Parashat Chukkat

Rabbi Boaz Tomsky

      My mother would always give me a tall glass of lemonade when I would come home after a hot summer day. It tasted good but now I realized that she used to water it down. I then began to realize, you could really water down any drink. Every drink that is, except for water. The Pasuk states (Yeshaya 55) Hoy kol tsama lechu limayim -anyone who is thirsty should go to water. The Talmud (Kedushin 29A) teaches that water refers to Torah. In other words, Torah must be taught in its most authentic way, without "watering it down". You can't water down water.

      My philosophies and beliefs are not things I keep a secret. When I am teaching my talmidim, whatever the subject, I try to instill into them this notion. I want my students to feel comfortable enough to approach me about anything that they don't fully understand, regardless of its difficulty.

      During a Chumash class, a question was posed that made me question my stance on comparative world religions. We were studying Parshat Chukat, specifically in the midst of a discussion of the Parah Adumah and the subsequent death of Miriam. Rashi asked why these two seemingly unrelated episodes are juxtaposed. What does the sprinkling of the red heifer have to do with the death of one of the greatest leaders in history? His answer was the springboard for our conversation. Rashi answers that just like the Parah Adumah brings forth atonement, so too does the death of the righteous bring atonement.

      Immediately, one my students' sheepishly raised his hand. I knew what was coming. He looked at me, wide eyed, and said, "Rabbi Tomsky, can I say what I am about to say?" "Sure you can," was my response. "Go right ahead." I saw he was choosing his words carefully. He finally came up with, "Do we really believe in that? I mean, isn't that what other religions believe?"  I wasn't completely caught off guard by his inquisitive question. Perhaps this had to do with the buzz going around the community about the Mel Gibson movie, "The Passion". Nonetheless, he had a legitimate question that needed an immediate response. Is the righteous dying for the sake of mankind truly a Jewish concept? And if it isn't, how do we understand this Rashi which explicitly states that it is a basic Jewish concept?

      To answer these aforementioned questions, we must first understand some of the fundamental differences between Judaism and other cultures and religions. A couple of millennia ago, the Romans were one of the most dominating nations. During this period, we are aware of their inhumane approach in entertainment. They would build huge arenas, with a greater capacity than many of our more modern stadiums. The most horrific and violent acts known to man occurred in these arenas. They would invite gladiators to fight each other as well as untamed beasts. Many people would die a torturous death, for all to witness and gawk at. This was their form of entertainment. But what were the Jewish leaders doing at this time? They were engaged in codifying the Mishna. The Mishna states an incredible statistic. (Makkot 7A) A Jewish court that sentenced even one person to death in a seventy year period was called a destructive Bet Din. Such a court was looked down upon by the Jewish community.

      Those who experience Jewish life and study Jewish literature shouldn't be surprised by this. One primary focus in Judaism is the concept of peace. This is the underlying theme and culmination of almost all of our formal t'fillot, to live a harmonious life. Yet, with this undisputed historical data, there are still many who paint the picture of the Jewish people as the merciless and the Romans as the merciful.

      The focus in Judaism, lehavdil, is Chaim, life. The Torah states (Vayikra 18:3-5) U'vachukotahem lo taylachu -and do not follow their traditions. Rather, Vachay bohem, you shall live by them (through the observance of Torah and Mitzvot).What does the Torah mean, vachai bohem? Certainly it includes the obligation to preserve life, even at the expense of violating almost any Mitzvah in the Torah. But it means more than that. Vachai bohem means that the fundamental goal and purpose of Judaism and the Torah is for us to live wholesome lives. This difference is also seen by the major symbols in each religion.

      The symbol of Christianity is a cross. The cross essentially is a gallows, the means of common execution in the days of the Roman Empire. Judaism also has a symbol, the menorah. The menorah represents peace and security. The light of the menorah represents hope and promise of a brighter future. Torah Or- its light alludes to the light of Torah, the key ingredient to life.

      But what is the point in making these clear distinctions? Simply to address the innocent question posed by one of my students. The death of a tzadik indeed brings forth atonement for the Jewish nation. But we must channel this atonement back to the red heifer. In order to become tahor by the ash-water of the Parah Adumah, it was necessary to take action. One could not simply become purified through thought alone. This also applies to the death of a tzadik. The atonement isn't magical. It doesn't just happen. Rather the sense of loss of losing a key leader in your community should inspire you to improve yourself. Bamakom shain eish hishtadel lihiyot eish- in a place where there is a vacuum, it is your responsibility to improve yourself and accept additional responsibilities that you had the luxury to have the tzadik do while he or she was still alive. This is why we wait until Miriam to teach us this lesson. The Torah tells us that it was in the merit of Miriam, the B'nei Yisroel had water in the wilderness for 40 years. After her death, there was no more water. We didn't automatically earn the water. It was after Moshe accepted this additional responsibility that we were able to drink again.

      In addition, the Parah Adumah only has the ability to purify a person who was impure for a finite amount of time. Afterwards, if one would again come in contact with the deceased, the initial purification process is removed and a new procedure to become tahor again is necessary. This also holds true with the death of a tzadik. The atonement for the nation isn't perpetual. It isn't a one time deal. We need to retain our level of spiritual purity and righteousness by constantly improving ourselves on a daily basis. The death of a tzadik doesn't positively atone for us on a permanent basis. It is only a vehicle for further potential.

      The question posed by my student really gave me the opportunity to reflect on these fundamental philosophical differences of Judaism and that of other religions. Certainly I could have given my student a more watered down answer, but then again, you can't water down water. 

First Published July 9, 2005  for National Council of Young Israel Weekly Divrei Torah