Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah–Chukat
I struggled mightily to write something meaningful last week. I was devastated over the repeated nightmarish violence that raged across the country. The finger-pointing and politicizing of the all-too-real horrific statistics of targeted populations served only to polarize our communities further from any sense of peace. The impact of racial animus and fear, the impact of the violent anti-police response, and the way in which lives became politically manipulated fodder simply overwhelmed me. With all that I have written, to then have to wrestle with the spiritual and physical violence of Korach’s rebellion … well, I started and deleted a host of attempts to find a nechemtah (calm, uplifting message). I couldn’t. Perhaps my saving grace was the need to prepare for a lot of teaching at Kutz (our movement’s national youth leadership camp) for this week. Of course, I could completely deny the demon; my theme is “Justice: How Do We Watch Our Neighbors Bleed?”
By the time I began to formulate thoughts to teach, Shabbat had come, and I had to find a way to renew: we completed reading Korach’s story for the cycle. As I began looking at this week’s portion, I realized once again that the rabbis artificially imposed textual divisions separating the weekly portions of Torah. So, this week we read about the “Parah Adumah – Red Heifer.” According to Torah, we have to kill a red heifer and burn it all to ash. We then take the ashes and place them outside of the cemetery so that all who visit can “purify” themselves by dousing themselves in the ashes. Now, there are 613 mitzvot (things to do or not do) in Torah. Some make perfect sense. Some can be twisted to make rational sense. The “red heifer” is the one mitzvah that the sages agree makes no practical sense beyond the discipline of simple obedience. At the same time, we cherish that our tradition has never operated on blind faith. So, it is of little surprise that there is no record of the enactment of this mitzvah. What the rabbis do teach is that there are no parts of Torah that exist by accident. Perhaps the real purpose of the “Red Heifer” is to remind us that it is a mitzvah to affirm that there are things beyond what we understand. We need to know that we do not know everything and that sometimes, even Torah is a mystery.
While this thesis seems to fly in the face of a religious tradition that prides itself on being rational and real-world relevant, we have to acknowledge that it is precisely the acceptance of mystery that makes life make sense. We walk sightless among miracles and take so much for granted. We feel the need to find answers even to the most unfathomable questions. In the face of beauty, we are skeptical. In the face of challenges, we are dismissive. We succumb to default negatives way too often. We lost touch with the concept of mystery, the very concept that drove Einstein past the atom, Galileo past an Earth-centered universe, which caused Moses to stop in wonder to look at a shrub on fire that did not burn, and which allows those of us who suffer tragic losses to renew and celebrate living again. This sense of mystery and wonder allows children to enjoy the box in which a gift came, almost as much as the gift itself. This sense of mystery gives us the desire to build futures with each other and to dream big dreams. Torah can only make sense outside of the realms of the rational and concrete. Each generation rewrites Torah as it reads it with relevant eyes. The moment that we say “the Torah says,” we strip the text of its intended purpose … the mitzvah of (paraphrasing Rav Kook) making the old words new and the contexts holy.
These days, we are stuck. The news is tragic, and hope seems distant. As awkward as it may sound for a liberal rabbi to say, I that it is time to give faith a chance. I see the ugliness with which we talk about our police, our candidates, our neighbors, and our neighbors’ children. How many “God worshipping” people are depicting candidates and the “other” on any social debate in ways that no sense of God would approve? Folks, we are so separated from each other that there is no longer room in our hearts for mystery and wonder. Ugly speech is so deeply rooted around us that it impacts how we address (or spiritually undress) each other on a daily basis. In whatever ways in which we think of our connections with divinity … traditional or non-traditional … we know that when we find ourselves unable to rely on each other, our world collapses. We cannot live in a world where we have to battle constantly the “us versus them” just to survive. This country deserves better from each of us, irrespective of who you are supporting. Our children and grandchildren deserve to inherit a better world order than the one we currently forge. Take a vow, right now, let’s stop. Let’s take a long term sabbatical from the need or desire to defame each other. We will get a lot more accomplished together, and it will be a long and extended Shabbat Shalom.