Friday, July 04, 2008

Hukat (Mitzvot)

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


Blogger JeffMichell said...

The Murder of Jewish Toddlers! What HEZBOLLAH is "ALL ABOUT!"

On July 12, 2006 Lebanese Hezbollah militants crossed the border with Israel in an operation dubbed "Operation Truthful Promise," which was aimed at nabbing Israeli soldiers in exchange for Lebanese prisoners. Hezbollah succeeded in the operation and successfully took hostage two Israeli soldiers, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. During the operation, eight Israeli soldiers were killed. This ignited the sequence of events which led to the Israel/Lebanon summer war. The story goes further back than July of 2006. It really began in April 1979! On Sabbath day, April 22, 1979, Danny and Smadar Haran met up with a monster named Samir Kuntar. Danny and Smadar were a loving Israeli couple. They had everything they could ever hope for... love, marriage and two precious daughters, Einat, 4 and Yael, 2. That day Smadar was home anticipating Danny's return from work and preparing for the Sabbath. She had just picked up their two toddlers from day care. Danny, on the other hand, was looking forward to nothing more than getting home and spending time with his wife and his two young daughters.
Traditionally, the Sabbath is the most special day of the week, the day the family gets to spend time together and celebrate their bond to Judaism. It was especially important for Danny who, as a young father, had to work extra hard in order to provide for his wife and young children. Little did Smadar know that this would be the last Sabbath she would celebrate with her family because of a man named Samir Kuntar. Around midnight the nightmare began! (Samir Kuntar; also spelled: Sameer Kuntar, Kantar, Qantar, Kintar, Quntar, Qintar, Cantar)
What's the deal with Samir Kuntar? Since April 22, 1979 Samir Kuntar has been incarcerated in an Israeli prison. Samir Kuntar, a Druze from the Lebanese mountain village of Aabey , who currently holds the dubious distinction of being the longest held Lebanese prisoner in Israeli jails. Kuntar is currently ONE of THREE Lebanese prisoners still serving time in Israeli jails. Kuntar was convicted and sentenced to a 542 years prison sentence by the state of Israel . Israel even almost tried to pass a bill to have him executed! What did he do? What was his crime? The crime Kuntar committed was one of the most sickest, heinous, barbaric crime ever committed on Israeli soil. The crime took place on April 22, 1979 when Kuntar led a group of 3 other terrorists, all members of Abu Abbas PLF (Palestinian Liberation Front), infiltrated the Israeli coastal city of Naharya and broke into the Haran family apartment and took Danny Haran and his 4 year old daughter Einat Haran hostage. When Kuntar and his gang broke into the apartment, the wife, Smadar Haran and her 2 year old daughter Yael, were also present in the apartment. Smadar managed to find a crawl space into which she, her younger daughter, 2 year old Yael, and a neighbor all hid. To prevent Yael from crying and giving away their hiding place, Smadar covered the child's mouth with her hand.
Kuntar and his group took Danny and little Einat down to the beach. At the beach Kuntar shot Danny in the back. Danny survived the gun shot but moments later was drowned personally by Kuntar. All this was witnessed by the young daughter. Kuntar forced her to watch her father's murder so that [in Kuntar's words] "his death would be the last sight she would ever see." Kuntar then laid the little toddler down on a rock and smashed her head with the butt of his rifle. She didn’t die right away, so Kuntar beat her with his rifle repeatedly, over and over again (all this done, while she was screaming and crying), to ensure that she was dead. Meanwhile in the apartment, Smadar's attempt to muffle her daughter's whimpering proved fatal. Yael was accidentally suffocated and died within the hiding space. And on July 12, 2006, the ONLY reason why Ehud Goldawasser and Eldad Regev were kidnapped by Hezbollah, was to force Israel to release/surrender Samir Kuntar. Now the dilemma is, should Israel release Samir Kuntar in order to gain the release of Goldwasser and Regev? Unfortunately Kuntar might be freed in the next couple of days in exchange for these two soldiers, or their caskets, since there hasn’t been even one sign of life since their kidnapping on July 12th. For those who didn’t know, Samir Kuntar was the only reason that’s been holding back the release of Goldwasser and Regev, for almost a year and a half.

According to Smadar Haran, her last memories of Danny and Einat, that day, were when they were being led away at gun point by Kuntar. She could hear from her closet space Danny telling Einat, "Don't be scared, my baby, it will be alright" and Einat replied to him in her little voice, "Dad, where is Mommy? I want Mommy." Smadar's last memory of her 2-year-old daughter, Yael, was when her little daughter was taken to the apartment hiding space. Right before Yael had her mouth covered by her mother, she asked her mother "Where is my little pacifier." There was no time to search for the pacifier. Minutes later Smadar covered Yael's mouth to keep her from revealing the hiding space. Smadar soon felt her daughter's tiny tongue licks and lip sucking on the palm of her hand. She didn't know what to make of it at first but hours later was told by doctors and paramedics that the reason Yael was licking her palm while she covered her mouth was because she was gasping for air.

After drowning Danny in the sea in front of little Einat, Kuntar, the brave Lebanese freedom fighter, then turned his attention towards the frightened little 4-year old. He took his rifle and then swung it across the little toddler's head, knocking her to the ground. As little Einat was knocked to the ground, she was screaming and crying hysterically "mommy daddy help me," while thrashing her little legs around in the sand. But unfortunately Einat was alone, and no one was there to save her. Kuntar then dragged the little toddler a couple of feet to the closest rock he could find, this was while she was begging him not to hurt her. Kuntar, then laid her head down on a rock, with the intention of crushing it with the butt of his rifle. Einat, instinctively covered her head with her little arms, Kuntar struggled with the little toddler until he finally managed to clear her arms out of the way so that he could aim for her head. Once her arms were out of the way, Kuntar proceeded on beating her on the head over and over with the butt of his rifle, and repeatedly stomping on her little body as hard as he could as well, until blood rushed out of her ears and mouth, and her little cries faded away as she was knocked into unconsciousness. Then, to ensure she was dead, Kuntar continued on beating her over the head, as hard as he could, several more times until her skull was crushed and she was dead.

The nerve of Hezbollah to honor a child killer like Kuntar. The nerve of Hezbollah to kidnap two Israeli soldiers in order to force Israel to release a child murderer from jail! This is what Hezbollah is all about. The July 12, 2006 abduction was originally named "Operation Freedom Samir Kuntar," by Hezbollah. But days before the kidnapping Hezbollah changed the name of the operation to "Operation Truthful Promise," due to the fact that Nasrallah made a true promise to the family of Samir Kuntar to have him freed from jail. In September 2000, three Israeli soldiers were kidnapped by Hizbollah, along with an Israeli businessman, Elhanan Tennenbaum. Nasrallah immediately demanded Israel release all its Lebanese prisoners INCLUDING Samir Kuntar. In 2004 Israel was holding a TOTAL of 26 Lebanese prisoners. That same year, 23 out of those 26 prisoners were released, in order to secure the release of those 3 IDF (Israeli Defense Force) soldiers as well and Elhanan Tennenbaum. This prisoner exchange also had a second phase, which involved Hezbollah providing solid evidence on the fate of Ron Arad (the Israeli pilot who went missing in Lebanon in 1986) and in exchange, Israel would release the 24th Lebanese prisoner, Samir Kuntar! Hezbollah failed to deliver the information on Arad, and the deal was off. In 2006, when Goldwasser and Regev were kidnapped Israel was out of bargain chips, its only choice in order to gain information on the fate of these two soldiers is the release Samir Kuntar. Who even knows if Goldwasser and Regev are alive! Let’s not forget, the four years prior to the "infamous Israel-Hezbollah prisoner exchange of 2004," Israel had no idea on the fate of their soldiers until the day of the exchange. Only on the day of the exchange Israel found out, they would receive 3 caskets instead of 3 soldiers.
It is beyond sickening, a man who beat to death a little toddler is celebrated for his glorious deed. Kuntar has been dubbed by some parts of the Arab world as the "Dean of World Prisoners." Who would imagine? Hezbollah crossing the border into Israel, killing four Israeli soldiers and kidnapping 2 more, going through all this trouble, JUST to free a child killer!
There is another point worth mentioning. Hezbollah has never claimed that Kuntar was innocent or that he may have been framed. They only demand his release as if he were being held unlawfully and that Israel had no right to imprison him. Kuntar is probably the most hated person by the Israeli public. He is known as the "killer of Nahrya" instead of "terrorist of Nahrya." And to think that this person is being released under the context of threat, extortion, and blackmail! If it wasn’t for kidnapping of soldiers, Kuntar would have continued to serve out his sentence.
Israel has an extensive history of releasing prisoner with blood on their hands, it has been done in the past and most expect that, it would happen again. This time with Kuntar. It is important to keep in mind that prisoners who are in Israeli jails are serving time for something. Israel is not a "gangster" or "lawless" state that imprisons people based solely on a whim. Every prisoner was charged, stood trail, convicted and properly sentenced. They were not kidnapped simply because they were Arabs. Hence, there is no justification in comparing the kidnapped Israeli soldiers to Samir Kuntar. There is a fine line between a humanitarian release of prisoners or releasing prisoners for the sake of peace AND knuckling under to unadulterated extortion. There is also a huge difference between someone with hatred in his head and he who has blood on his hands! Nobody expects that someone like Kuntar who is released will become Lovers of Israel! But someone and others like Kuntar who have committed murder or collaborated in the planning of that murder should be considered an unacceptable risk. It goes beyond forgiving terrorism. It becomes an abetting in any future terrorism carried out by those released. Israel will viewed as a weak state that can be brought to its knees by extortion. If Israel was to release Kuntar it would be the biggest thing they ever surrendered! The Sinai Peninsula, Israel gave back under negotiations, the West Bank and Gaza Israel also gave back under negotiations of the Oslo Accords. In 1985 during the famous "Ahmed Jibril Exchange" Israel released 1200 prisoners for the release of 3 IDF soldiers, some of those prisoners who were released had blood on their hands including Kozo Okamoto who killed 22 Israelis. BUT even all those 1200 prisoners put together, cannot compare to the savage murderous act committed by Samir Kuntar. Israel also currently holds 10,000 Palestinian prisoners, some of which have been incarcerated for conspiring, carrying out, and masterminding murderous terrorist attacks (suicide bombings, shootings, etc…), which targeted Jewish civilians in Israel. BUT even all those 10,000 prisoners put together cannot compare to Kuntar.
Kuntar could have shot little Einat or blown her up, but instead he took his loaded gun and just bludgeoned her on the head repeatedly for several minutes until she was dead! Lets not also forget, the fact, that several minutes prior to murdering Einat, Kuntar drowned her father in front of her, and forced her to watch.
Anyone, who reads this article and does not shed a tear, is not a human being. What kind of country is this to release a child murderer from jail under the context of threat and extortion? If we release Kuntar, we know what message it sends to Hezbollah and other terror groups like Hamas, etc… But what obscene messages does it send to the families of those Israeli murdered, especially Smadar Haran whose daughter was beaten to death by a man who hates Jews. What Kuntar did was not only a terrorist act but should also be considered a criminal act. And what demoralizing message does it send to the Israeli troops and security services who risked their lives in order to capture and arrest the terrorists? There is no doubt that Goldwasser and Regev need to be unconditionally released from Lebanon, Syria, Iran or from wherever they are now being held. Olmert's "good will gesture" has disaster written all over it. Appeasement didn't work with Hitler and it will not work with Hezbollah. "Negotiations" will not work either for over what exactly is there to negotiate? How far will Israel go to assure its own disappearance? There will be nothing positive coming out of the release of Kuntar. There is no worst context of releasing prisoners than under the context of threat. But today October 15, 2007 there is chatter within Israel to drop the demand for Ron Arad for the exchange of Kuntar.
The Official Website of Samir Kuntar Israel moots Kuntar prisoner swap
(AL-JAZEERA 9/17/2006) Free the monster Samir Kuntar
(Haaretz article 09/04/2006) Plot to free terrorist (Kuntar) may have led to fight
(Washington Times 8/8/2006) Nasrallah says no deal without Samir
(9/12/2006 BBC article "Nasrallah Demands Militant Free") "Hizballah Wants Israel to Free Child-Killer"
(Cybercast News Service, 7/18/2006) More than 25 years later, militant still atop Hezbollah's list for swap
(Seattle Times 8/16/2006) Why Hezbollah Attacked Israel
(Mens News Daily 8/09/2006) Samir Kuntar to be released very soon
The Jerusalem Post 1/6/2007 of an interview with Smadar Haran on CBC
(RealPlayer required)

10:15 AM  

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