By Joshua Schwartz
How fitting that, in this time of social distancing, the calendar that orders the weekly Torah reading has us chanting parshat Parah, which details the arcane rite of the Red Heifer, described in Numbers 19. Here, a pure-red cow is burnt to ashes and mixed in with water, which is used to cleanse all those impurified by contact with the dead. In Jewish theology and philosophy, this ritual is seen as the paradigmatic example of a chok, that is, a law without explanation or sense. However, I think its themes can strike a chord at this fraught moment, when contact and infection are at the forefront of our minds.
What is the ritual of the Red Heifer, and to what is it responding? The ashes of the burnt cow are used to make a potion of sorts that is used to cleanse all those who have been impurified by contact with the dead. Or, in other words, facing a universal outbreak of infection, a treatment is developed to help restore the body. While the arcane laws of taharah (purity) and tum’ah (impurity) are hard for the modern mind to grasp, G-d’s Torah has a sensitive understanding of the reality and function of infection. When we grapple with the laws of purity, we are always concerned with degrees of contact and proximity. The state of impurity, much like the disease that commands our attention today, spreads through touch and consumption. The danger we all seek to stem is that of the rapid, radial spread of infection, which the laws of tum’ah understand.
The Torah understands the intricacies of our social lives and the promise and the peril of what it means to be in community. We are there for each other in support, but we can also find ourselves to be potential sources of danger. At synagogue, we had already stopped shaking hands; serving food at the reception following services; and even in the sanctuary, while were meeting, we had begun to keep an empty seat between us. Now that we have been asked to self-isolate and even quarantine, we are not even able to meet safely in the same space. Precisely when we may find ourselves feeling the most afraid, we are deprived of intimacy and sources of support.
In the thick of the Torah’s description of the process of the Red Heifer ritual is tucked a pair of baffling lines, whose import seems unfair, but that yield real wisdom. Verses 7-8 reads, “[After burning the heifer,] the priest will wash his garments and bathe his body in water; after that the priest may re-enter the camp, but he will be unclean until evening. The one who performed the burning will also wash his garments in water, bathe his body in water, and be unclean until evening.” The priests who were involved in creating the cure for tum’at meit (death impurity, the most severe) are themselves now impure and must purify themselves before they can re-enter society. It does not seem fair that the ones who are trying to help cure people are themselves struck by the same malady. But there is real wisdom here. To cure the people from their exposure to death, the priest had to expose himself to death. Perhaps the Red Heifer solution was the first vaccine, deriving a cure for the disease from the source of the infection itself.
In describing the tragic yet heroic priest made impure, the Torah teaches us something essential about the reality of infection. To ensure the community’s safety, the priest has to isolate himself and cleanse himself. He is allowed to rejoin the camp only once the condition has passed. You may think the opposite, since the verse reads “and afterwards he will come back to camp, and the priest will be unclean till evening,” which makes it seem as if the priest first returns before the cure has done its work, but the classic medieval commentator R’ Solomon Itzhaki (Rashi) insists that the priest only rejoins the camp after dark, once the state of impurity has passed. Our sacred choreography of halachah (Jewish law) is concerned with the wellbeing of the society that keeps it, making sure that potential sources of risk are kept secure until the danger has passed.
Theoretically, we could imagine the priest merely keeping to himself, making sure not to infect anyone else, but the Torah understands that although certain exceptional individuals could make sure that’s the case, we’re always safest with a law that appreciates varying levels of ability, and rules according to the safest common denominator. Thoroughness is essential when it comes to people’s wellbeing. Verse 8 instructs the priest to first wash his clothes and then bathe his body in the water, making sure that any potential media of communication are disinfected and cleansed. Not only that, but the eighteenth-century Gaon (genius) of Vilna, a leading figure in the Lithuanian Jewish community, highlighted that the required volume of water needed to make a kosher ritual bath is not merely some random ritual number, but is rather the amount of water necessary to ensure that the entire body can be immersed and washed. In washing our hands today, to limit the rate of infection, we need to follow the Torah’s example of thoroughness. It’s an odd opportunity for mindfulness. Be patient and use the full 20 seconds required to scrub your hands. Although there are many memes floating around with songs one can sing, we can also use this time to think of others we care about or of our community at large, because our thorough acts of hygiene help keep them safer. It is avodat ha-kodesh, in a sense, an act of holy service.
In that light, though, as Jewish law recognized, personal behavior is necessary but not sufficient. Washing our hands is essential, but it’s not enough to truly address this phenomenon and its impact on society, especially the elderly, the poor, the most vulnerable. As philosopher and professor of law Jed Purdy writes, “‘Wash your hands’ is good advice but also a poignant reminder that this is not the sort of problem that personal responsibility can solve. Epidemiology is a political problem.” He continues, “Treatment for coronavirus and potentially related symptoms should be free and comprehensive, no questions asked... so that no one goes untreated because of fear or poverty. This is all... good for everyone. It is also how people look out for one another’s vulnerability and need when they see one another’s problems as their own.”
An ancient rabbinic treatment of Leviticus, commenting on the Red Heifer ritual, also makes the stakes clear. Remarking on the second priest who, too, must cleanse himself, the Rabbis suggests that one might think the requirement of the second priest’s immersion is merely a decree of the King, i.e. that it is merely a rule, whose meaning is only found in our obedience to it. The Rabbis refuse that possibility, as the law was instituted to ensure that we see the connection between ourselves and others, our own states and the wellbeing of our neighbors. The priest, following the ritual, needs to cleanse himself to make sure he is fit for service once more. After all, a priest is a public servant, a functionary whose role is to make sure we have access to the Divine. But he cannot serve that function if he is a potential source of danger to others. Our hearts and minds must be on others, but we must make sure our bodies are fit to be in proximity to them.
Rashi, in his comment on verse 7, underscores the spiritual nature of all this ancient medical choreography. The camp from which the priest was expelled was that of the Shechinah, G-d’s presence. Indeed, that is what we are to make our society, a residence for the Divine. In Exodus 25:8, G-d asked the people of Israel to make a dwelling for the Divine, so that G-d can dwell amidst us. A later mystical reading of that verse intensifies its terms, that G-d would not merely be around us, but we are to make ourselves a habitation for the Divine. That applies to our community, our society, and our bodies as well. We must care for all of these things, to ensure their fitness and the health and safety of others, for doing so is indeed drudgery divine. That is to say, for G-d to be in our midst, we need to exhibit the caution and care to which the rituals of purity and impurity described above have us attend. We must keep ourselves physically healthy, because we must keep others’ safety, health, and wellbeing foremost in our minds.
We still have a challenging dilemma: keeping each other safe leaves us open to spiritual sickness, as we sit in isolation, limiting contact to others, deprived of potential sources of support. It is in this light that the highlighting of the priest is relevant. The priest, in Jewish mysticism, is a manifestation of G-d’s aspect of chesed, care and loving-kindness. The priest was not merely a ritual functionary of the Temple, but rather the manifestation and conduit of G-d’s love and concern in this world. Today, we are asked to exhibit care by maintaining boundaries, but we also must find opportunities for safe forms of care. Reach out to loved ones, friends, family, or new acquaintances via phone, text, or the Internet. If you live in an apartment building, post a notice in public spaces letting elders or the immunosuppressed who live in your building, or other persons asked to self-quarantine, that you can help them gain access to the food and medicine they need. Form a phone tree with other members of the community, make sure that people know they are seen and valued.
How can we, too, be manifestations of Divine love? As we approach this challenge, we must attend to its physical, medical ramifications, but also the spiritual and emotional consequences it entails. Let us not forget what the Red Heifer, in its essence, teaches us: that truly we are all connected.
Joshua Schwartz is the spiritual leader of Beth Lida Forest Hill Synagogue in Toronto, Ontario. He is the co-creator of the Seder Oneg Shabbos blessing book and second author of The Torah of Music. This essay is adapted from a sermon delivered on March 14, 2020.
Image: Torah 557. Purification by the Red Heifer. A print from the Phillip Medhurst Collection of Bible Illustrations. In possession of Philip De Vere / CC BY-SA