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July 3, 2009 4:23 pm

Chukas: The Mystery of Death

avatar by Yosef Y. Jacobson

Email a copy of "Chukas: The Mystery of Death" to a friend

Till my father died five weeks ago, on May 29, 2005, I never understood the real meaning of loss. Sure, I wrote about it, I lectured on the subject, I listened to many tales of people who experienced it. I tried to be understanding, sympathetic and offer comfort, but I never really understood what it meant.

Then my family and I were struck with the passing of our beloved father, my teacher, my hero and my mentor. And now… I search for my father everywhere. I search for him in every drawer of his home, and on every desk of his office. I search for him in his pens, type-writers, and thousands of notebooks and articles. It is hard for me to fathom that this human being who so pulsated with life, has left this world and I will never hear his voice again.

And my mind flashes back to a Thursday evening, eighteen years ago.

I will never forget the evening of March 10, 1988, or 21 Adar 5748. I was a young boy, fifteen years of age, but the words I heard that night remain etched in my memory because of the intense emotion and vulnerability they displayed.

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Just thirty days prior to that, my Rebbe bid farewell to his wife, Rebbetzin Chayah Muskah Schneerson. Married for fifty-nine years and childless, bound together in Stalin’s Russia, escaping together Hitler’s Berlin, running as one from the burning flames of Nazi occupied France, then living together for 47 years in the United States, the Lubavitcher Rebbe and his wife enjoyed an extraordinarily close relationship.

The Rebbe respected his wife immensely. After her death, during the Shiva, he told the then New York Mayor Ed Kotch that “only G-d really knows her true value.” The Rebbe’s secretary once told me that each morning before he went off to his office, the Rebbe would tell his wife what time exactly he would be home. “If the Rebbe saw that he would be delayed even by ten minutes, he would make sure to phone her” (a good lesson for all husbands reading this: If the Rebbe could do it; you and I have no excuse…).

Right after the Rebbe would conclude a public address, upon returning to his office, he would phone his wife and tell her that he was OK. Needless to say, this attitude was reciprocated by the Rebbetzin to her husband.

Her sudden passing, in the middle of the night, while visiting the hospital because of an ulcer, profoundly affected the Rebbe. All of us could see how pained and broken the Rebbe appeared. But the first time he actually spoke publicly about his emotions, was only thirty days after her passing, at a weeknight address from his home on President Street in Brooklyn. It is only now that I could, unfortunately, internalize this address in a personal way.

Incidentally, his talk that evening was based on the week’s Torah portion, Chukas. This shall be the theme of my essay this week.

Ashes and Water

In the beginning of the week’s portion (Chukas), we explore what the Sages defined as the most mysterious Mitzvah in Judaism, known as “the mitzvah of the red cow.”

In short, the ritual worked like this: A red heifer was slaughtered and burnt, its ashes stored and preserved with much care. If a man or a woman became spiritually contaminated through contact with a human corpse, fresh water from a spring or a river was mixed with some of the ashes of the read heifer. The ash-water mixture was then sprinkled upon the contaminated human being, cleansing him or her from their ritual impurity.

The mystery of this mitzvah is so profound that it inspired the brilliant King Solomon to make the following confession: “I said I would be wise, but it is far from me.” The Midrash explains Solomon’s words thus: Through my wisdom I gained insight into all of the mitzvos of the Torah; but for a comprehension of the mitzvah of the red cow, “I searched, I questioned, I scrutinized, and I discovered that it was far from me.”

This explains an anomaly in the opening verses of the portion, where G-d says to Moses “They shall take to you a red cow.” Why “to you”? The cow wasn’t taken to Moses? The Midrash explains that G-d was essentially telling Moses, “Only to you will I reveal the secret of the red cow; but to everybody else [even King Solomon himself] it will remain a supra-rational decree.”

But here is the big question:

What makes this ash-water sprinkling ritual so enigmatic as to inspire a declaration by King Solomon that he understood all of the mitzvos save for this one? What makes this mitzvah so incomprehensible that G-d tells Moses that he is the only human being who may have some insight into this mitzvah?

Let’s face it: Many other Mitzvos can be seen as equally mysterious. For example, when a Jewish woman culminates her monthly period, she immerses herself in a mikvah, a natural pool of water, which bestows upon her body a profound holiness and purity. Even if the woman showers ten times, it does not suffice; according to Jewish tradition, she must go to the mikvah.

Does this make more sense than sprinkling a mixture of ash and water on a contaminated person?

What about the mitzvah of tzitzis, of Jewish men having fringes hanging down from their four cornered garments? Does this make any sense? And how about the Jewish tradition to shake palm branches, citrons, myrtle branches and willows during the holiday of Sukkos — why are these rituals any less mysterious than sprinkling a water-ash mixture on the body of a ritually impure person

When Moses’ face turned green

A dramatic tradition in Midrash records the following incident:

Throughout the entire Bible, whenever G-d told Moses about a person becoming spiritually impure through contact with a contaminated object or creature (say, a dead weasel), He immediately informed him of the means for purification. But there was one exception: When G-d informed Moses that according to Torah law a person becomes contaminated through contact with a human corpse, He did not proceed to present to Moses a means for purification.

So Moses decided to broach the topic on his own: “Moses said to G-d,” the Midrash relates, ‘Master of the universe, if a person becomes contaminated through a human corpse, how shall he become pure?'”

G-d remained silent.

“At that moment, Moses’ face turned green.”

Only much later, says the Midrash, “When G-d reached the section of the red cow, did He say to Moses: ‘When I communicated to you the laws of ritual impurity through contact with a human corpse, you asked Me, how can this person become pure, but I did not respond. Now I will give you the answer.”

And G-d proceeded to present the entire mitzvah of mixing the ashes of a red cow with fresh water and sprinkling it upon the contaminated human being, this bringing about his or her purification.

When Moses heard this answer, the Midrash continues, he protested and said, “Is this the way to achieve purity”? And G-d responded: “This is the law; it is my decree and there is no existing creature who can comprehend this decree.”

Four Questions

It is quite clear that this Midrashic tale contains dramatic symbolism and profound depth. How are we to understand this mysterious exchange between Moses and G-d?

Another few question come to mind:

1) Why did G-d, following Moses query, remain silent? Since G-d did have an answer “up His sleeve,” and He ultimately did communicate it to Moses, why did He not say it to begin with, instead of allowing Moses to grapple with uncertainty?

2) Why did G-d’s silence on this issue trouble Moses so deeply, as to transform the color of this man’s unusually dazzling countenance to green? One could find worse tragedies that occurred in Moses’ life. Yet it was only in this instance that Moses’ face turned green! Why such a dramatic emotional response?

3) Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of laws in Judaism are not explicitly stated in the Bible. They are deduced from existing biblical text via a very meticulous and complicated methodology that G-d presented to Moses, known as “the thirteen methods.” When G-d refused to present Moses with an answer to his legalistic question, why did Moses not go in search for the answer himself, using the methods G-d had given him in order to deduce unspecified laws?

Recovery After Loss

When G-d spoke to Moses of the contamination caused through contact with a human corpse, He was not only referring to the legalistic implications of  impurity, namely, that a ritually impure person was prohibited from engaging in certain religious acts (like entering the Holy Temple or eating sacred foods, etc.). G-d was also referring to the psychological, mental and physical “contamination” that occurs as a result of death

But unlike other times when G-d spoke to Moses about various forms of mental and psychological contamination, when G-d spoke of the contamination — the anguish and despair — caused as a result of human death, He did not mention anything about purification and healing.

So Moses said to G-d: “Master of the universe, if a person becomes contaminated through a human corpse, how shall he become pure?” This was no mere legalistic question on ritual law; it was a cry stemming from an aching and vulnerable Moses: How can a person ever recover after real loss, was Moses’ question to G-d. Is there life after death for those who stay behind?

G-d did not answer. He remained silent.

G-d’s silence was an answer. G-d was saying that He has no answer.

Moses Is Broken

“At that moment,” says the Midrash, “Moses’ face turned green.”

Moses was devastated. If G-d Himself did not know or did not wish to share the answer to this question, it meant to Moses that death ultimately triumphed over life; that a person can indeed never truly regain his spirit and dignity after suffering a loss. This meant that with the death of a loved one, the survivor also died in some way. He could never really live again.

Only much later, says the Midrash, “When G-d reached the section of the red cow, did He say to Moses: ‘When I communicated to you the laws of ritual impurity through contact with a human corpse, you asked Me, how can this person become pure, but I did not respond. Now I will give you the answer.” And G-d proceeded to present the entire ritual of mixing the ashes of a red cow with fresh water and sprinkling it upon the contaminated human being.

With this mitzvah of the red cow, G-d was not only presenting a technical law on how to remove ritual impurity from the body of a contaminated person; He was presenting a response to death, a recipe for renewal, a roadmap for healing.

And the primary ingredients were mixing black ashes with fresh spring water.

The Beginning and the End

What is the secret behind mixing ashes and water?

Ashes are what remain after an object has been cremated and destroyed. Water, on the other hand, represents the commencement of life: A fetus develops in its mother’s womb while submerged in water. Water embodies the beginning; ashes — the end.

Spring water is fresh and vibrant, invigorating an exhausted spirit, quenching a thirsty body and bringing comfort to a parched soul. Ashes, on the other hand, are dark and bleak, representing feelings of melancholy, dryness and despair. Water represents life; ashes — death.

G-d was essentially telling Moses about the human duty to mix the ashes of death with the waters of life. A human being, G-d was saying, ought to intertwine the end with the beginning, to remember that every end also harbors a new beginning, both for the soul that ended its journey on earth and for the people left behind. Each sunset creates the opportunity for a new dawn.

When Moses heard this answer, the Midrash continues, he protested and said, “Is this the way to achieve purity”? Even after this revelation Moses could still not come to terms with the reality of a life that was and is no more. To which G-d responds: “This is the law; it is my decree and there is no existing creature who can comprehend this decree.”

And even though G-d tells Moses, “To you will I reveal the secret of the red cow,” to the rest of humanity it remains a sheer mystery. No one could ever put his finger on the paradox of life and death; no one can ever feel that he fully closed the lid on the dynamic of death.

That is what King Solomon meant when he spoke of this mitzvah of cleansing a person who came in contact with death and declared, “I said I would be wise, but it is far from me. I searched, I questioned, I scrutinized, and I discovered that it was far from me.” Of course, intellectually and theologically one may understand that a soul never dies; that death is only the beginning of a new life on a different plain. One might understand that those who truly live are not afraid to die, because the end of something is only frightening for one who never owned it in the first place.

Philosophically this may work. But emotionally and experientially, the mitzvah of the “red cow” remains the quintessential mystery of life and of Judaism. The mitzvah that we must march forward with life, optimism and faith is one that we are committed to with every fiber of our being; but one that is accompanied by a very real and deep question mark.

Even G-d Himself remained silent after Moses’ cry, “How shall he become pure?!” Only later would G-d present to Moses a path for rejuvenation. Why?

G-d’s silence was in itself an answer. G-d was saying that the appropriate response to loss was silence, for there is something about death that is forever inexplicable and could never be integrated. A gap between the mind and the heart was expected and normal. All the explanations in the world and beyond, could not eliminate the devastation, the tears, the pain, the shock and the grief.

The first and primary answer to death, G-d was telling Moses, is that there is no answer. In a profoundly vulnerable moment, G-d was embracing the human truth that till Moshiach comes speedily in our days, death can never find a comfortable space in our hearts.

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