Thursday, June 21, 2018

Bizarre Rituals and Ethical Commands

I am thinking that the Torah does not matter.

I spent the better part of the morning reading the day’s paper. I read in detail about the struggle of immigrants on our country’s southern border. Despite the fact that President Trump issued an executive order ending the practice of separating families caught sneaking across the border, over 2,000 children remain separated from their parents. How can we remain indifferent to those running away from persecution and poverty? Whether people entered the country legally, or illegally, there must be a better way.

We are a nation of immigrants. We have offered the promise of better lives to countless generations. Securing our borders, and protecting our citizens, must go hand in hand with the vision of hope and idealism our nation provides the world. My grandparents journeyed here and built better lives for themselves and their families. I wish for others to have similar opportunities.

I turned to the Torah and to this week’s opening lines. “Instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid. You shall give it to Eleazar the priest. It shall be taken outside the camp and slaughtered in his presence.” (Numbers 19) What follows are the inordinate details surrounding the ritual of the red heifer.

I sought comfort. I longed for answers to our contemporary struggles.

I found instead a stupefying ritual. Where is the Torah for today?

The red heifer is a ritual that is no longer performed. Since the destruction of the Temple we no longer offer sacrifices. The red heifer was nonetheless a peculiar ritual. It, and it alone, offered purification for the ritually contaminated. Because it is today inoperative no Jew can find such purification. This is why some authorities prevent Jews from walking on the Temple Mount, and where the Dome of the Rock now stands, for fear that they might walk on where the Holy of Holies once stood.

It is a bizarre ritual. “The cow shall be burned in his sight—its hide, flesh, and blood shall be burned, its dung included—and the priest shall take cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson stuff, and throw them into the fire consuming the cow.” Commentators suggest that this ritual defies rational explanations. Searching for explanations lead to only one possible conclusion. This is a commandment because God says it is commandment. Its meaning is discovered in affirming that God knows better.

Are these the spiritual insights I crave? Where are answers addressing our contemporary concerns? Offer me wisdom. Offer me guidance. Let the Torah grant me teaching. Let it lead me to learning.

I read on. The details of the ritual are concluded. A reminder is offered. “This shall be a permanent law for the Israelites and for the strangers who reside among you.”

I recall. Amidst the Torah’s ritual obsessions I discover the reminder of another. Again and again it commands that there shall be one law for citizen and stranger. Why? Because we were slaves in the land of Egypt. Because we know the feelings of the stranger.

The Torah is clear. Our memories of enslavement are to make us more compassionate. Our memories of suffering are intended to make us draw the stranger in.

I take comfort in the Torah’s words. It speaks to today.

I continue to draw inspiration from the Torah’s laws.

“There shall be one law for the citizen and for the stranger who dwells among you.”

Until tomorrow’s challenges.

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