Perashat Hukkat: The Red Heifer Ritual — Distance Bringing You Closer

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

This weeks perasha 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 the expected 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 how far beyond reason is this ceremony? Perhaps not far. The Midrash states that Gd gave Moshe a complete analysisof the meanings of this ceremony, but confidentially, asking Moshe not to reveal it to the people. Thus there are meanings, according to the Midrash, just they are not given to us at this point. 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, as it were, the Vehicle to its understanding.

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 any present moment, and this odd passage must be no exception. The Baal Shem Tov’s approach, as reported by his disciples, involved meditation upon this section, even in the present time when the possibility of actually performing the ceremony was non-existent, as a technique for achieving humility and countering excessive pride, among other concepts, as we will see at the end of this survey.

The 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 commonly translated, but in fact the term 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. That message which must be engraved upon ones heart is not, however, specified in that particular teaching.

Of interest to us is another approach found in the NE, which builds upon the Midrash quoted earlier regarding King Solomon’s inability to comprehend this ritual. The Noam Elimelech catches the use of the word distance, rehoka, in the cited verse, referring to the distance which understanding kept from him, or perhaps an implied distance being the message of this ceremony, since the root of distance, rehoka, is similar to hukka.

The 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. Thus there is implied a connection between distance and the spiritual.

The NE suggests that the red heifer text is really about teshuva, repentance, the coming closer to Gd. It is the nature of the dialectic of coming close, that nearness so often reveals distancing. When one makes the effort to come closer, to abrogate past spiritual failings (the contact with death signifying the ultimate cessation of the spiritual in this worldly affairs), then Gd draws the individual closer in a reciprocated move. However, once one attains such heights of spiritual insight one then realizes how far the individual is from Gd in every way. This distance does not imply a rebuff on the part of Gd, 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 structure of closeness equaling 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, the importance of striving to bridge the unbridgeable gap is distinctly Hassidic, with an interesting parallel in Levinas, as we will see.

I was startled by the similarity between the Hassidic paradox of distance and the summation of Levinas’ work Totality and Infinity. The “infinity” referred to in the title is 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, 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 constitutes the essence of time but rather is an unknown, which is, in a sense, transcended by fecundity-

…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 actually grounds the closest truth to ones own being, in Levinas labelled “fecundity”.

Perhaps the clearest restatement of this concept of the gaps and distances being determinate of one deepest self understanding is found in the Baal Shem Tov himself in a teaching on the verse from Perashat Noach, which states that Gd Hithalech, that is, walked (using a reflexive verb) Noach, implying an accompaniment, a walking beside, that is actually at the same time a leading of, a guidance. The BST explains this “walking of” with a poignant metaphor that of a parent trying to teach a child to walk. The parents 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. The BST explains that this interaction is how we need to view our relationships with Gd -and with each other- sometimes, when you sense that you are very far away, this may be a sign that you are in actuality much closer than you ever were before. I suppose in simple terms, sometimes you need the long view, a stepping away from yourself to actually see yourself better.

These are the hukkot, the inexplicable distances, reehuk, we experience, that leave their traces at the most intimate, the most close, or in the words of Chazel, that chakaku, engrave themselves upon our hearts.

Mark H. Kirschbaum, MD, is a hematology and cancer specialist based in Duarte, CA.
tags: Torah Commentary   
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