Rabbi Yosil Rosenzweig
e-mail yosilr@juno.com

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Parshat Chukat

This week's Parsha deals in part with the Mitzvah of the Para Adumah (Red Cow). Any contact with death causes a Tumah (impurity) that must be removed so that the Jew may continue to function in society. The Tumah of death is so profound that it is called by our Rabbis an Av. HaTumah (a first generation impurity), while other forms of Tumah are called Tolodot (second generation impurities).

Thus, if a person became contaminated from contact with a corpse he would be separated from the community for a seven day period. On the third and seventh day, he would be sprinkled with the ashes of the Para Adumah, immerse himself in a Mikvah (a body of flowing water) and emerge completely purified (Bamidbar 19:11-13 & 18-20).

Another aspect of this Mitzvah is its paradoxical nature. The person who is sprinkled with the ashes of the Red Cow becomes Tahor (purified), while the Kohen (priest) that does the sprinkling becomes Tameh (Bamidbar 19:10).

Judaism uniquely, sanctifies life and considers death a defilement. The Israelites left Egypt (whose religion glorified death - the Egyptian holy book was "The Book of the Dead"), and were obligated to separate themselves from those rituals and practices.

We have a very detailed belief in life after death, yet nowhere in the Torah is such a belief defined. In fact, the Torah is replete with messages such as:

"I call heaven and earth today to bear witness against you: I have placed life and death before you, a blessing [for those who follow the Torah] and a curse [for those who don't]; choose life, so that you and your descendants may live." (Devarim [Deuteronomy] 30:15)

Let us look a bit closer at some of the rituals and Mitzvot surrounding the rejection of death.

As in the case of the Para Adumah, the condition of Nidah (a Tumah on the woman during and after menstruation), creates a state of impurity that needs water to wash away the Tumah. In this case, the dead egg is flushed from a woman's body and requires immersion in a Mikvah to ritually purify the woman from the Tumah of a lost potential of life. Since Nidah doesn't actually deal with death but the lost potential of life, only immersion in a Mikvah is required.

Upon awakening, every Jew is required to wash their hands in order to remove the Tumah of sleep/death which is called Netilat Yadayim (washing of hands). Our tradition teaches us that while asleep, some of our life functions close down and we enter into an almost death-like state. In this case neither Para Adumah, nor, Mikvah is required, washing each hand with flowing water removes the Tumah.

Judaism has very strict dietary laws including special procedures for the slaying of animals for food. In fact, according to our tradition, before the flood in the time of Noach (Noah), meat was forbidden to be eaten, because it requires killing a living being. After the flood, one of the seven Noachaide commandments given to all of mankind was Ever Min HaChai (literally, "the limb of an living animal" [before an animal may be eaten it must be first be slaughtered]). After receiving the Torah, we were instructed to slaughter all mammals in a painless way and then remove the blood (the life force) before eating.

In addition, there had to be a separation between meat and milk (deriving from the ommandment - "...do not cook a kid in the milk of its mother." Shemot [Exodus] 23:19, 34:26, Devarim 14:21).

This Mitzvah is the essence of Jewish morality. Just as it would be cruel to slaughter a kid and cook it in the life giving milk of its own mother, so too, must any food derived from animal slaughter be separated from food containing life giving milk.

It is imperative to note that the Mitzvah of Para Adumah is classified as a Chok (a non-rational commandment). The Torah classifies Mitzvot as Chukim (a Mitzvah that is not based on the rational) or Mishpatim (rational commandments). These Mitzvot are by definition impossible to comprehend and must be accepted with the same fervor as rational Mitzvot.

The commentary of the Artscroll Chumash (Pentateuch) says:

"The underlying message...as well as the many other mysteries of the Torah, is that the Supreme Intelligence has granted man a huge treasury of spiritual and intellectual gifts, but none is more precious than the knowledge that G-d is infinite, both in essence and in wisdom, while man is as limited in his ability to comprehend as he is in his physical existence. As Reb Yochanan (Ben Zakkai, a leading sage at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple [c. 70]; youngest of the disciples of Hillel) told his students regarding our failure to understand the laws of the Red Cow, ‘It is not the copse that causes the contamination or the ashes that of the Cow that cause purity. These laws are decrees of G-d, and man has no right to question them' [Midrash]. In other words, an essential component of wisdom is the knowledge that man's failure to understand truth does not make it untrue." (Artscroll Pentateuch, page 838)

Today, without a Temple, we do not have the ability to become completely Tahor. We are all in a state of Tumah. This Mitzvah not only reminds us that Hashem is infinite and incomprehensible, but, it also reminds us that as a nation in exile, we cannot become completely pure. We are surrounded by the contamination of Tumah that cannot be removed without the Para Adumah. During the later part of this month of Tammuz and the early part of the next month Av, we mourn the loss of our holy Temple and all that has happened to us as a result. May next year be a year of celebration, with the heralding of our Mashiach (anointed king), the rebuilding of our Temple, the ingathering of our exiles and the removal of all Tumah from our bodies and our souls.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yosil Rosenzweig

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