Any kind of death may leave us lost, adrift in the terrifying tides of uncertainty. It is possible to survive uprooted for a while, though just barely and devoid of the sustenance only an openhearted embrace of life provides. Death is necessary for new growth. We learn this from the seasons. We know this in our bones. Yet, we struggle to live through it. We have no instructions by which to make our way back.
It is not that we need to ignore death or transform it into something shining and beautiful. It is valuable as it is. But what do we do when we feel ourselves consumed by the nihilism that death sometimes incites? How can we cleanse ourselves of the rage that erupts within us after a death? What do we have to move us through the experience, so that we emerge purified and whole?
Parshah Chukat addresses ritual purity, a fact relevant to worship in Temple Judaism, but far less so today. For the Israelites, their worship involved tangible offerings and animal sacrifices. Ours looks much different. At its essence, worship is about stepping forward to meet the divine, infinite and unfathomable. Sincerity of such an encounter requires us to be fully present, perfectly attuned to the moment. In the words of Devarim, “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5). These words are simple and they are hard. Being present with God can be impossible when death has us hamstrung.
The ancient Israelites understood what it means to be fit for worship in an entirely physical sense. In this week’s parshah, they are told that anyone who comes into contact with a corpse is automatically unclean, preventing them from participating in the ritual worship of God. They were also provided a rite by which to cleanse themselves.
“…This is the ritual law that the Lord has commanded,” our Torah reads, “instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid. You shall give it to Eleazar the priest. It shall be taken outside the camp and slaughtered in his presence. Eleazar the priest shall take some of its blood with his finger and sprinkle it seven times toward the front of the Tent of Meeting. The cow shall be burned in his sight – its hide, flesh and blood shall be burned, its dung included – and the priest shall take cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson stuff, and throw them into the fire consuming the cow. The priest shall wash his garments and bathe his body in water; after that the priest may reenter the camp, but he shall be unclean until evening. He who performed the buring shall also wash his garments in water, bathe his body in water, and be unclean until evening. A man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the cow and deposit them outside the camp in a clean place, to be kept for water of lustration for the Israelite community. It is for cleansing. He who gathers up the ashes of the cow shall also wash his clothes and be unclean until evening” (Numbers 19:1-10).
Anyone rendered unclean through contact with the dead could be cleansed with the “water of lustration.” They could, once again, become fit to meet God. We are not told why being in the presence of the dead causes one to be unfit to worship. We do not know the relevance of the red heifer, or why those preparing the water of lustration become unclean through the process. The rabbis tell us to take it on faith. Much like death itself.
In our western culture, most of us endure a relentless barrage of information. From Facebook to CNN to Game of Thrones to Pandora, we bombard ourselves with data. It’s a 24/7 experience that leaves no space for silence or stillness. We stuff our days to overflowing with errands, events, meetings, shopping, exercise, cooking, gossiping. We offer ourselves no breathing room to acknowledge our experience, and name the certain kind of death that may be dragging us under. Unlike the Israelites, we have no means to guage our fitness for worship or method by which to right our spirits.
Each of us will know many varieties of death. It is up to us to identify the practices we need to pull us into the present, when our hearts and our minds are caught elsewhere. When we cannot find our footing, when darkness surrounds, we may ask ourselves if we are fit to meet God. When we grope for meaning and come up emptyhanded, we may challenge ourselves to consider what we need in order to love God fully. In so doing, we may spark the internal process of healing. We may begin the work necessary to recover and live freely. Perhaps by consciously striving to bridge the gap between our own small lives and the infinite divine, we may emerge from many deaths whole and clean.
Akiva Yael is an enthusiastic participant in all that is holy, including Torah study, powerlifting, and the beauty of our world.