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עשה תורתך קבע – אמור מעט ועשה הרבה

It’s a Mystery, Yes it Is – פרשת חקת

Posted by rabbiart on June 30, 2008

Our parshah this Shabbat opens with the commandment to concerning the red heifer – פָרָה אֲדֻמָּה . This commandment is considered by almost all Torah scholars to be the most mysterious commandments in the Torah.  So we rely this week on perhaps the greatest of all modern Torah scholars – Nehama Leibowitz –  אליה השלום    – for help in studying the commandment.  Professor Leibowitz writes (Studies in BaMidbar) “Our Sages observed that it was one of the matters which even the wisdom of the wisest of men failed to fathom:” and quotes from Midrash Yalkut Shimoni

This is the statute of the Torah”. R. Isaac opened with the text: “All this I have tried to fathom by wisdom…. Thus spoke Solomon: I succeeded in understanding the whole Torah, but as soon as I reach this chapter about the Red Heifer, I searched, probed and questioned, “I said I will get wisdom, but it was far from me.

Professor Leibowitz then goes on to state, in a remarkable display of humility (an attribute we should all emulate in everything we do) “We shall similarly not pretend to fathom it completely but shall present some of the observations of our commentators and Sages.”

After presenting an explanation from R. Joseph Bechor Shor and another explantion from Sforno, she brings the explanation of the great Talmudic sage Rabi Yohanan ben Zakkai, with the prefatory remark that “His words are highly instructive for us today.”

A certain heathen asked R. Yohanan ben Zakkai: The rites you perform in connection with the Red Heifer smell of witchcraft! You bring a heifer, burn it, grind it and take its ashes. You sprinkle two or three drops on one of you who is contaminated with corpse defilement and say to him, You are clean. Said R. Yohanan b. Zakkai to him: Have you never been possessed by a demon? He answered: No. – Have you never seen a man possessed by a demon? He answered: Yes. – And what do you do for him? – We bring herbs and make them smoke beneath him, and throw water on him and the demon is exorcised. He answered: Let your ears hear what your mouth has spoken. The spirit of defilement is the same as your demon. We sprinkle on it the waters of purification and it is exorcised.

After the heathen had left, R. Yohanan’s disciples said to him: Him you have put off with a straw, but what answer will you give us? He replied to them. By your life, neither does the dead defile nor the water purify, but the Holy One blessed be He said: It is a statute I have laid down, a decree that I have decreed and you are not authorised to violate my decree.

What words of the Kadosh Bar’chu are highly instructive for us today?  Obviously, Professor Leibowitz is referring to the final sentence of R. Zakkai’s teaching.

This brings us to the question of authority in our own religious practice.  Considering only the three “major branches” of American Judaism; Reform, Conservative and Orthodox, we see differing approaches. (By the way, I don’t like the labels, and I don’t like the situation where Klal Yisrael finds itself divided into so many different and opposing communities, but this also is not new).  The Reform movement has taken the position, so to speak, that each individual educated Jew should make her own decisions about what to take from our tradition.  This is sometimes expressed that Halacha has a vote but not a veto.  The Conservative movement practice is that the Halacha, as interpreted by Rabbis, and in particular the Rabbis of the Rabbinical Assembly Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, interpret an ever evolving Halacha in the light of historical developments and a consideration of modern times.  Orthodoxy (a broad label for a variety of religous communities) generally takes the position that Halacha, as expressed in the Oral Torah, does not change; only the understanding of it. (And yes, each of these descriptions is a broad generalization and an over simplification).

Authority is perhaps a difficult concept for us moderns, unless of course we’re talking about our own authority and our drive to impose our authority on others.  Consider this. Do you accept the concept of an authority is higher than your own?

Shabbat Shalom

Additional Notes:

  1. You can read Professor Leibowitz’s commentary here.
  2. “Put off with a straw”.  In Hebrew the phrase is   קנה של דרש or “weak reed of an explanation”.

One Response to “It’s a Mystery, Yes it Is – פרשת חקת”

  1. Shirley Gould said

    As I continue to struggle to understand Torah, I wonder: Is it okay to acknowledge that there are some concepts I simply can’t understand? The portion about the Red Heifer is one I have tried to grasp for many years, but it is hardly more clear to me now than then.

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