Parashat Hukkat

The "Waters of Lustration:" Tears and Tzedakah

Jewish sources suggest tears and tzedakah [charity] as two modern replacements for the Red Heifer, two ways to purify ourselves from the death and destruction that surround us.

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The Torah portion this week, Hukkat, begins with an instruction that even the sages of Israel found cryptic beyond understanding. A person made "unclean" through contact with a corpse is to be sprinkled with "water of lustration" made from the ashes of a sacrificed "red cow without blemish." The ritual is elaborated for five full verses and described as "a law for all time."

In the medieval Midrash Tanhuma, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai is described explaining the "water of lustration" to a non-Jew as a ritual of exorcism, but to his own disciples he declares: ". . . the corpse does not defile, nor does the water cleanse. The truth is that the rite of the Red Heifer is [simply] a decree of the King who is King of Kings. . . [and] you are not permitted to transgress . . ." (translation by Bialik and Ravnitzky in Sefer Ha-Aggadah).

This biblical sense of defilement contained in these verses--the state of tum'ah, often translated as impurity, that is temporarily fostered by sex, childbirth, death and other natural bodily functions--is often seen as offensive and misogynistic by modern people.

Nineteenth century Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, however, noted an etymological relationship between tum'ah and timtum, "confusion"--a connection which suggests that the intensity of physical experience, rather than its innate yuckiness, is what renders a person "impure" by virtue of his or her being emotionally overwhelmed.

According to Rabbi Joseph Grunblatt of Touro College, the talmudic sages described the nature of tum'ah as "she-metamtem es halev--it blocks . . . it petrifies the heart." Reflecting on the birthing experience, Phyllis O. Berman, director of the summer program at Elat Chayyim, writes that tum'ah comes "when the focus is narrow and we can see only that immediate thing that's right at hand for us."

These interpretations of tum'ah as a function of consciousness can be used to establish contemporary meaning for the opening verses of Hukkat. Ever since the mass slaughter of World War II and the grotesque genocide of the Holocaust, we have all lived surrounded by corpses: growing up with the threat of nuclear annihilation and ecocide; witnessing cruel, genocidal warfare in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia, Kosovo, Vietnam, Chechnya, East Timor, Angola; inuring ourselves to the starvation and mortality-by-diarrhea that wrack the underdeveloped world; suffering senseless violence on our own streets and playgrounds; numbing ourselves with a steady stream of "entertainment" killings on television and movie screens.

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Lawrence Bush

Lawrence Bush is author of several books of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, including the forthcoming Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist.

Jeffrey Dekro

Jeffrey Dekro is the senior vice president at the Jewish Funds for Justice.