Purity and purification were of utmost importance to our ancient Israelite ancestors, and for good reason. Theirs was a world of many dangers: marauding wildlife, uncontrollable diseases, bloodthirsty enemies, lawless bandits, the merciless forces of nature, and so forth. Purity was an ideal that they held out before themselves, that through various rituals they could achieve a pure state, in which God would favor them and lessen the danger.
Not much has changed. With COVID-19 potentially lurking in every corner, police brutality on display for all to see, racial injustice revealed in all its ugliness, anti-Semitism gathering steam, and governmental dysfunction of cataclysmic proportions, it is easy to feel like we are floundering in chaotic currents of human failure.
I could use a good cleanse right now.
And so it almost makes sense to read the passage in Parashat Huqqat about the parah adumah, the notoriously elusive “red heifer” used in preparing a magic potion that would cleanse anybody of tum’at met, ritual impurity that came from exposure to a corpse. Almost, because to contemporary ears this passage is inscrutable. And not only contemporary: a midrash (Bemidbar Rabbah 19:3) has the wise King Solomon declaring, “I have labored to understand the word of God and have understood it all, except for the ritual of the parah adumah.”
Nonetheless, one does see the appeal in achieving purity through curious rituals. I want all of this to be over. I want resolution. I want purity. And I want to be able to sit on my porch on a summer evening, survey the world, and think, All is right once again.
I want catharsis.
One of the greatest challenges that we see right now is that none of these things have a simple, sweet resolution. The virus is not going to magically disappear. The problematic political actors are not simply going to pick up their toys and go home. The system that reinforces racial injustice at many levels in American society is not going to fix itself. The Jew-haters are not going to crawl back into their holes. The Internet will not suddenly only speak the polite truth. The Earth’s atmosphere is not going to stop its steady warming. There is no magic potion. There is no parah adumah.
There is only us. And we are going to have to work together to solve these problems. But the good news is that we have solved many such challenges before, and we have the ability to do so again. But it will require that we listen to one another and to the words of professionals, that we act from a place of respect for each other rather than “winning.”
Perhaps what this passage teaches us is that the details and complexity of the parah adumah ritual, and indeed the impossibility of finding the right cow for the job, suggest that the easy way out does not exist; that although absolute purity is unattainable, we should nonetheless push ourselves to find it.
Lo alekha hamelakhah ligmor, velo attah ben horin lehibbatel mimmena, says Pirqei Avot. It is not up to you to finish the task, but neither can you let it go. We may not find either a red heifer nor that much-needed catharsis, but if we do not even seek to unite to solve big problems, then nothing will be solved. It is through cooperation and commitment that we will ultimately achieve purity.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally published in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, July 3, 2020.)