Saturday, March 14, 2009

Purification and Survival:
A Ki-Tisa / Para ShulDrasha

Earlier this week
we celebrated פורים,
the holiday of ונהפוך הוא —
of total reversal,
of paradox —
of God hiding in history
and human beings hiding in plain sight;
of, on the one hand,
the מצוה to always remember the evil of עמלק,
and on the other,
the practice of blurring the line
between ארור המן and ברוך מרדכי,
between cursed is המן and blessed is מרדכי.

And now this שבת
we read the special מפטיר
of פרשת פרה,
and may very well
have fulfilled a Biblical commandment
by doing so.

The פרה אדומה
was the pure red cow
which was processed into ash
and then mixed with water
to produce מי נידה or מי חטאת,
which the כוהנים in the בית־המקדש
would use
to purify the impure,
removing a person who had come into contact with the dead
from a state of טומאה,
from a state of impurity.

The פרה אדומה
is one of the greatest paradoxes in the Torah:
it is
מטהר את הטמאים
ומטמא את הטהורים
it purifies the impure,
and it makes those who were pure
The פרה אדומה
can only be processed
by people who are pure
who are טהור —
but engaging in this holy work
makes them טמא
even as they busy themselves
with the literal production
of purity.

And yet
this paradox isn't just a quality of the פרה אדומה by itself —
the entire טומאה system is infused with this paradox!

As רבי יוחנן בן זכאי said
in the מדרש במדבר רבה,
טומאה is an inscrutable decree
declared by God;
it isn't objects or rituals
that make someone or something
pure or impure —
it's just a חֹק,
an inexplicable ruling
from On High.

this doesn't mean
that we can't examine it,
or investigate it
to find patterns,
messages and implications
for our wider view
of Torah and Life.

When we look at the טומאה system
we see that
אבי אבות הטומאה,
the most powerful source of impurity
is a human corpse.

The medieval philosopher-poet
ר' יהודה הלוי
explains in his philosophical work The כוזרי
that טומאה
comes with death.
In distancing us from טומאה,
the Torah is warning us away
from an unhealthy obsession
with the grave.
A man on the subway in New York City on Wednesday
asked me whether Jews believe in ‘Hell’ —
and, among other things, I told him that our tradition teaches
that we are meant to focus on life
and what we can do in This World
instead of assuming
that what is spiritually meaningful or significant
can only be found in what comes after.

And yet,
even though טומאה is so intimately bound up with death,
there is something called טומאת יולדת.
A woman
who has just given birth
is impure.

This is the opposite of death —
a newborn baby, a new mother,
the creation of new life —
and yet
a woman
who has just given birth
is טמאה.

Here is our second paradox —
what does birth
have to do
with death?

A contemporary Israeli scholar,
,ר' יובל שרלו
suggests that childbirth is a source of טומאה
because birth and death
life and death
are inextricably linked.
This is a “grim reality”
which the Torah asks us to confront.

We know this from science, as well.
in all its holy, dazzling variety
is driven by death.

God's creatures remake themselves slowly,
generation by generation,
through natural selection —
a process sometimes called
‘survival of the fittest’
because those who survive
to produce children,
to produce children.

Creation and beauty —
life and what makes it worthwhile —
frequently come
through struggle and suffering.

The late-20th-century author
J. Michael Straczynski wrote that
“The future is all around us,
waiting, in moments of transition,
to be born in moments of revelation.
No one knows the shape of that future
or where it will take us.
We know only that it is always born in pain.”

Life and hope from pain and death
and pain and death from life and hope;
טומאה from טהרה
and טהרה from טומאה.

From our ultimate origin
in a טיפה סרוחה,
a putrid drop of primordial soup,
all the way to the goal of history,
the Messianic Age —
גזירה גזרתי says God,
according to רבי יוחנן בן זכאי.
‘That's just how it is.’

As reported in מסכת סנהדרין of the Babylonian Talmud,
three of our great sages,
עולא, רבה and רבי יוחנן,
said that when it comes to the messiah,
ייתי ולא איחמיניה —
‘let the משיח come
but let me not see him.’

רב יוסף, on the other hand, said
ייתי ואזכי דאיתיב בטולא דכופיתא דחמריה —
‘let the משיח come
and let me just sit
in the shadow of his donkey's waste.’

The matter of disagreement between them
is not whether the coming of the משיח
and the realization of an era of peace and holiness
would be a good thing —
but whether the light at the end of the tunnel
is worth passing through the darkness
it takes to get there.

חבלי משיח
the birthpangs of the messiah —
the eschatological trauma
that it may very well take
to turn this broken, marred world
into paradise —
עולא, רבה and רבי יוחנן
did not believe
that they personally could withstand the distress.
רב יוסף
on the other hand
knew that it would be hard,
and was willing to suffer the pain of transition
as long as he could see the other side.

When we come to our main Torah reading this morning,
פרשת כי־תשא,
we come to the story of חטא העגל
the sin of the golden calf.
בני־ישראל see that משה
is late coming down from Mount Sinai,
and in a frenzy of feelings
of confusion, abandonment and despair,
they gang up on אהרן
and demand
that he make a god to lead them
כי זה משה האיש
אשר העלנו מארץ מצרים
לא ידענו מה היה לו
“because that man משה
who brought us up out of Egypt
we don't know what happened to him”.

אהרן makes the idol
but stalls for time.

The Israelites
offer sacrifices,
and when משה comes down the mountain
already having been informed by God what to expect,
he finds them
in the midst
of an idolatrous celebration —
and he shatters the tablets
that were made and engraved by God.

משה defends the people
from God's righteous wrath
and punishes them himself.

And in the end,
משה goes back up the mountain
with two new לוחות for God to inscribe.
And he begs, challenges and reasons with God
to not destroy בני־ישראל.

And in return, the Torah describes —
וַיֵּרֶדֿ ה׳ בֶּעָנָן
וַיִּתְֿיַצֵּבֿ עִמּוֹ שָׁם
וַיִּקְרָא בְֿשֵׁם ה׳
God came down in a cloud
and stood there with him
and called out in God's own name.

And God taught משה
the thirteen attributes of mercy:
ה׳ ה׳ -ֵל רחום וחנון
ארך־אפים ורב־חסד ואמת
נוצר חסד לאלפים
נושא עוון ופשע וחטאה ונקה
The same words of compassion
that we recite dozens of times
over the course of the High Holidays —
God meets משה on the mountain
and teaches him those words
in the aftermath of the Golden Calf.

In מסכת ראש־השנה,
רבי יוחנן explains this mysterious
and anthropomorphic passage —
“God wrapped Godself up in a טלית
like a חזן
and taught משה the order of prayers,
and said:
Every time that Israel sins,
they should recite this sequence before me
and I will forgive them.”

This tremendous gift —
thirteen attributes of God's compassion
thirteen keys to forgiveness —
only came to Earth
in response to the tragic mistake
of the Golden Calf.

And so,
the calendar rolls along,
and we move
from the unadulterated joy of פורים
towards the complex emotions of פסח —
from a מגילה where good and evil,
atrocity and rescue,
are so clear and obvious
that only by losing control of one's senses
would it be possible to confuse
the heroes and the villains —
to a סדר where we remove drops of wine from our cups
and dilute our joy
in memory of the Egyptians,
our enemies,
whose painful downfall
was the price of our freedom.

And yet,
at the same time that we move
from the childish simplicity
of a world where the good guys are good
and the bad guys are bad
and everything somehow
ends up all right in the end,
to a grown-up world
of complexity and complications,
freedom and responsibility,
we also move towards a more complete redemption.

Menachem Leibtag
one of our greatest contemporary
teachers of תנ"ך
has shown
that the satirical tone of מגילת אסתר
is laced with a subtle but serious criticism
for the Jews of the Persian Empire
and how they remained
satisfied and self-assured in Exile
instead of participating
in the rebuilding of Jerusalem
and the construction of the Second Temple.

they were rescued from destruction.
in a dramatic ונהפוך הוא reversal
they prevailed against their enemies
on the very day
their enemies expected
to annihilate them.
But it was an unfinished redemption —
they remained in exile,
celebrating פורים every year afterwards
while only a small segment
of the Jewish community
tried to return and rebuild
their lives
in the Land of Israel.

Compare this to פסח.

בני־ישראל suffered in Egypt,
enslaved for hundreds of years.
This wasn't just a threat of destruction —
פרעה was putting it into practice!

Their sons were being thrown in the River,
and the מדרשים
have even more horrifying descriptions
of the slavery and torture imposed on the Israelites.

The מגילה,
where everything right
just falls into place,
where the Jews are shocked and scared
but in the end
come to no harm,
is a fairytale
in comparison.

For all its much-talked-about naturalism —
the lack of obvious miracles,
the lack of God's name —
מגילת אסתר
is a very unrealistic narrative.
Antisemites throughout the Persian Empire
planned on exterminating the Jewish People
and taking the spoils of their destruction —
that was, after all,
part of המן's explicit decree —
and then when the tables are turned,
וּבַֿבִּזָּה לֹא שָׁלְחוּ אֶתֿ יָדָֿם
the Jews didn't take
from their enemies?
a miracle!

The story of the Exodus
יציאת מצרים,
on the other hand,
is a story of pain and struggle
moral ambiguity
and mistakes
that follow for years afterwards,
as the Israelites slowly work
towards embracing their new-found freedom.
חטא העגל, the Golden Calf,
was only the first
of many serious errors
on that long road.

But the liberation from Egypt
was complete
and irrevocable.
עם ישראל
was forged
in the furnace
of מצרים —
and that
can never be undone.

The prophet יחזקאל
describes the beginning of the Jewish People
using the image
of an abandoned baby,
and lying in its birthing blood
in an open field.
And God passes by
and says,
בְּדָֿמַיִךְֿ חֲיִי
“live through your blood”.
Live through your pain.

And so we've come full-circle —

To birth and death,
and the paradoxical impurity
of childbirth,
and the ונהפוך הוא reversal
of the פרה אדומה
that makes the pure, impure,
as it makes the impure, pure.

Earlier this week
we got a short break from life —
a fairytale romance
where the threat of suffering
never comes to pass,
and everything works out in the end.

And while we do believe
that everything eventually will work out in the end,
we also know
that our Sages argued
about whether the attainment
of a perfected world
is worth experiencing the pain
of the birthpangs
of the Messianic Age.

That's just how life is.

But we can take some comfort in the fact
that that which is hard
is true.

That which is complex and conflicted
is real.

And as we leave פורים behind
and head towards פסח,
that the liberation of Passover,
and our covenant with God —
that which is gained through struggle —
is eternal.