The sidra Chukkat is named after the instructions about the red heifer – instructions that even the learned commentators on Hebrew bible found mysterious and puzzling beyond understanding. A person made ‘tum’ah’ – unclean through contact with a corpse, was to be sprinkled with special water made with the ashes of a sacrificed perfectly red cow with absolutely no blemish upon it. The ritual is given in great detail over five verses, and is described as Chukkat Olam – a law for all time.
In the midrash Tanhuma, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai is described as telling the outer world that this ritual is one of exorcism, of ridding oneself of something awful – but tellingly to his own disciples he declares “the corpse does not defile, nor does the water cleanse. The truth is that the ritual of the red heifer is simply a decree of the Sovereign above all Sovereigns, and we are not permitted to transgress it…”
So our portion is named for a ritual that has no rational meaning, and that we cannot in truth really understand – something that we just do because God tells us to do it. It is a difficult concept to embrace in the twenty first century for modern progressive Jews.
But maybe we might understand it more if we don’t focus on the nature of this law as being an illogical diktat from on high, but we look instead at the nature of tum’ah that the ritual is designed to remove.
In the 19th Century, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch commented on the relationship between tum’ah – described as ritual impurity, and timtum – confusion. He suggested that the connection between them was that of the intensity of physical experience, that what renders a person ‘tam’ei’(ritually impure) is the state of being emotionally overwhelmed and unable to focus on the present context. This idea builds on the Talmudic comment that the nature of tum’ah is one ‘she’metamem et halev’ – one that blocks or paralyses the heart. Essentially to be ritually impure means to lack any mindfulness of self or context, to not be able to locate oneself fully in the world.
Ritual impurity – tum’ah – then can be seen as a function of the clarity of our consciousness, or lack of it. It is something that has to be removed, unblocked, or given a new frame and lens through which to understand what is happening and so change our response to it.
Suddenly this apparently irrational ritual of the red heifer has meaning – we have to do something to change our world view, do something to clarify our perceptions and to move on.
It is no accident I think that the sidra also contains the reporting of the deaths of first Miriam and then Aaron. When Aaron dies the community mourns and sheds tears for him for thirty days, but in the case of Miriam’s death the mourning is not reported – instead we are told that the source of the water dried up and the Israelites became thirsty and frightened.
A frequently quoted Midrash on this text tells us that Miriam had been the source of water for the Israelites, so that when she died the water too went away, but Rabbi Moshe Alsheich’s comment is I think more interesting – “Because they did not shed tears over the loss of Miriam the source of their water dried up”.
Because the children of Israel did not know what to do at the sudden loss of the woman who was the source of water, the source of life, their response was one of confusion – timtum – and of anger. We know about the anger because its most potent expression was that of Moses in response to the anger of the people. Against God’s instruction simply to speak to the rock he made an emotional speech accusing the people of rebellion and then he struck the rock not once but twice in front of the community, and the water poured out of it. Moses’ anger almost burns the page as we read it. Bereaved, lost, his world turned upside down, and with a community who are simply unable to cope with what has happened, his response is to give way to his fury – a completely human reaction but unfortunately not one that was helpful to anyone. Both he and the community are trapped in a state of tum’ah – blind confusion where no possibilities of renewal can be perceived, where everything is terrible and lost and lonely, and the future a bleak and frightening place.
The anger is the first response of the timtum, but it is ultimately a very damaging one – for this anger Moses and Aaron will not enter the Promised Land. The healing response comes after the death of Aaron when we are told “All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron for thirty days”. These tears are curative, part of the necessary process of mourning. And restorative life giving water comes in response to the waters shed in the tears.
The tears bring relief from tum’ah, from the intense confusion and pain and depression caused by the loss of Miriam and Aaron. But tears alone do not bring full cleansing – the waters of the ritual are mixed with the ashes of the red heifer, the emblematically perfect animal sacrificed for this ritual.
What can we use instead of the ashes to help ourselves out of the state of tum’ah?
Some mix whiskey with their water, but it will only help the tears to flow and ultimately prolong the state of timtum.
Some sacrifice themselves, their joy in life, their interest in the world, sinking into depression and despair.
Some sacrifice their future, holding on the state of anger and confusion, in order to punish the one who put them there.
Many rabbinic traditions (BB10a) suggest that instead of ashes we use tzedakah – for as our liturgy for the Yamim Noraim tells us, tzedakah, acts of righteousness and charity, save from death (proverbs10:2) or at least will blunt the severity of the decree against us.
Tzedakah, deeds of righteousness and charity, along with our freely flowing tears and expressions of our inner pain, do seem to be the way towards cleansing ourselves from our state of tum’ah, our pain filled confusion of timtum. But it is hard to do. Maybe this is why the heifer of the bible had to be so perfect, so completely red, so unusual that few have ever been born. It is hard but not impossible. For the people did it – they learned to mourn for Aaron fully, they learned to let go of the feelings of fear and confusion and express them in a structured and ultimately contained way. Only after that did they begin to live again, and to go on to new things, symbolised by the water which once again was accessible to them, the living waters of restoration and new ways of being.