March 27, 2008

The statute of the law which HaShem has commanded

(Numbers 19:2) 20 Adar II, 5768/March 27, 2008

Purim is behind us now and Passover lays ahead. Just as in the days of the Holy Temple, we have much to do to prepare for Passover. In the time of the Holy Temple the half shekel tax is collected during the month of Adar, workers sent by the officials at the Temple are busy repairing roads and bridges to accommodate the thousands of pilgrims, and, of course, families and communities are busy making their pilgrimage preparations, not the least of which is the acquiring of the lamb that each group of pilgrims will bring up to the Temple Mount to be used as their Passover offering - korban Pesach - the very centerpiece of the Passover festival. We are today living in a period where there is no Temple, and the ability to perform the Passover offering has not yet been attained. So what is it that so occupies us during the coming weeks?

To be sure, many of us have already begun cleaning our houses and using up our supply of leavened food stuffs, so as to be ready to fulfill the Biblical commandment, "Seven days you will eat unleavened bread; By the first day, you must have your homes cleared of all leaven. Whoever eats leaven from the first day until the seventh day will have his soul cut off from Israel." (Exodus 12:15) Inevitably, this Passover preparation transcends the focus of the commandment and turns into a very intensive type of "spring cleaning."

But there is another sphere of preparation, ultimately no less important than ridding our households of leavened goods. And this preparation, too, is rooted in Biblical commandment and in the Israelite nation's Temple experience. This upcoming Shabbat, parashat Para, (the Biblical verses (Numbers 19:1-10) concerning the preparation of the red heifer and the sprinkling of its ashes), is read in synagogues throughout the world. It is read this time each year, in the weeks leading up to Passover, reminding us of the central role the red heifer played in the Passover pilgrimage and the korban Pesach brought by the entire nation of Israel, where the lambs were slaughtered by the priests in the courtyards of the Holy Temple, and eaten on the seder night - the first night of Passover, in homes and courtyards within the city of Jerusalem. The red heifer rendered people possessing a particular level of spiritual impurity, pure, allowing them to ascend to the Holy Temple with their Passover offering. Without the unique "mechanism" of the red heifer, proper observance of the Passover commandments would have been impossible.

Today we recall the integrality of the red heifer by reading the above cited verses. But is "recalling" all that is truly required of us? Or is the red heifer, even in these days, when the Holy Temple has yet to be rebuilt and the Passover offering is yet to be performed as in the days of old, still relevant and full of import?

The red heifer is a chok - an ordinance - and like all Torah ordinances, it is concerned solely with the relationship between G-d and man, and not man and man. And like all Torah ordinances, unlike the commandments which guide our actions and intentions toward our fellow man, the red heifer offers no common sense or logical explanation or understanding. We can rationally understand the importance of the commandment not to kill, or to appoint judges and establish courts. We can even grasp the logic behind destroying Amalek or insuring that proper treatment be afforded to the stranger in our midst, because we were strangers in Egypt. But there is no line of reasoning that can explain how the ashes of a red heifer, cedar-wood, hyssop, and scarlet, when mixed with pure water can completely transform the spiritual and physical status of an individual vis a vis G-d.

Accepting the ordinance of the red heifer is itself a supreme test of our faith in G-d. In this way, it reflects the same kind of faith required of the enslaved Jews in Egypt, when each household took a lamb, considered a god to the Egyptians, slaughtered it and daubed its blood upon their doorposts for all the Egyptians, (and G-d), to see. While the observance, and even the remembrance of the red heifer may not be fraught with the same physical danger of the first Passover in Egypt, it nevertheless guarantees the spiritual life of the Jewish nation.

In order to accept and internalize the red heifer we are required to empty even the smallest part of our intellect of all our earthly clinging to rhyme and reason and rationality. Only by ridding ourselves of these chains that keep us enslaved to the world of the visible senses, can we free ourselves to the life changing opportunities that our allegiance to G-d has to offer. By cleaning our minds of their leavened bread, symbolizing the hubris by which we maintain that all phenomena is ultimately subject to rational explanation, (and therefore subject, somehow, to our control),and truly accepting the ordinance of the red heifer, even today, can we can re-experience the same liberation which transformed our ancestors in Egypt, turning slaves into free men.

Nisan, the month of Passover, the month of the exodus, is also known as the month of visible miracles. Unlike the hidden miracles of Purim, the miracles that led to and accompanied the exodus from Egypt were visible for all the world to see. We have the ability to witness G-d's miracles even today, if only we free our minds of the yoke of reason and rationalization, and open our eyes to the reality of His presence, here on earth.

Blessings from Jerusalem,
Yitzchak Reuven
PO Box 31876
Jerusalem, Israel 97500

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