The Waters of Lustration: Tears and Tzedakah

Jewish sources suggest tears and tzedakah [charity] as two modern replacements for the Red Heifer.

Commentary on Parashat Chukat, Numbers 19:1 - 22:1

The Torah portion this week, Chukat, 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 Yochanan 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.

Steadily, our sense of humanity has been overwhelmed; our perception of human beings as made b’tselem elohim (in God’s image) instead of as corpses has been confused; our hearts have become “petrified.”

How can we be made “pure” rather than suffer being permanently “cut off from Israel” (Numbers 19:13)? What might we use instead of the arcane and obscure Red Heifer to create a cleansing “water of lustration?” Jewish sources suggest two possible ingredients: tears and tzedakah (charity).

In this week’s parasha, both Miriam and Aaron die and are buried. In Miriam’s case, mourning is usurped by a sudden lack of water in the wilderness community of the Israelites–as though the stemming of tears and the stemming of blessing were interconnected. In Aaron’s case, “All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron thirty days” (Numbers 20:29). Once again, tears become the well waters of the human soul and the currency of our relationship with God: “When we shed tears for a virtuous human being,” says the Talmud (in Tractate Shabbat 105b), “the Holy One counts them and lays them up in [God’s] treasury.”

By Jewish standards, however, every human death is equivalent to the loss of an entire universe. Perhaps, then, were we capable of weeping for every one of the senselessly slaughtered of our world, we could, as the Midrash expresses it, “cool hell with our tears.”

Yet tears alone do not bring cleansing from our contact with death. Our “water of lustration” must also contain the ashes of the Red Heifer, the ashes of sacrifice: tzedakah. Over and over, the Jewish tradition describes the centrality of tzedakah in Judaism’s cosmology, including that it “saves from death” (Proverbs 10:2 and Bava Batra 10a).

The rabbis took this quite literally, recounting, in a Talmudic catalogue of “synchronicity” events, how deeds of tzedakah saved one or another of their comrades from drowning, from snakebite, from mortal injury. Less literally but no less significantly, tzedakah is the spiritual love potion of Judaism–awakening our souls to the humanity of others, to the binding ties of community, and to the reality of our renewable partnership with Creation.

Combined, tears and tzedakah create a cleansing “water of lustration.” It is dashed on us each time we give tzedakah, as the tradition bids us, to mark the death or yahrzeit (the anniversary of a death) of someone we mourn or honor, and in connection with those holidays on which Yizkor (the memorial prayer which mentions giving tzedakah) is recited. It is also dashed on us when we prepare to enter each Shabbat, as we fill our tzedakah boxes, sometimes weep over the candle flames, and gain our neshamah yeterah, our “extra Shabbat soul,” in a process of cleansing and rebirth.

The following article is reprinted with permission from

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