Parshat Hukat: The heart needs no reason

It must be the people who strengthen and preserve the Torah in every generation.

Torah 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Torah 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
"This is the inscribed statute [hok] of the Torah which the Lord has commanded saying… 'they shall take for you a red heifer…' " (Numbers 19:1,2). The mystical ritual of the red heifer is classified as a hok, a directive that we follow not because it is rational or obviously moral but merely because it is demanded by the Lord. Indeed, it seems illogical, even paradoxical: the ashes of a red heifer are to be mixed with spring waters, creating a potion which a priest is to sprinkle on any individual defiled by contact with a dead body in order to purify him; the paradox is that those involved in preparing and transporting the mixture are themselves defiled. How can it be that the very substance which has the capacity to purify those who are defiled defiles those who produce it? The red heifer seems to be much more than an example of a hok; it is introduced by the biblical text as the hok par excellence, as a special experience which conveys a lesson beyond the specific cleansing it effectuates. Indeed, were the red heifer only another ritual of purification, it would belong in the Book of Leviticus, together with the portions of Tazria and Metzora. Why then is it placed after the rebellion of Korah, and immediately before the great transgression of Moses, almost as an introduction to - and perhaps an explanation for - his sin, his striking of the rock which prevents him from entering the Promised Land? Clearly the red heifer must be a life-and-death issue for the future. And finally, we read Hukat around the time of the passing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rav Menahem Mendel Schneerson, one of the greatest Jewish leaders of the 20th century. In this context as well, it would seem that the red heifer must provide a lesson of significance, since there is nothing accidental about the connection between the portion of the week and the death of Jewish leaders. The people of Israel is eternal and the Torah of Israel is eternal; God is identified with both, and although He seemed ready to destroy Israel when the nation worshiped the Golden Calf, Moses chose to break the Torah (the tablets) instead and preserve the nation. Which is more important, the Nation of Israel or the Torah of Israel? Which covenant is of primary significance, the national covenant "between the pieces" which guaranteed an eternal nation of Abrahamic seed and secure homeland borders, or the covenant at Sinai which revealed the Torah? The kohen-priest is our biblical teacher and guardian, our religious inspiration and guide; his special garb reflects his unique vocation. On the one hand, Aaron the High Priest bore the names of the 12 tribes of Israel on the shoulder straps of his apron (ephod) and on his breast-plate (hoshen mishpat), demonstrating his love and responsibility for the nation; on the other hand, he has written on his headplate - over his forehead - "sacred unto the Lord" (Exodus 28: 12, 29, 36, 38), expressing his intellectual commitment to the study, understanding and propagation of Torah. Clearly both the nation and the Torah are priority considerations. But which is foremost? During the past several hundred years we have had two models of religious leadership, the Lithuanian Rav (Rosh Yeshiva) and the Hassidic Rebbe; the former gave most of his attention to the priestly head-plate (tzitz), the intellectual pursuit of Torah, while the latter gave most of his attention to the priestly breastplate and shoulder strap, the pastoral concerns of loving and shouldering a flock. I believe that the priestly role in sprinkling the ashes of the red heifer reveals which of these concerns is most important. From this perspective, let us revisit the task of the kohen priest in purifying Jews defiled by contact with death, the strange paradox that the very mixture which purifies those who are defiled leaves those who prepare it defiled. Objectively speaking, that is hardly a paradox; if my friend falls into a mud puddle and I help him out, I will naturally become muddied as well. In purifying the defiled, a purifier himself must be touched by some of the impurity. And this is precisely why the kohen must bless the nation "out of love"; if the kohen-leader truly loves every Jew, he will take responsibility for him, willingly give up some of his comfort - and even some of his spirituality - in the attempt to rescue his sibling from contact with spiritual death. Any loving leader must be ready to leave the ivory tower (kollel/beit-midrash) and make his way to the furthest hinterlands to bring a little bit of spirituality there. Indeed, this is exactly what God tells Moses: "Get down [from the supernal heights of Mount Sinai] and go down to the errant Jews worshipping the Golden Calf. The only reason I bestowed greatness upon you, Moses, was for the sake of the nation Israel; if your nation is sinning, what need have I of you?" (B.T. Brachot 32) Moses was certainly committed heart and soul to his people in the beginning of his ministry - when he sacrificed Egyptian princedom and his luxurious life in killing the Egyptian taskmaster. But the kvetching and carping, the ingratitude and insurrections, wore him down, until he finally lashed out, called the Israelites rebels, and struck the rock in an act of displaced anger against his stiff-necked nation (Rabbenu Zadok of Lublin). So tragically Moses could no longer lead a people whom, understandably, he could no longer love. He had simply been treated too shabbily by them. But here lies the connection between the red heifer and Moses's sin: once a leader loses his mission of love and responsibility for his people, he can no longer continue to lead them. The Lubavitcher Rebbe was a great talmudic and Torah scholar, but he devoted the lion's share of his time and energy to the nation. The style of Lithuanian religious leadership did not survive the Holocaust. Hassidism in general, and Chabad in particular, did, and is today stronger than ever. The over-arching message of Chabad is love, the empowerment of love, the divinity of love, the eternity of love, "Be among the disciples of Aaron… love humanity, and with that love you will bring everyone close to Torah." In the final analysis, it must be the people who strengthen and preserve the Torah by their practice of it, commitment to it, and continual interpretation of it in every generation. And so the Lubavitcher Rebbe raised an army of emissaries (shluchim) whose love and commitment to Israel the nation is so great that they gladly leave beit midrash, family and community for the farthest recesses of the globe to bring errant Jews back to their Parent-in-Heaven. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.