SALT - Sunday, Rosh Chodesh 1 Tammuz - June 25, 2017

  • Rav David Silverberg

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In memory of Alice Stone, Ada Bat Avram, A"H, 
beloved mother, grandmother and great grandmother 
whose Yarzheit is 2 Tammuz.
Dedicated by, Ellen & Stanley Stone,
Jake & Chaya, Micah, Adeline, Zack & Yael, Allie,
Isaac, Ezra & Talia, Yoni & Cayley, Marc & Eliana, Adina, Gabi & Talia.
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            Parashat Chukat begins with the mitzva of para aduma – the “red heifer” which would be slaughtered and burned to produce ashes that were used for purifying people and objects that had come in contact with a human corpse.

            The Midrash, in a famous passage (Bamidbar Rabba 19:5), lists the law of para aduma among the four mitzvot which the yetzer ha-ra – our sinful inclination – challenges, advancing rational objections to them.  The law of para aduma is unusual in that the ashes are used to bring purity to those who had become impure, yet the kohen who sprinkles the ashes on the impure individual becomes impure (19:21).  Our instinctive sense of reason questions the notion of a substance that brings purity to the impure but brings impurity to the pure.  Another of these four mitzvot is the prohibition of eishet ach – marrying or cohabiting with one’s brother’s wife, even after his death.  While such a union is ordinarily forbidden, it becomes a mitzva in the case of yibum, where one’s married brother dies without children.  The yetzer ha-ra leads us to question how a relationship can be strictly forbidden in some circumstances but obligatory in others.  Thirdly, the Torah forbids wearing sha’atnez – a combination of wool and flax – yet this becomes a mitzva in the context of tzitzit, where wool strings may be used as tzitzit strings for a flax garment.  Finally, the se’ir ha-mishtalei’ach – the atonement goat sent out into the desert and killed on Yom Kippur – brought atonement for the entire nation, yet brought impurity upon the person who led it into the wilderness (Vayikra 16:26).  This mitzva, too, is inherently paradoxical, and thus comes under challenge by our innate sense of logic.

            What exactly is the logical objection to these mitzvot of which Chazal warn us in this passage? 

            We might have intuitively assumed that in order for an act to be considered a mitzva, a religiously meaningful action through which we serve our Creator, it must be perfect and pristine.  Intuitively, we tend to define “good” and “bad” in absolute terms, and have trouble conceiving of something being both potentially noble and potentially offensive.  An action which under certain circumstances is sinful, we might naturally think, cannot possibly be a sacred religious act under other circumstances.  After all, we would instinctively assume, a sacred religious act cannot possibly be associated in any way with sin, and must be entirely detached from any sort of impropriety to have validity and spiritual significance.  This is a very dangerous form of the yetzer ha-ra, as it can result in our excusing ourselves from mitzvot with the claim that we are incapable of performing them perfectly. More generally, we might be led to excuse ourselves from mitzva obligation altogether, figuring that we cannot achieve the requisite standard of purity.  If we assume that mitzvot require a state of pristine perfection, then we are likely to despair from observance, unable as we are to reach, let alone maintain, such conditions of perfection.

            Chazal here teach us to recognize and appreciate the complexity of religious life, that mitzvot are not performed in a vacuum of perfection, but rather in the complicated, messy context of the real world.  An action which constitutes a sin under certain circumstances can be a virtuous mitzva act in others, because mitzvot are not meant to be observed under pristine, perfect conditions.  The Torah was given to us flawed, problematic human beings to observe in this flawed, problematic world, and so its laws are meant to be observed under less-than-ideal conditions.  Indeed, very often, we are required to perform an act which is the best option under the circumstances, even if it is not inherently perfect, and in other circumstances would be considered sinful.  We must the resist the “yetzer ha-ra” of absolutism, the natural tendency to think of good and evil in black-and-white terms, and recognize that we serve God under the complex, imperfect conditions in which He has placed us.

(Based on an article by Rav Oded Mittelman)