Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Chukat 05

This week’s Torah portion is Chukat, and is a major transition portion in the Torah. Last week we read about the revolt of Korach and how he and his followers were destroyed and the rest of the Hebrews were condemned to die in the desert, never reaching the Promised Land, with the exceptions of Moses and Aaron. This week’s portion takes place 38 years later after the “Exodus” generation had died off and with the “Israel” generation nearing the second attempt to enter the Promised Land. What happened in between the Torah doesn’t tell us, and some Rabbis teach that this is because, once condemned, the “Exodus Generation” was beneath notice.

The theme of Parshah Chukat is death, so it is perhaps very appropriate for this terrible week in 2005. It includes the death of Miriam and Aaron, the condemnation of Moses to die without entering the Promised Land, the conquest of Canaanites and Amalekites, and most enigmatically, the Chukkat (statute) of the red heifer. The 613 mitzvot of the Torah divide into two kinds – chukim, or statutes, and mishpatim or ordinances. The mishpatim are generally clear and understandable – this or that is unclean and unfit to eat, God created the world in 6 days and rested on the 7th, therefore honor Shabbat, etc. The chukim are less clear and understandable and often must be taken on faith. The chukat of the red heifer is the least understandable of the chukim. King Solomon declared he would never understand it, and therefore called into question his understanding of the other 612 mitzvot.

The chukat of the red heifer starts from the regulation that anyone who comes into contact with a dead human body, or even is under the same roof as a dead body, is unclean for seven days and must be purified. The means of purification is to take a heifer, a young cow, that is pure red in color – even two black or white hairs are enough to disqualify an animal – kill it, and burn it along with cedar wood, hyssop wood, and a particular kind of scarlet wool. Then mix the ashes with water from a running stream, and use the mixture to purify the impure individual. None of this is explained – not the significance of red, the use of a heifer (for example vs. a full-grown cow or a calf), nor the importance of the cedar, hyssop, and scarlet. All this is left to speculation. In addition there is the oddity that anyone who is involved in preparing the purification becomes himself impure until the next day – the impure becomes pure and the pure becomes impure by the same ritual.

The Rabbis, naturally, have speculated at length about all of this, starting from the premise that it is a command to be obeyed, not understood. Nevertheless, the red of the heifer and the scarlet has been taken to symbolize sin, the heifer as expiation for the golden calf, etc., etc. With the destruction of the temple, the ritual of the red heifer fell into disuse and lives today mainly as a biblical mystery, although in Israel the discovery of a pure red heifer is treated as a newsworthy event.

When the parshah resumes its tale of the Hebrews in the desert, it begins with Miriam’s death. In the 40 years in the desert, the well that was created when Moses struck a rock in the desert followed the wanderers through the desert, and this benefit was ascribed to Miriam’s goodness. When she dies, the well dries up and the people, who seem to be slow learners when it comes to the issue of complaining and revolting, once again rise up against Moses and Aaron. This drives Moses to the breaking point, and instead of following God’s instructions to talk to a rock, he again hits the rock and while water is forthcoming, this loss of his composure costs Moses his entry into the Promised Land and ensures that he will die within a couple of years as the exile is almost over. Then Aaron dies, passing the priesthood to his son Eliazar, and the only one left who was in Egypt is Moses. Finally, with more complaining and more dying, the three million Hebrews move on toward the Promised Land, making and defeating enemies along the way.

Having led services a lot for the past couple of years, I am struck by the Torah as a bottomless well of opportunities for learning. We read the same parshot at about the same time every year; the words don’t change, the stories are the same. What changes is the context in which we read them – a new reader, a different person studying and writing a d’var Torah, and most importantly a different world in which we are living. There is an analogy here to what the Rabbis have taught is the origin of death. There is a view that death is not an inevitable consequence of being alive, but arose when Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge – death was then part of their and their descendants’ punishment for disobeying God’s order. At that point, there was set up a conflict between the soul, which is eternal and open to God’s light, and the body, which is finite, material, and opaque to God’s light. The soul now feels confined by the body and longs to escape and return to direct connection with the Eternal, and eventually death frees it. In the same way, the Torah is eternal and is both a source of and connection to God’s light, and the day to day world is finite, material, and an impediment to our connection with God. As we study the unchanging words of the Torah from year to year, we attempt to bring God’s light into our lives.

That seems particularly hard to do today. When innocent people leave for work in the morning and board a train or a bus or go to their office or just walk down the street and die that day for no reason other than some other people’s need to make a dubious political point, it is hard to find God’s light through the smoke. In the Torah, God shows remarkable patience with those who go against His word, but only up to a point, and at that point God is not averse to dealing out death on a massive scale. Nine of the 10 plagues on Egypt were mostly annoying until Pharaoh proved so intractable that the first-born had to die, and when that was insufficient and the Egyptians pursued the escapees, thousands died in the Red Sea. Similarly thousands were swallowed up in the revolt around the Golden Calf, and again in Korach’s rebellion, and in this week’s parshah, when the people, after all this, complain about being bored with manna, God sends fiery serpents that kill off large numbers of them.

So God is not averse to using death, even death on a large scale, to make a point, but there is always a point, and death is visited in such a way that the point is clear. Those who persistently fight against God’s commands die, those who follow God live, and those who are unsure now have a clear basis on which to make up their mind. Six million died in the Holocaust, but those who perpetrated that great crime were destroyed at every level – physically, ideologically, politically, and nationally. Somehow, despite all the death, destruction, and exile visited on us, the Jews have survived physically, ideologically, politically and nationally. No other people in the history of the world have survived exile, dispersion, and assimilation in this way, and we have seen most of those who would destroy us die while “am Yisrael chai,” the people Israel live.

As a psychologist I have spent a lot of time trying to understand terrorism and the mind of the terrorists. Understand, I am not speaking here of the poor fools who get on a bus and blow themselves and everyone around them up. For me those are not terrorists but the tools of the terrorists. The true terrorists never get into the line of fire. Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri sit in relative comfort somewhere and pull the strings that send true believers to their deaths, but are rarely in any danger themselves. They cloak themselves in distorted religious dogma, but they are no different from Hitler or Mengele or Eichmann, who cloaked themselves in perverted political/racial dogma.

My understanding of these individuals is very limited. In her post-war study of the Nazis, and particularly of Eichmann, Hannah Arendt was most surprised by what she called the “banality of evil.” She went to Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem expecting to see great, dramatic evil, and saw instead a man who looked and acted like a clerk, and whose defense was “I was only following orders,” and she was struck by how ordinary he was – not tragic or dramatic, but banal – lacking originality, freshness, or novelty. The same could be said of Bin Laden and his cohorts, but with one addition – they seem to have no capacity for self-doubt and an almost infinite ability to rationalize their own contradictions. Al-Zawahiri is a physician – he took the Hippocratic Oath and, presumably, at some time dedicated himself to healing and saving lives. Bin Laden sees himself as a devout Muslim, but rejects the teaching of any Imam who disagrees with his policy of terrorism, yet none of this seems to slow them down.

If the Torah teaches us anything, it teaches us that the values it describes as good ultimately triumph. It may take 400 years of slavery in Egypt or 40 years of wandering in the desert, but in the end those who would destroy life are defeated. Ancient Jewish teaching prophesied that the Jews would be expelled from our homeland, return, be expelled again, and return again, and it has happened just that way.

There are those today of every religious faith, including Judaism, who distort the message of the Torah to their own ends, and who try to turn that message from one of life, love, and peace to one of death, hate, and war. In the peace movement of the 70’s we had a saying that fighting for peace is like [having sex] for chastity. In the Vietnam war our leaders were heard to say that they had to destroy a village in order to save it. Today extremist Jews say they need to destroy conservative and liberal Judaism for Torah to survive, fundamentalist Christians say that the world has to end for the souls of the righteous to survive, and Islamic terrorists seem to be out to destroy the 95% of more of the world that does not agree with them in order to impose their perverted view of Islam on those who are left. None of these will succeed.

The clear message of the Torah and of History is that God, whatever you conceive God to be, has designed the world such that the values of life, love, and yes even peace always triumph in the long run. The Pharaohs, the Torquemadas, the Ku Klux Klans, the Hitlers, the Pol Pots, and the Bin Ladens rise up one after the other and they may have their day, but in the long run their message and their methods are seen for the evil that they are.

Our hearts go out to the people of London this week, and to the people of Israel every week as they live with on a continuing basis what New York, London, Madrid, and others have experienced and hopefully will experience only once. And to the terrorists we say “you can not prevail” in the face of a God who, whatever his wrath may bring, is at the source the author of life, love, and peace. Ose shalome b’mromov, hu ya’aseh shalom alenu, v’al kol ha-olam. May God who makes peace in the heavens grant peace to us and to all the world. Amen

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