This was my D'var Torah for Saturday, June 19, 2021, Parashat Chukkat. The article I reference at the start is really good, in ways that somewhat connect to my theme and also jump off in another important direction.
I was in the middle of thinking about the parah adumah -- the red heifer with its potpouri of potion parts that would be very at home in a Harry Potter book -- when I came across an e-mail from The Forward titled, “Has Shabbat become just another form of #self-care?” In one corner is the idea that Jewish practices are good for us in a self-care sense, on secular terms -- we need rest, we need to unplug, we need not to let seven days go by without calming and resetting. In the opposite corner is the red heifer, the most inscrutable practice in all of Torah.
In Midrash B’midbar Rabbah, we learn that a Roman pagan asked Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai specifically about the parah adumah: "These rituals you do, they seem like witchcraft! You bring a heifer, burn it, crush it up, and take its ashes. If one of you is impure by the dead, two or three drops are sprinkled on him, and you declare him pure?!" Rabban Yochanan said to the pagan, "Has a restless spirit ever entered you?" He said to him, "No!" "Have you ever seen a man where a restless spirit entered him?" He said to him, "Yes!" ..."And what did you do for him?" He said to him, "We brought roots and made them smoke beneath him, and poured water and the spirit fled." Rabban Yochanan said to him, "Your ears should hear what leaves from your mouth! The same thing is true for this spirit, the spirit of impurity...They sprinkle upon him purifying waters, and the spirit of impurity flees." After he left the rabbi's students said, "You got rid of him with a skimpy response, a thin reed. What will you say to us?" Rabban Yochanan said to them, "By your lives, a dead person doesn't make things impure, and the water doesn't make things pure. Rather, God said, 'I have engraved a rule, a chok -- I have decreed a decree and you have no permission to transgress what I decreed, as the parasha begins: ‘This is a chok [rule] of the Torah.’
To the Roman pagan, Rabban Yochanan says: You and I know that certain things work, and maybe what Jews are doing seems like magic to you but we’ve all got a common language of self-help. The red heifer is a kind of medicine; it makes us better. But to his own students, he says: There’s no explanation in this case, but we have to do it anyway. It is one of the chukkim, one of the inscrutable laws that are mitzvot just because the Divine has commanded, no other reason.
I do not think that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai believed that everything in Torah is like the red heifer, the parah adumah. Not everything is one of the chukkim, the impenetrable laws. But I admit I like his answer to the Roman. Not the outdated medicine part, but the idea that there’s a function to the practice that we could figure out, and it’s good for a person. In fact, in spite of what Rabban Yochanan says to his own students, Jewish tradition does try to interpret the elements of parah adumah potion -- the cedar, the hyssop, the scarlet -- to try to find a purpose for each element. Something for us to meditate on that will help us heal our souls or something that symbolizes how to become better people.
But at the same time, we have this phrase that is familiar from many prayers and the Torah -- chukkim u’mishpatim. In Jewish thought, chukkim are those practices that are or seem beyond our comprehension, while mishpatim are practices or rules that are socially valuable or valuable to our personal lives. Chukkim come first in this phrase -- the irrational laws before the functional ones. Some would say it's the chukkim that define religion as religion.
But trying to make most things in Judaism like the red heifer, something we do to prove that we can serve something other than ourselves -- that can lead in absurd directions and dangerous directions too. We here wouldn’t buy that. The Torah itself says later that other peoples look at Israel and our ways and say that only a wise and understanding nation could live in such a way. Wisdom, meaning wisdom to apply to life -- not just awe and obedience.
So, some Jewish philosophers have suggested that the Torah of revelation is a short-cut, because most of us don’t have the time or energy or wisdom to figure out for ourselves what is good for us.
And yet -- the problem with Shabbat as #self-care is that if we can explain Jewish practices always in terms of a purpose, is that really Judaism? Isn't that just looking back at ourselves? Surely we could design from scratch a weekly rest and even some rituals that give us rest, build community, and even move us toward kindness and justice that are more direct and easier, without the mumbo-jumbo and the details we don't get.
So where does that leave us, as far as chukkum u'mishpatim? Can we have both the red heifer and #Shabbat-as-self-care?
A big part of me thinks that if Judaism can be taught in terms of self-care -- dayenu. We certainly don’t suffer from a lack of self-care and grounding in our lives and this current world. If Judaism can be a vehicle for that, even if it’s for reasons that aren’t completely coherent intellectually, that’s not bad at all.
But my real answer comes sort of from the red heifer. It comes from magic -- specifically, the magic of Harry Potter world.
To me the genius of Harry Potter is not that it takes place in an alternative universe, although it’s true that Muggles can’t go to Hogwarts. To me, the big khap is that the magical world is layered on top of our world. If you are fortunate enough to have inherited the capacity for magic, you can see things others in London don’t see, and you have special powers too.
And my favorite locale in the universe of Harry Potter is Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross Station. To get from the regular city onto the train to Hogwarts, you have to run into a brick pillar. It really is a brick wall, and you run at it and into it. It looks impenetrable -- like trying to understand the red heifer. But your propensity for magic, even before you are well-trained in it, allows you to get through it, to the train that will take you to the special school, where you learn where you fit into the magic world layered on top of the world most people see. Where you struggle with how to make the potions that work and rescue, and you complain about the teachers, and you wonder whether it all makes sense.
Judaism, all its practices and rhythms and even the ethics that you could pick up elsewhere, are a magical world layered onto our world. To get there does require flinging yourself at brick walls -- red heifers, practices that aren’t obvious, Hebrew words, sometimes Aramaic -- but when we do go at them full speed, we see that we are connected to a bigger story. Our daily lives, our friendships, our rivalries even, our powers are all connected to a bigger story -- the Torah story, the Exodus, the story of redeeming and completing this world. Every Shabbat is part of that story, every word of our Siddur is, every specific ritual is. They don’t all make sense one by one; yet each is a piece that whole tapestry.
Being part of that story involves taking care of ourselves. Because being the person or the people who deserve care and rest and joy is itself one of the main points of the story and of Jewish history. Because Shabbat rest and ritual celebration are what allow us to glimpse where the story is heading. Our individual acts and each piece of the Torah, even the strange parts, are part of a much larger book we are playing a part in.
So whether it’s the parah adumah, the red heifer, or Kashrut or Shabbat or the Hebrew language, fling yourself at the brick walls of Judaism. Believe that the grape juice at kiddush is a magic potion, more than just the sugary chemicals in it, and enjoy the sweetness too. Keep flinging yourself, and don’t settle for easy but incomplete explanations on this side of the wall. It’s not bruises or intellectual brick walls ahead, but a deep care for you, and special powers for you and us together. It’s not just sensible; it’s magic.
This is the sermon I gave three years ago, during the dog days of the 2016 election. But there is a lot here that still resonates, about the leaders that I crave. I'm going to work on the text I refer to there from the Slonimer Rebbe and probably teach more about it this Shabbat.
This is the sermon I gave last Shabbat, July 16. It draws in a couple places on words I wrote and delivered as a D'var Torah on the Shabbat around the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination. There are some more specific reflections on presidential leadership in that sermon.
This is the first of two Divrei Torah about leadership. When you hear the next one in 2-3 weeks, you may think they are completely opposite of each other. But they are not.
This morning, after yet another difficult week, beginning with the mourning in Dallas and the demonstrations in St. Paul and ending with the terror in Nice and the attempted coup in Turkey – I am craving a leader.
Most of the time, the way I say it is: I am looking for leadership. We all know that it's not one leader, not a president or the leaders of the G-8, who can fix this world. Leadership comes from many places and all directions, from the top and from the ground up.
But today, I am looking for leaders. For someone, some group of powerful and inspired people, who we can all look to at the same time. To get the ground to stop shaking. To orient us all at the same time to where we are, and the hard work we need to do ourselves or stand as spotters behind others as they do it.
I articulate this as the two weeks of presidential nominating conventions are about to begin. And as we read in the parasha of a scary moment, when the people are thirsty for water, and leadership is about to be lost with nothing said about who will lead next.
In the Torah, the people came to Kadesh, and they experienced three things. They lost Miryam. They thought they would all die in the desert. They were thirsty for water.
First, they lost Miryam. She was the first leader they ever had in Egypt. She was the one who could see the redemption coming without any doubt. Even when the babies were being born under Pharaoh's threat, when every adult leader of the community saw only slavery for all time. In the desert, Moshe solved problems, and helped the people think and plan. Miryam helped them perceive a common beat, a national heartbeat through her tambourine. She showed them how to notice the times when their many different rhythms landed together. Now she was gone.
Second, the people saw the world they were in as a world of death, for themselves and their beasts. A collapsing world. People were dying, this is true, in battle and as the slave generation was reaching the end of life. But they feared death everywhere.
And, they were thirsty for water. We know that in the midrash, thirst is also always thirst for Torah – for vision, for mitzvot to do. Often when they are thirsty, people don't even know that it's Torah they are thirsting for.
Moshe met them at the level of their survival thirst, and he spoke to their frustration with his own. He got the immeidate job done – he got them their water. He showed them that he could do it. But he didn't really do what they needed.
So God relieved him of his leadership. יען לא האמנתם בי להקדישני לעיני בני ישראל – “Because you did not trust in Me enough to show My holiness in the sight of the people.”
The Slonimer Rebbe sees in these words three parts of a leader's job. One is to be very skilled at diagnosing what it is that leads communities to veer into fear, or turning on each other. The second is not to let that realism shake him or her from a belief that all the people can, with the leader's help, find what is godly in them that connects to the mission of the whole. And then, finally, the leader has to show that faith in the people back to the people, when their abilities are hidden from themselves and they don't believe they can do anything together.
Moshe, the Slonimer says, lost track of the “trust in me” – the trust inside each Israelite. He stopped showing it to them “in their sight”. He showed back to them only their fear and their loss.
A leader knows our potential and our flaws. She or he not only gives voice to our ideals, but gets us to want to understand what is stuck in our society, and to want to learn how to fix it.
And after these past two weeks, all I can think to do is to pray for that kind of leader now, in 2016. I believe that we, the vast and vastly different and divided people of the United States, would respond.
This is an incredibly hard thing to ask. But that's what I want.
For the past half-century, we Americans have been pulled between two feelings. We have longed for leaders from the past, who have died or aged-out or been assassinated, who we wish we could have back. And we are incredibly suspicious of our leaders today and anyone who wants to be a leader.
We have all kinds of good reasons to be suspicious of leaders in this country. Politicians who turn out to be corrupt, to seek their own fortunes or the fortunes of their friends, who coax us with their promises and their promise and then let us down, who betray their own families. Leaders who underestimate us -- who only seem to ask of us great things but demand no real commitment.
So we doubt leaders, and the idea of leadership. And yet we are frightened of that moment, when Miryam is gone and Moshe and Aharon too, and that is unbearable.
I believe, in fact, that we need leaders, as hard as they are to find.
We need people in our world who seem larger than the average person. Without leaders to admire, we shrink ourselves too small, and settle for small things from our society and from humanity. Instead of appreciating the small scale differences we can make, we will settle for them. They become the ceiling of humanity, rather than the spur to more. We lose hope for tikkun olam, for a real transformation. We forget that human beings can be larger than ourselves.
Without great leaders, we will help some small number of people climb out of poverty, but we will still rage against a world where so many are still poor. We will build one great school, with other people committed to the same vision, but we will not not feel closer to a just world where every young person has the opportunity to develop. We will insulate our buildings and buy local food, but the global climate disaster will still loom. We will take in refugees but do nothing about the violence that pits religion against religion, or wipes out entire tribes or peoples.
God tells Moshe that his job as a leader is to show holiness to the group where they can see it. Holiness, kedushah, is an awe in the presence of someone whose integrity and achievements for the world are beyond my own. When I meet people like this, their presence does not make me feel small or insufficient, but fills me with appreciation and hope. These leaders do not tell us that we regular people will figure everything out on our own. They don’t leave us with the cliche that enough little acts of goodness add up to transformation. Great leaders respect us not by pretending that we are just like them, or they are just like us. They help us see how our smaller work fits specifically into the bigger picture. They don’t have an emotional need to lead us; they need our citizenship and remind us that we need it to.
Margaret Mead’s famous quote is that we should never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. But she was wrong that it is the only thing that ever does. Yes, we absolutely need to be leaders on our own whenever we can. But we need large leaders as well.
I want a leader who has compassion for all people, not just in a crisis. Compassion not in the abstract but up close, for every subgroup among us. Even when those groups quarrel, and even when she has to criticize some of us at a moment when she is standing up for someone else.
I want a leader who spends time, real and not symbolic, outside his own comfortable, identified group. I want to see the candidates for president take two days at a time in a community farthest from the base. In a state that's unwinnable, because she or he will have to be the leader of all of us as president. Two days in an inner city for the Republican, two days in a small Bible-belt town in the deep South for the Democrat.
I want a leader who enlarges me – who helps me stretch out what I can do as a citizen, beyond what I realized. And who uses the large power of being president to do more of what I would do, in a way that makes me feel as though I had a hand in that too.
I say these words of longing for leadership, even though we stand, like the Israelites, in a time without leadership like that. But we don't stop needing it. And I would say, we have to practice being followers of the best leadership. We have to find ways to be followers in the highest sense. If you discover a great moral voice, you should follow it. You should find someone in the public arena you disagree with, but who has integrity and true compassion, and follow that person in some way.
Because while we are afraid, and people are dying, we are not all dying. We are thirsty for an end to violence and terror, and thirsty for answers – but also thirsty for vision and leadership. For being all together despite and with all our difference.
And I still believe there is hope for this kind of leadership, and this kind of following. Because we read this morning that the Israelites, after losing Miryam and hearing they would lose Moshe and Aharon, were suddenly able to start walking forward.
They said: We will walk straight, we will walk toward our promised land, and we will not steal along the way. B'derekh hamelech nelech – We will walk the way of a people following a leader – in the highest sense.
May we not lose our hope that leaders like these are possible. May we, even in our doubts and frustration, tell those who would be our leaders that this is what we want from them.
And may we merit this year for our country some group of powerful and inspired people, who we can all look to at the same time – to get the ground to stop shaking, to orient us all at the same time to where we are, and to the hard work we need to do ourselves or stand as spotters behind others as they do it.
Parashat Chukkat begins with the mysterious ritual of the Parah Adumah, the red heifer. The ceremony is intended to remove the ritual impurity that comes from contact with death. Anyone in this impure state cannot come near the Tent or Temple for a sacrifice, and a simple immersion in a mikvah is not enough.
The ritual involves a perfect red heifer that has never been used for work. It is slaughtered and burned completely by the kohen, and the ashes are mixed with water. That water is sprinkled on anyone who has come into contact with death, and purifies them. Anyone involved in the preparation of the Parah Adumah is, however, rendered impure until the evening -- including the kohen who performs the sacrifice -- and must immerse in water.
The midrash considers this to be one of the paradigms of a chok, a law that does not lend itself to rational explanation. These laws are also known as gezeira, or decree -- like the edict of a king which is simply obeyed because of the authority of the lawgiver. And the most well-known midrash describes a discussion between the sage Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai and a Roman who comfronts him about the silliness of the law. Rabban Yochanan asks if the Roman has ever experienced the exorcism of an evil spirit. The Roman says of course, we burn some roots and pour water on the spirit. Rabban Yochanan says: It's the same thing.
When the Roman leaves, Rabban Yochanan's students say: Really? (Good for them!) Rabban Yochanan says: To you, students, I say that the water and the cow have nothing to do with purifying. It's simply a gezeira, a decree from God, there's nothing more to say.
....And yet. In one of the first midrash collections (Tanchuma), this story is preceded by another one. When Moshe came up to the mountain to receive the written Torah, he found God involved in a study session about the red heifer. A discussion about the ins and outs. And he heard God say to the angels: "The correct ruling on this manner is what Rabbi Eliezer my son says, which is that the heifer must be two years old." Moshe says to God: You are the Master of all heaven and earth, yet you rely on flesh and blood to say what the law is? God responds that there a tzaddik, a special righteous person coming one day to the world, and it's Eliezer.
Do these two midrashim fit together? One says that the red heifer is beyond our understanding. The other has God submitting to the cogitations of a rabbi. The midrash collection we have does not comment on this apparent contradiction at all.
I love it. Here is my take. Yes, the details of law of the heifer don't originate in any reason or philosophy. But once it's there, our God-given minds are attracted to it and begin to think about it, discuss it, debate it. There is a lot to discuss -- how old, how red, any requirements about the participants. Some of those side topics can become very meaningful. They might lead us to think about animals, about who deserves what kinds of honors in the community, or the symbolism of red.
And the point is: If we didn't have the red heifer to talk about, we'd have one less prompt to get into those issues. The strange law is a rock dropped in a pond; that's what causes the ripples, which continue to have an effect after the rock hits the bottom. The strange ritual might even rub us a wrong, like a scratch on our body -- but the healing and generating power of the body will come and do its work extra hard on the scratch.
So in that way, the Parah Adumah, the red heifer, both strains reason and invites it. What a shrewd lawgiver is our God!