiritual movement or another.
A noted guru for on oriental mystic group once noted indeed, that Jews must be very spiritual people, because all the seekers for truth that turned to him were Jews. This is, I suppose, in keeping with Jewish temperament, to presume that the grass is always greener in somebody else's yard, politics, religion, or what have you.
We also have, in these past years, an unusual phenomenon, of some Jews so thirsty for religion that they make a gigantic leap from a life of no values and licentiousness to the utmost extreme branches of ultra-Orthodoxy, and reject everything, everything for which modern Jewry, even the modern Orthodox Jew stands for.
There is a classic case, of Uri Zohar, one of Israel's most celebrated of Bohemian actors and movie stars, who committed no mitzvah and left no averah unturned. He became so devout, that he refused to make any television or movie appearances, with only one exception-- to make political commercials for an ultra- Orthodox party.
For many, perhaps that is the route. It is not, however, the route to religion for me, and I suspect, for none of us here.
However, one need not go the route of the mystics, it is not necessary to spend forty days and forty nights fasting and seated in a lotus posture to find religion. Nor must it be the route of immersion in ultra-Orthodoxy, be it Lithuanian, be it Hasidic, be it Habad.
We do, however, need to make a beginning, when we realize, for the first time that we are thirsting for something that is greater than our own selves.
What stands out, at this time, if not the sense of awe and wonderment of the Divine in the universe. It is in this that we make our first step.
The poets and prophets of our Bible wrote of their awe and wonderment at the workings of the universe--the marvels of this world and its creatures--this gave them their great religious inspiration. It was the perfection that they saw in nature that egged our prophets on to demand justice of their fellow humans. The creator of a perfect world can call us to task for our leading of very imperfect lives.
Think of this, psalm, 104-Borchi nafshi et adonay''Bless the Lord ,o my soul"-the psalmist goes on to describe God at work and even at play in the universe" who stretches out the heaven like a curtain/ who layers the beams of the upper chambers in the waters/ who makes the clouds thy messenger/who walks on the wings of the wind/... how manifold are your works, O lord, in wisdom, you have fashioned them all."
A prophet such as Amos , could base his challenge to justice: Seek the Lord and live--ye who turn justice into wormwood and cast righteousness to the ground-- Him that make the constellations the Pliades and Orion, who turns darkness into morning and darkened day into night, who summoned the waters of the sea and poured them over the earth, who makes Taurus rise after Capella, and Taurus set hard on the rising of the Vintager."
Job finds his consolation for his suffering in the presence of a God of creation: Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare if you have understanding/ Who determined the measures thereof, if you know?/ or who stretched the line upon it? Who shut up the sea.. hast thou commanded the morning since thy days began? Hast thou entered into the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Our world view has come a long way, it true. No longer doors to the sea, or God walking on the wings of the wind. We have replaced it with energy of fission and fusion, the DNA molecule, and we have filled the universe, in our understanding with galaxies, quasars, and black holes. We have discovered many more mysteries of the world than the Psalmist or Job could ever have dreamed of--more mystery, more wonder, more amazement, and no answers in any textbook of physics, biology, or astronomy as to why, what reason, what meaning. Only amazement.
I want to jump from the Red Heifer of Moses time to Albert Einstein, who gave us more insight into the nature of our physical existence than any thinker before him. He was not an observant Jew, certainly not a religious Jew in any conventional sense, yet he wrote:
"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the God-faith. It is the source of all art and science. He to whom this emotion is no stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed. .. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms-- this knowledge , this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness.
It is enough for me to contemplate the mystery of conscious life perpetuating itself through all eternity, ,,, and humbly try to comprehend an infinitesimal part of the intelligence manifested in nature."