For more teachings on this parasha, see the archives to my blog at June 2006.
The Red Heifer
The latter part of this parashah contains a series of interesting narratives about the battles fought by the Israelites with the Amorites and the Bashanites before entering the Land (events much celebrated in half-a-dozen Psalms and elsewhere); the songs sung in connection with them, including the rather strange “Song of the Well” (Num 21:17-20); the brazen serpent, that healed those who spoke against God and Moses regarding the manna (which centuries later became an object of fetishistic worship); and more. But there is only one practical mitzvah fund therein—parah adumah, the ritual of the Red Heifer—and the related procedure for purification from contact with the dead.
Death, and contact with the dead, is the most frightening and traumatic experience known to human beings. One could argue that all traumas, ultimately, hearken back in one sense or another to either our own or to other’s mortality. Rav Soloveitchik, in one of his hespedim, speaks of death as a “grizzly experience…. that makes a mockery of all our pretenses to be spiritual beings.” Hence, when death strikes, Judaism does not allow one to pass over it as if nothing has happened. It is seen as an event that requires healing, and its rituals may be seen, among other things, as intended to provide a certain catharsis.
It is in this light that I wish to offer my own allegorical reading of the ritual of the parah adumah. The red heifer is both a powerful and a perfect creature: the presence of even three non-red hairs was enough to disqualify it for use in this ritual. It is filled with animal energies: red is the color of blood, as well as that of rude, “ruddy” animal vitality; in Kabbalah, red is the color of din, of stern judgment. As a female, it is also a source of new life. This vital, massive creature, at the prime of its bovine career, is slaughtered and burned completely, to fine ash. Such is the way with death: a human being begins his/her life filled with vitality, which reach their peak as he/she ripens into maturity. Death—whether the slow decline of old age, the rapid deterioration of virulent illness, or sudden death by accident or violence—destroys all that. To this is added cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson stuff (19:6; perhaps the worm from which crimson dye is derived?). Together with the heifer, these items span the gamut of the animal and vegetable kingdoms; their burning to ashes symbolizes the transient nature of all physical things, both large and small.
These ashes are then mixed with water, drawn under special conditions of purity, and sprinkled upon the purificant. The Torah recounts several other rituals involving ashes or ash-like substances: the sotah, the wife accused of adultery, must drink water intermixed with dirt from the floor of the Tabernacle, plus the ink used to write solemn curses about her (Num 5:17, 23-24); after the sin of the Golden Calf, the Israelites are made to drink water mixed with the burnt ashes of the calf (Exod 32:20). Water, a symbol of flowing, perpetually renewed life, is mixed with ashes: as if to say, both sexual licentiousness and idolatry damage the human image, so much so that its very vitality is mixed with the bitter poisons of the end of dignity and integrity. (When I was contemplating divorce, a friend told me, “Your life will turn to ash.”) Here, the ashes serve a somewhat different function: they are not drunk, but rather sprinkled on the one who has had contact with the dead, thereby serving a healing function.
Today there is no red heifer. What we do have are laws of mourning, the halakhic institution of aveilut. (The Biblical source for this is Shemini, where it is inferred from one of the verses portraying the aftermath of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu; see Lev 10:19-20). I will not elaborate upon this mitzvah, which has been discussed at length in many excellent books (and also by us; see, e.g., HY I : Simhat Torah). Psychologists have observed that these laws are particularly sound from the viewpoint of spiritual and emotional health. In this respect, they are in striking contrast to modern Western society, in which there is almost a denial of death, a busy society in which people are expected to return to work shortly after a death in the family, allowing no time for such “frills” as mourning. Judaism insists on a period of a full week, during which family, friends, and community mark the death together—a time of remembering, of talking about the deceased, of freedom from all other responsibilities; a time to begin the process of healing, of the family reconstituting itself in the absence of the deceased. Symbolically, it is kind of acting out of the repercussions of this death, in which the mourner is outside the normal circle of society. After seven days he returns to the circle of life outside the home, but even then the mourner maintains a disheveled appearance and avoids any public occasions of joy until a full month has passed or, in the special case of parents, even longer, certain mourning observances being continued throughout the year.
“One Does Not Redeem Prisoners for More than Their Worth”
This past week the Israeli government approved a prisoner exchange, arranged through European intermediaries, whereby Israel will return to Hizballah long-term prisoner Samir Kuntar, convicted of the terrorist killing of two Israeli civilians, in exchange for the release of two Israeli soldiers captured during the incident that led to the Second Lebanon war in 2006. There has been considerable public controversy about this prisoner exchange—particularly in light of intelligence that the two Israelis are in fact dead, the exchange thus involving exchanging dead bodies for a live prisoner.
The mishnah at Gittin 45a, part of a series of edicts made “for the welfare of society” (tikkun ha-olam), states that “One is not to redeem captives for more than their value.” Rambam, in Hilkhot Matanot Anniyim 8.12, states the reason for this law as being so as not to encourage brigands to kidnap more people.
Olmert and other politicians spoke of the centrality of “moral considerations” in making this decision, as if concern for the suffering of the families outweighed all else—the implication being that morality involves absolutes. While it is that, it is more as well: a truly moral decision is not merely one of blind devotion to a single principle, however powerful and sacred it may be; rather, it involves soberly weighing and balancing the overall effect of a given action on a situation, in light of the often conflicting values involved. In the 1960s a Protestant theologian named Joseph Fletcher—part of the “death-of-God” or movement towards “radical theology” of those days—wrote a book entitled Situational Ethics, in which he argues the relative, situational nature of morality, as if this were a daring, radical idea. But in fact, in Judaism morality has always been a matter of weighing different values and considerations.
The central point is not whether or not Samir Kuntar as such constitutes a concrete danger to Israel. By now well into middle-age, he will no doubt leave active terrorist activity against Israel to younger men. But the present exchange will be taken as a psychological victory for Hizballah and its leader, Hasan Nasrallah. And, since Israel cannot use its overwhelming military superiority due to moral and geo-political constraints, the psychological struggle is all important—particularly in the Middle East. A psychological victory for one side is, of necessity, a strategic defeat to the other, and by extension to the security of its 5 million-odd citizens.
All these need to be weighed against a certain peace of mind and “closure” that the release of the bodies will provide to the Regev and Goldwasser families. It is not even particularly needed in order to free Karnit Goldwasser of her agunah status, because the IDF rabbinate was evidently prepared to declare the two dead, thereby enabling her to remarry in due course should she wish to do so. (Evidently, some of the intelligence Israel has received is treated as tantamount to גוי המספר לפי תומו, a “Gentile relating what he has seen in all innocence” which is, as is well known, an accepted halakhic option in the case of freeing an agunah, an “anchored wife.”)
The whole thing has been rather like a soap opera, with the media repeatedly interviewing the various families involved: of the two missing solders in Lebanon; the Shalit family, whose son Gilad, evidently alive, is being held by the Palestinians in Gaza; that of Ron Arad, missing in action since the first Lebanon War over 25 years ago; and even Mrs. Haran, the bereaved widow and mother whose husband and infant son were killed by Kuntar in the incident for which he landed in an Israeli prison in the first place. Now, all of these people are the salt of the earth, productive, positive members of Israeli society, whose quandary inspires immediate empathy. But serious ethical and halakhic thinking requires that the interest of the individual be weighed against the welfare of the community. This is what Hazal, and what medieval, so-called “Galuti” Jews, understood instinctively, and which we seem to have forgotten. “He who is merciful toward the cruel will in the end be cruel towards the merciful.” This was a softhearted, short-sighted, sentimental decision, which has little in common with either morality or halakhah.
In general (and I hope to write about this more fully in the future), one of the ills of late 20th and early 21st century culture, in the United States, in Israel, and elsewhere, is an excessive focus on individualism, to the almost total exclusion of communal consciousness. Many years ago, then-MK Geulah Cohen (someone with whom I don’t usually identify), in a debate about a similar prisoner exchange, said something like this: If my son Tzahi were to fall into captivity I would want the government to pay any price to release him; but on the level of statesman-like thinking, I would expect them to refuse to do so, for otherwise they would be amiss in their responsibility. (Incidentally, I am happy to report that the opposition to soft-headed, mushy thinking on this issue was not confined to the right-wing: Yossi Beilin was interviewed on TV and also spoke out about the deal, citing many of the same reason.)
A concluding comment: later in the week, there was the bizarre and bloody rampage, in which a Palestinian construction worker used the caterpillar tractor he was driving to kill and injure as many people as he could who happened to be on a Jerusalem street before he was stopped. Ehud Barak promptly ordered the leveling of his family’s home. I see this, once again, as a heated emotional response, guided neither by morality or Jewish teaching, nor by true “security reasons.” Both the Torah and the prophet Yehezkel state that children may not be punished for the sins of their father, nor fathers for those of their sons. As for security: is there a shred of evidence that acts such as this, of destroying the home of an elderly couple, who probably didn’t even know of their son’s plans, have ever served as a deterrent against terrorist actions? It seems far more likely that they produce more hatred and bitterness, fueling the next round of violence.
Responses to Korah Article
My friend Rabbi David Greenstein, Head of the Academy of Jewish Religion in New York City, sent me the following illuminating comments in wake of my Korah piece:
Re your comment from the Izhbitzer that Korah’s “only” error was in “jumping the gun”: This is also a view in Kabbalah regarding the greatest sin of all time—eating from the Etz ha-Da’at [Tree of Knowledge]. See, e.g., the end of Gikatilla’s Sha’arei Orah, where it is explained that the prohibition was temporary, analogous to orlah, and the fruit of that tree would eventually have been permitted. But human beings jumped the gun.
This brings up the role of time in the definition of sin. The problem of how evil can exist in God’s creation (or, as the Izhbitzer would ask: how can anyone do something that God does not want—i.e., to be “free” in the conventional sense) is answered in terms of the creation of time. That is, “evil” is not evil per se, but only in not having its proper place/time. Thus, in the End of Days—the end of time—this rule of temporal ordering will disappear, and the essential goodness of all will be restored. It is only in this created world of temporality that evil “has a place” or a mis-place. Korah’s mistake is thus alluded to in his very claim: he charges that “all the people are holy,” reading qedoshim tihyu [“you shall be holy”–Lev 19:2] as descriptive in the present tense. But the verse should be read “you will be holy,” in the future tense (if, etc.). Korah, as you say, jumped the gun.
I was also approached this week by a stranger who recognized my name from reading the Hebrew version of the same devar torah, who suggested a parallel between the Korah story and the Greek myth of Antigone, who lead a rebellion against royal authority based upon certain moral principles. וצריך עיון