I saw Fiddler on the Roof recently, so lines from that great musical are in my head. Like the one Tevye says: “posing problems that would cross a rabbi’s eyes…”
This week’s Torah portion, Chukat from the book of Numbers, has one of those questions. The mystery of the “parah adumah,” the red heifer. It is said that King Solomon was the wisest man who ever lived – but when he got to this description in the Torah, he gave up, and quoted Ecclesiastes, “I said I would be wise, but it is far from me.” If you became impure from having been in contact with a corpse, the solution was to go through a ritual that involved having the ashes of a perfect red heifer sprinkled on you. The perplexing part: those same ashes made anyone ELSE who came into contact with them IMPURE. So someone takes the ashes, and sprinkles them on you to make you pure; and in the process he becomes impure because of his contact with the ashes. Basically, the rabbis gave up on trying to figure out the logic of this one: it’s a “chok,” a rule from God, we follow it just because God says so, not because it makes any sense.
It is a sign of the power of God. As it says in the book of Job, “Who can draw a pure thing out of an impure one? Is it not the One (God)?”
There are other examples of a “pure thing” being drawn forth from an “impure thing.” The Midrash points out that Avraham Avinu, our father Abraham, came from an impure idol worshipper, Terach. The righteous king Hezekiah came from the wicked Ahaz.
Where I disagree with the Midrash is with the idea that it is only God who can draw purity from something impure. It is incumbent upon us to strive to do that in our lives. How?
We all encounter difficult situations in our lives. Situations that are so painful, we feel we are left impure. Sometimes they are situations we cause. Sometimes they are situations that are thrust on us. The best reaction to such an encounter with impurity is to reflect on it – and to think about how to turn it around, how to turn it into something pure. Have a huge clash with a loved one, or a co-worker, that leaves you feeling drained, what can you do? Reflect on the causes of the conflict, reflect on ways to heal it, seek solutions.
This works on a national level as well. Israel recently had a well publicized encounter with a flotilla trying to break the naval blockade around Gaza. Even many supporters of the blockade would say the way the IDF handled was very poor. Nine people were killed in the capture of the Mavi Marmara. They were ‘bad guys’ who attacked the soldiers, and the soldiers may very well have responded completely appropriately given the situation. However, the deaths still have an air of “impurity” around them, as decision made in either the political echelon, or the higher ups in the military echelon, may have led to unnecessary loss of life. It very well may have been possible to both maintain the blockade and prevent the loss of life. Israel has announced the formation of an investigative commission. If that commission does find out what went wrong – and makes recommendations that can fix a problem in the Israeli command and decision making structure – we will have found a way to bring some “purity” out of the impurity of what happened.