The ritual of accepting uncertainty
Rabbi Mati Kirschenbaum
This week’s Parashat Chukat starts with a description of a ceremony called Para Aduma, the ritual of offering a red heifer. This ritual was supposed to enable people who touched a corpse or stayed with it in one room to purify themselves from ritual impurity. This purification took place through the use of ashes obtained in the process of burning the heifer. Here is how the Torah describes the process of preparing these ashes:
“Instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid. You shall give it to Eleazar the priest. It shall be taken outside the camp and slaughtered in his presence. Eleazar the priest shall take some of its blood with his finger and sprinkle it seven times toward the front of the Tent of Meeting. The cow shall be burned in his sight—its hide, flesh, and blood shall be burned, its dung included— and the priest shall take cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson stuff, and throw them into the fire consuming the cow. The priest shall wash his garments and bathe his body in water; after that the priest may reenter the camp, but he shall be impure until evening. The one who performed the burning shall also wash those garments in water, bathe in water, and be impure until evening. Another party who is pure shall gather up the ashes of the cow and deposit them outside the camp in a pure place, to be kept for water of lustration for the Israelite community. It is for purgation.” (Numbers 19:2-9)
Why did the process of purification from ritual impurity require precisely the ashes left after the offering of Para Aduma, the red heifer?
Our sages have been pondering this question since time immemorial. They viewed the Para Aduma ceremony as a typical example of “chok”, a commandment for which it’s impossible to find a rational explanation. In tractate Yoma of the Babylonian Talmud Rabbi Akiva claimed that verse 7:23 in the Book of Kohelet (“I thought I could fathom it, but it eludes me”) in fact refers to the commandment of Para Aduma. The author of the Book of Kohelet is traditionally believed to be king Solomon. Rabbi Akiva seems to suggest that even King Solomon – the symbol of wisdom – was not able to grasp the logic behind this commandment.
It’s hard to disagree with Rabbi Akiva. There is no way of guessing why the Para Aduma ritual required the offering of a red – and not for example yellow – heifer. In the Torah we also don’t find an answer to the question why before being offered it could not have carried a yoke. What’s more, the procedures of the Para Aduma ritual seem to escape the laws of logic. After all, throughout its course the priests who engaged in the process of obtaining the ashes required for ritual purification are themselves becoming ritually impure!
So the Para Aduma ritual is not only enigmatic, but also inherently contradictory. This makes it an especially hard nut to crack for progressive Judaism, which is based on a rational and scientific approach to religion. The sense of its strangeness is magnified by the fact that progressive Judaism doesn’t recognize the concept of ritual impurity; instead, we focus on “purity” in an ethical sense. But it seems to me that both the procedures and the mysterious character of the Para Aduma ceremony are supposed to help us accept the nature of our existence, which is full of uncertainties.
A lack of a rational explanation for the procedures of the Para Aduma ceremony reminds us that often we are not able to fully explain the reality which surrounds us. The fact that during the Para Aduma ceremony those who are ritually unclean regain purity, but the priest who takes part in it becomes impure reminds us that actions which are beneficial for us in the long term can entail some inconveniences. We are not sure if the benefits stemming from future actions will outweigh the potential losses.
Unsure if we understand correctly the world which surrounds us, unsure if our actions will yield the intended results, we yearn for certainty. The answer to this desire are ideologies and religions which offer us answers to all the questions.
The red heifer offering ceremony teaches us that Judaism doesn’t focus on looking for answers to questions about the essence of what happened or what can happen. Our tradition is interested predominantly in the actions that we can undertake today, here and now, and the readiness to take responsibility for their consequences.
While describing the process of bringing up the priests participating in the Para Aduma ritual the Mishna reminds us that taking responsibility for the fate of the world is not easy and it requires preparations. The priests who were supposed to conduct this ritual in the future were brought up in isolation from the rest of the world. This isolation was supposed to protect the young priests from ritual impurity linked to the contact with that which was dead. I think that the priests participating in the Para Aduma ritual became ritually impure because they had to confront death – the great, uncertainty-provoking unknown. Their ritual impurity lasting until the evening gave them a chance to understand the fate of the rest of the people of Israel whom they were supposed to serve. By spending time outside of the camp they experienced the uncertainty which came with the status of the ritually impure Israelites. Thanks to this experience the priests did not live in an elitist, ritually pure “soap bubble”. On the contrary, they were aware that undertaking actions aimed at changing the world for the better requires sacrifices. They knew that uncertainty and inconveniences are the price worth paying to secure a better tomorrow for their community.
Progressive Judaism has abolished the division between the priests and the rest of the People of Israel. We believe that Jews as a collective are obligated to become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:6). This means that each individual is obligated to undertake actions drawing Jews as a collective closer to holiness.
The ritual of Para Aduma reminds us that our individual and collective path to a better world entails undertaking actions in spite of uncertainty. I wish you that this Shabbat Chukat you can find your red heifers – the sources of courage and inspiration to take action.
Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka