Parshat Chukat

Tweet about this on Twitter0Share on Facebook0Share on LinkedIn0Pin on Pinterest0

The Kohen shall take a piece of cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson
thread, and cast them into the burning of the cow – Numbers 19:6

Mr Strauss-Kahn, 62, denies all charges and is currently under armed
guard on a $6 million bail, awaiting trial. His alleged victim, a 32-year-old
Guinean chambermaid who lived in a lowly red-brick apartment
block in the Bronx, has disappeared from view – Telegraph May 2011

The Torah reading today begins with a fascinating, yet incomprehensible purification ritual – the mitzvah of the Red Heifer (Parah Adumah). This mitzva is what we term a “chok” – no reason is listed in the Torah for its observance, and its observance is a sign of our faith in G-d, that we fulfil all the commandments whether we understand the reasons for them or not.

Death in Judaism is seen as a primary cause of spiritual impurity (Tumah). Contact with a corpse causes the strongest form of Tumah, and you become Tamei ­and in need of purification. The ritual of the Red Heifer entails sprinkling the Tamei individual with a mixture of ash and spring water. The ash itself was produced by burning a very specific group of ingredients – an unblemished, unworked and monochromatic red heifer, cedar wood, hyssop and crimson thread. Once mixed together with spring water (Mayim Chayim) these ashes became a potent mixture capable of banishing Tumah.

Although this is specifically meant to be a chok­ – a commandment with no explicit reason given as to how exactly it works, we try to understand what message this ritual may impart to us. The Sages understand there to be a link between two cows, one red and one golden. The ritual of the Red Heifer atones somehow for the sinful creation of the Golden Calf, and they see many of the details in the Parah Adumah process as part of this atonement.

In this light let us look closer at the components of the ash mixture and their significance; cedar wood, hyssop and crimson thread. These three items are used to symbolise sin and repentance: The lofty cedar tree representing haughtiness, pride and arrogance, often a primary cause leading people to sin. The other two items show the opposite – hyssop is a low lying plant, and the crimson thread is compared to a lowly worm, both a far cry from the towering cedar. The symbolism here is clear – arrogance leads to sin, whereas humility before G-d and Man is a starting point for those who wish to avoid sin.

It is so easy to feel pride in our achievements and successes, whether academic, financial, religious or otherwise. It is so natural to assume that success comes as a result of the effort we put in, and we therefore are proud when we do achieve. But there is only a short distance to travel from pride to arrogance, or from believing that success is granted from Above, to believing that success is a result of our efforts alone. The mitzva of Parah Adumah and its connection to the sin of the Golden Calf reminds us that pride comes before a fall and arrogance can only lead to sin.

Possibly more troubling than the arrogance some people have is the desire of those around them to see the mighty fall. We seem to live in a culture where the downfall of a celebrity is something laudable to gossip about. Yes, we all know that gossip (lashon hara) is a sin, but hey, didn’t he/she have it coming to them? Look at them with the flashy lifestyle, money, homes, holidays, cars etc, isn’t it fun to see them brought down to earth a little. We are quick to rush to judgement about people we think we know because their photograph adorns the front covers of gossip magazines. Their public persona seems to give us carte blanche to act as judge and jury. (This does not of course condone any form of inappropriate lifestyle they may lead)

A prime example of the public jumping to conclusions was in the recent arrest of  Dominique Strauss-Khan, until recently Managing Director of the IMF. Within a few hours, a single accusation by a hotel chambermaid had turned this man into a violent criminal. Now, even the close friends of DSK will tell you he is no saint, but without giving him the benefit of doubt, he was judged as “guilty until proven innocent.” Within a few hours of being accused of horrific behaviour he was being paraded before the International Press as a common criminal, cuffed and humiliated, soon to be vilified and unemployed.

I do not claim to know Strauss Kahn, nor the facts of what really happened, I just saw the delight in the media at the bringing down of a powerful, wealthy, possibly arrogant figure. In due course the trial may take place and he may be convicted or acquitted but a quick glance at the headlines today tells us that the whole case may collapse completely. New evidence has shown that the Guinean chambermaid who made the accusation has been caught in a “web of lies” with multiple bank accounts stuffed with large amounts of money possibly linked to drug dealing and money laundering. Not so simple after all.

When Ronald Reagan was President, his Secretary of Labour, Ray Donovan, was cleared of all charges in a very high-profile corruption case. Following his acquittal, he asked: “Where do I go to get my reputation back?” It is very, very easy to bring people down and to ruin their reputations, when they are powerful and arrogant it may even be tempting, but the fall from cedar to hyssop, from arrogance to humility must always come from within. Far worse than the sin of arrogance is the sin of causing another to suffer public humiliation – described by the Sages as a form of murder.

There have been nine Red Heifers throughout Jewish history. The tenth will be in the era of the Mashiach. When we treat others with the respect we wish for ourselves we can be assured that the tenth Red Heifer is just around the corner.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Zalman Lent.

Tweet about this on Twitter0Share on Facebook0Share on LinkedIn0Pin on Pinterest0