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The Price of Holiness, and Healing

Torah Talk on Chukat 5779

Congregation Beit Simcha of Tucson, AZ

This week in the book of Numbers we read the odd, ritualistic Torah portion of Chukat, the rites of the red heifer. In order to achieve true ritual purity ancient Jews were required to find a completely unblemished young red female cow, slaughter it, burn it to ashes, and mix the ashes with water to create a liquid of purification in which to wash away ritual impurity.

While many elements in the sacrificial code of our ancestors seem odd or alien, this might be the strangest ritual of all. For it turns out that the red heifer, the Parah Adumah, makes the one who is washed in its ash-water pure—but it makes everyone else who comes into contact with it impure. The mystery of this is complete, and commentators have struggled with its meaning ever since the time the Torah was given. Just what is it that makes the red heifer the right animal to bring purity to the people? And why does it make you pure if you use it properly, but make you impure when you are properly preparing it?

The classic answer to the first question is that God ordains the use of a red heifer as a symbolic reversal of the episode of the Golden Calf. Since the people sinned by praying to an idol of a calf, then the very real slaughter and burning of an actual cow, and the use of its ashes, might well atone for that transgression. But why should the process of making something that cleanses us ritually make us unclean?

Perhaps the answer is also symbolic: the process of bringing holiness into our world is never an easy one. Working in the field of holiness-creation is not simple. When you toil in the vineyards of the Lord there is a tendency for the muck that always exists in the world to attach itself to you. When we seek to bring purity into the lives of others we stand a good chance of exchanging some of our own innate sanctity for a bit of the grime that stubbornly persists in most people’s existence.

The complex reversal of holiness in a sacred cow, like the red heifer, symbolizes the way in which we can only bring sanctity and purity at a certain price. When we acknowledge that price, accept it and learn to cleanse ourselves ritually, and perhaps psychically, afterwards, we replenish our ability to help and heal others.

This can be true of those engaged in ritual healing, but for those engaged in assisting the damaged and broken among us to find greater wholeness in any field of endeavor. It is just as true for psychologists, social workers, physicians, and nurses, for counselors and teachers, indeed for anyone occupied with working to help heal the world.

First, we work to heal. Then we must work to heal ourselves, so that we can continue to help others.

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