…Away with boundaries, those enemies of horizons! Let genuine distance appear! –Czeslaw Milosz

This weeks Torah portion begins with the laws of ritual purification mandated by contact with the dead. The ceremony, in days when the Temple stood, involved the ashes of a red heifer, which were reconstituted by the priest with purified water (an early “not-from-concentrate” product, I suppose, and in which no downer cattle could be used) and sprinkled upon the individual or object that needed purification. Curiously, while the formerly ritually defiled individual was now ritually pure, the priest that performed the ceremony became himself temporarily ritually defiled, as the Talmudic phrase goes, “the ashes of the red heifer purify the defiled and defile the pure”.

This ceremony is uniquely bizarre and the Torah itself identifies it as such, in the opening verse of the section, labeling the ceremony as a Hukka, traditionally translated as a “law which is beyond any kind of sense or interpretation”. While there are other laws, generally ritual ones, that are categorized this way, the red heifer ceremony is considered the archetypal Hukka. In fact, the Talmud and Midrash understand the passage in Kohelet 7:23, “I thought I would become wise but wisdom remained distant from me”, as being an admission from King Solomon, wisest of all men, that making any sense of this commandment was beyond his ken.

Needless to say, the moment a statement is categorized as being inexplicable, all the commentators will immediately rush to offer explanations. Rashi, after a disclaimer about the red heifer rituals being beyond comprehension, presents a complete reading of the ritual down to its small details, derived from an earlier source, R. Moshe Hadarshan.

So is this ceremony far beyond reason? Perhaps not far. The Midrash states that God gave Moshe a complete explanation of all the meanings of this ceremony, but instructed Moshe not to reveal the meanings to the people. Thus there are rationale, according to the Midrash, just they are not known to us. In fact, the Sefat Emet, derives from this Midrash a viewpoint more commonly known from Buddhist theology- he states that a hukka like the red heifer ceremony is a commandment that cannot be understood prior to its experience- its performance is the Vehicle to its understanding. After the ritual is done, one comes to a certain understanding that one could not have attained without the actual experience of the rite, the rite is itself illuminating experientially.

So then, what are these meanings, can they be known nowadays, when we no longer have the ability to perform the actual rite? From the very beginning of the Hasidic movement, the hermeneutic challenge attributed to the Baal Shem Tov was to make every letter in the Torah relevant to the contemporary reader searching for deeper meaning (a sort of reverse fundamentalism). There could be no passage without some message for the present time, and this odd passage must be no exception. So what meanings can we take away from this strange section?

One early Hassidic master who seems to be particularly interested in this text, is the Noam Elimelech (R. Elimelech of Lizensk). Generally, his written comments are fragmentary and terse, but on this subject, we have several pages of discussion, with multiple different possibilities presented. As an example, he suggests that the word hukka does not mean a law that is inexplicable, as is commonly translated, but rather hukka is derived from a different etymology entirely, from the homonymous verb, lahkok, which means ‘to engrave’; that is, performance of this ritual causes a message to be engraved upon ones heart. It is a performative act that leaves a trace upon the individual doing the action.

The Noam Elimelech, in another reading, builds upon the Midrash quoted earlier regarding King Solomon’s inability to comprehend this ritual, where Shlomo (Solomon) says rehoka hi mimeni, that the meaning of the command was “distant from me”. The Noam Elimelech notes the use of the word distance, rehoka, in the cited verse, and says that it should not be read as “the meaning of the ceremony is distant from me”, suggesting lack of understanding, but rather, “it signifies distance to me”, that this rite teaches the meaning of distance as a concept (as he points out, rehoka shares the same set of letters as hukka).

The Noam Elimelech (NE) notes that the phrase distance appears in other texts dealing with sublime spiritual moments, for example, in the episode of the binding of Isaac, we are told that at the third day, at the height of the spiritual challenge, Abraham sees the place from a distance. So what is the  connection between distance and spirituality?

The NE explains that the red heifer rite is really about teshuva, repentance, the coming closer to God. It is the nature of the dialectic of coming close, that nearness so often reveals distancing. When one makes an effort to come closer, to renew the relationship, so to speak, then God reciprocates by drawing the individual closer, leading to a sense of spiritual achievement. However, once one attains such ecstatic heights of spiritual insight one then realizes how far apart the individual is from God in every existential way. This sense of distance does not imply a rebuff on the part of God, in fact, the opening of this divide is meant as an invitation to cross over to an even higher spiritual understanding, which by the nature of these things would lead to an even more humbling recognition of the chasm in between, which, one presumes, would continue infinitely, sort of like the differential in calculus.

A similar recognition of the dialectic between proximity and distance is seen in the essay by R. Soloveitchik on the central prayer of the Hebrew prayerbook, the Amida. The first blessing implies a very personal historical relationship with Gd, which leads to a reflection upon Gd’s being close at hand. While pondering Gd’s personal omnipresence, one is immediately propelled towards contemplating Gd’s omnipotence, to the point we reach at the close of the second blessing, the most inexplicable concept, Blessed art thou, who revives the dead! There is no way to bridge this distance other than by the resignation implied in the third blessing where we invoke the concept of holiness, with something “holy” being entirely distant and beyond explanatory terminology. However, where in Soloveitchik the response to this dialectic is left as a moment of resignation (perhaps under the influence of Kierkegaard’s concept of  the knight of infinite resignation), in the NE the gap between distance and closeness is a gap one continuously strives to overcome.

I was startled by the similarity between the Hassidic dialectic of distance and the closing pages of Levinas’ work Totality and Infinity. The “infinity” in Levinas’ title refers to the endless number of worlds, of possibilities one can achieve when one begins to perceive of the Other as entirely different from oneself. Levinas then defines:

This distance is then the route to which endless possibilities of human existence present themselves. Distance with regard to being, by which the existent exists in truth, is produced as time and as consciousness, or again, as anticipation of the possible. The structure of consciousness or of temporality-of distance and truth-results from an elementary gesture of the being that refuses totalization. In fecundity (to Levinas, the ultimate Othering which is transformative of the self, when being open to all the possibilities one opens towards the future, is that of the relation of parent and child, which he labels fecundity) distance with regard to being is not only provided in the real; it consists in a distance with regard to the present itself. The discontinuous time of fecundity makes possible an absolute youth and recommencement. This recommencement of the instant, this triumph of the time of fecundity over the beginning of the mortal and aging being, is a pardon, the very work of time.

Note the introduction of the concept of pardon in this paragraph, which plays a role similar to that of teshuva in the Noam Elimelech. Pardon acts as a retroaction, an ability to redetermine the meaning of the past in such a way as to open whole new futures. In fact, contra Heidegger, death is not the finitude of being, that brick wall that we all run up against, that constitutes the essence of time but rather is an unknown, which is, in a sense, transcended by fecundity, by the openness to the future-

…the fact and the justification of time consist in the recommencement it makes possible in the resurrection, across fecundity, of all the compossibles sacrificed in the present.

Thus we see a structural similarity, whereby the act of achieving pardon, helps transcends the gap of Otherness which in turn opens up a whole realm of new possibilities of being. It is the experience of the distances themselves which bring about this transformation. What appears to be a distance is the “fecundity” which grounds the intimate truth closest to one’s own being.

Perhaps the clearest restatement of this concept of the gaps and distances being determinate of one deepest self-understanding is found in a teaching attributed to the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidut, on the verse from the Noah episode, which states that God Hithalech, that is, walked Noach(using the reflexive verb tense), implying an accompanying, a walking beside of, that is actually at the same time a guiding of, a giving direction to.

The Baal Shem Tov explains this “walking of” with an unforgettable metaphor, that of a parent trying to teach a child to walk. The parent holds up the child, the child stands up, and suddenly the parent withdraws and backs away, in order to prompt the child into taking those first steps toward the parent. To the child, or to a distant observer, this backing away may seem to be a cruel distancing, but it is in reality a loving goad for the child to take those first steps. And when the child succeeds in taking these steps, the parent then steps even further away…

These are the hukkot, the inexplicable distances, reehuk, we experience, which leave their traces at the most intimate, the ‘most close’, these moments that chakaku, engrave themselves upon our hearts.

The Baal Shem explains that this parent-child interaction is how we need to view all our relationships (with God, with each other) sometimes, it is when you feel the furthest away, that you are about to reach a whole new type of relationship, that you are actually so much closer than you ever were before.

You may just need to step away from yourself in order to see yourself better.


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