Sometimes the retelling doesn’t quite live up to the actual event. This happens frequently when you work with kids. Students will share with me what is apparently the funniest thing that has ever happened to them, and even though they can’t stop laughing about it, I have no idea why they find it so funny. Or, I find myself relating a cute anecdote from a particular class, and somehow no one finds it quite as amusing as I do. These are the moments when you simply had to be there.
This week we read parshat Chukat, which is full of plot twists and new experiences for the Israelites. The lands of Sichon and Og are conquered, both Miriam and Aaron die, and we learn that Moshe will not be allowed to enter into the land of Israel. In the middle of these major developments, we are also given a purification process that seems somewhat out of place in the context of the significant events that follow it.
Chapter 19 of sefer Bamidbar begins by instructing the Israelites how to purify themselves from contamination by a corpse, and the ritual of the “red heifer” has inspired much discussion and debate.
“Instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid…give it to the priest to be slaughtered in his presence. The priest shall take some of its blood with his finger and sprinkle it seven times toward the front of the Tent of Meeting. The cow should be burned in his sight.”
Following this ritual the priest is to wash his clothes and wash himself. Another person who is already pure is to then take the ashes of the cow and put them outside the camp so that they may be kept for future purification.
The concept of cleansing following interaction with a corpse certainly resonates with our modern sensibilities. After all, we live in a world that requires items like latex gloves and Purell. However, no real explanation is given for the process described. Many commentators on the Torah see this as a classic example of a law that defies rational explanation. We are asked to understand and follow the law not because we can make sense of it, but because it is a sign of our devotion to God.
Then again, maybe you just had to be there. Too often in our interpretations of the Biblical word, we try to view the text through a contemporary lens. In our attempt to rationalize or comprehend, we forget how much the world has changed since the writing of the Torah. This is by no means an excuse to ignore mitzvot or skip a Torah reading because it doesn’t make sense, but it is a reminder that in order to preserve our sacred tradition, we have to accept a degree of anachronism.
Is this a turnoff to those embracing the study of Judaism? Does it make the Jewish people out of touch? On the contrary, for me the history is part of the appeal. Mitzvot require intention – they require the injection of blessing and meaning beyond just doing. Nothing boosts kavanah like the knowledge that generations upon generations have struggled with the same questions and marveled at the same miracles. Our answer to “you had to be there” has been to use our tradition as a vehicle to take us there.
When you consider the spectrum of Judaism, from the puzzling details of the red heifer to the solemn beauty of Yom Kippur, clearly this is a religion that cannot be phoned in. You have to be there. Think about the intricacies of the Pesach seder; this is a holiday that begs us to “be there” to experience the Exodus. Why do we spin dreidels? To “be there” when Greek rule forbade the study of Torah.
From this strange and thought-provoking mitzvah in Chukat, we learn there is value beyond doing something because we fully understand it and even beyond doing it because God has asked us to do it. “Being there” means engaging in our tradition because Judaism – the entirety of our religion – has asked us to. May we invest that level of intention in everything we do.