Hukkat: Highly illogical, or, what I did for love

by | Jun 21, 2012 | Torah Thought

Sometimes I just don’t understand the reason I’m being asked to do something. My initial reaction is to refuse, at least internally. Why should I do it, if I don’t see the value in its doing? God gave me a discerning mind and free will, so it should be my inalienable right to have some idea of why this thing is being asked of me. Where is the logic that would convince me to exert effort toward this when I’d much rather be doing that?

And usually, I find myself doing the task anyway. Have I given up my rights to think for myself? Have I decided that doing this might actually be better than doing that?

Or is it who’s doing the asking? On the one hand, if your friends asked you to jump off a bridge, would you do it? If your instinct tells you ‘don’t,’ give your gut feeling a chance to be heard. Some things are just not logical. On the other hand, if you love God, and God asked you to take an extremely rare, perfect red cow, slaughter it, burn it to ashes, mix it with other ingredients, and use it in a cleansing ritual… would you?

The parah adumah (red heifer or red cow) was a sacrifice in the Torah, the ashes of which are used for the ritual cleansing of an Israelite in Biblical times who had come into contact with a corpse.

In Numbers 19:2, we read: “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.” All the hairs must be red, the animal has to be perfectly healthy and cannot have been a beast of burden. This cow will then be slaughtered appropriately, some of the blood will be sprinkled seven times toward the tent of meeting, and it will be burned to ashes outside the camp. Cedar wood, hyssop, and “crimson stuff” are added to the fire, and the remaining ashes are placed in a vessel containing pure water.

A person who has touched a corpse and has therefore become ritually impure goes to the priest, who sprinkles him or her with water from the vessel, using the hyssop, on days three and seven of the purification period.

The case of the Red Heifer has been held up as a perfect example of a chok, a Biblical law which defies any obvious logic, so it must have been given by God. Those who love God will follow the commandment because of who’s the One asking.

A certain non-believer asked R. Yohanan ben Zakkai: The rites you perform in connection with the Red Heifer smell of witchcraft! You bring a heifer, burn it, grind it and take its ashes. You sprinkle two or three drops on one of you who is contaminated with corpse defilement and say to him, You are clean. Said R. Yohanan b. Zakkai to him: Have you never seen a man possessed by a demon? He answered: Yes. – And what do you do for him? – We bring herbs and make them smoke beneath him, and throw water on him and the demon is exorcised. He answered: Let your ears hear what your mouth has spoken. The spirit of defilement is the same as your demon. We sprinkle on it the waters of purification and it is exorcised.

After the non-believer had left, R. Yohanan’s disciples said to him: Him you have put off with a straw, but what answer will you give us? He replied to them. By your life, neither does the dead defile nor the water purify, but the Holy One blessed be He said: It is a statute I have laid down, a decree that I have decreed and you are not authorized to violate my decree. To paraphrase scholar Nehama Leibowitz, the non-believer needed a rational explanation, one that would fit in with his common-sense way of thinking. But Rav Yohanan could tell his disciples, who believed in the mitzvot and the One who gave them, that the heifer’s ashes have no magical properties themselves. The idea that God said “do this and you become impure; do that and you become pure again” is reason enough. Performing mitzvot out of love for the One who gave them refines the human soul.

The value in the doing is just that: When the one I love asks me to do something and I do, she rewards me with “You listened! You did it like I asked! Mission accomplished.” Truth is, I may never understand how doing what I did made her happy…it may be tedious and irrelevant to explain… but when she’s happy, that’s a great reward.

Cantor Wally Schachet-Briskin, Cantor, Ohef Sholom Temple.