The illusion of purity and everyday messy holiness
by Jhos Singer
This week’s Torah Portion, Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1) begins with what might be considered a Jewish koan, one of those pesky Zen riddles, statements, or paradoxes to be meditated upon in the hopes of gaining sudden intuitive enlightenment. The most famous of these is probably “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” (And of course leave it to the Jews to find an answer: Slap your forehead with one hand and say “oy vey”). A koan challenges our existing ideas and beliefs to push us beyond the neat and tidy world of reason. Here’s the Torah koan we find in our text:
“And God spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: This is the ordinance of the Torah which the God has commanded, saying: Speak to the people of Israel, that they bring you a purely red heifer, without any spot, scar or blemish and which was never yoked.” (Num. 19:1-2)
Once found, the red heifer is to be sacrificed and burned. The resultant ash is the essential ingredient for the purification rites required to initiate the priesthood to perform the temple rites. Without it Temple Judaism was impossible.
Well, it turns out that it is probably genetically impossible to throw a purely red cow. Modern Fundamentalists intent on building the 3rd Temple in their quest to bring about human redemption have tried, using sophisticated genetic technology, to breed a red heifer to no avail. Given that, it seems to me that perhaps the red heifer comes to teach us that purity is simply beyond our reach. Maybe the red heifer is a paradox, a metaphor or a “wink-wink, nod-nod” to a spiritual idea that is a real world dead-end.
What if the red heifer simply represents that state which is easy to imagine and mind bogglingly difficult to achieve in this world? What if the important thing is not the manifestation of the thing but rather the desire for spiritual illumination? What if pursuing purity is a trap that keeps us from the enlightenment that comes by staying kind and hopeful while being knee deep in the dazzling, beautiful, confounding, and schmootzic chaos we call Life? What if the temple fell because it was actually built on wishful thinking and the illusion of purity, while ignoring the everyday messy holiness.
So, on this Shabbat let’s accept the red heifer as a figment of our imagination, while embracing the wisdom in the mess—let’s celebrate the blessed humility that comes from apology, the purifying tears of grief, the compassion that inspires forgiveness, the relief of laughter, the peace in believing that we don’t have to be perfect or unblemished or innocent, we just have to be real. And that is within our reach.