Shabbat Parah: Being Seen (Trans Visibility Shabbat)

This Shabbat we mark another of the special Shabbatot that count down (up, rather) to Pesakh: this Shabbat which is Shemini in our regular cycle of readings is also Shabbat Parah, named for a red heifer. Each of the special readings added during this time brings our attention to an important aspect of the Festival of Matzot which we will soon celebrate together.
There are so many eventualities to consider when a major event such as Pesakh is planned, and our own preparation for a Seder is no different from our ancestors’ journey to Jerusalem for the ancient version of the community observance. What if someone is delayed and can’t make it? There’s a backup plan for that: Pesakh Sheni. What if someone has fallen on hard times and can’t afford to hold a Seder? There’s a mitzvah for that too: Ma’ot Hittin. And what if one is tamey, and incapable for some reason of joining a Seder? That’s where this week’s parashah comes in. For our ancestors, there was a ritual of sprinkling a special substance, made of the ashes of a red cow, which changed one’s status and made it possible for the person who is tamey (pronounced “tah-MAY”) to join in the communal Pesakh observance.
If we are addressing an emotional obstruction of a spiritual state, such as the death of a loved one (being in the presence of death makes one tamey), the relevance is similar to the anti-anxiety practice or pill we might take in order to calm the heart enough to be able to participate in the Seder experience. But there is a different side to understanding what it means to be tamey. Consider the life experiences that result in tum’ah, that make one tamey, they include (1) the death of a loved one, (2) giving birth, (3) exposure to the physicality of either experience (contact with the dead, or with menstrual blood, or semen, or amniotic fluid). It has been suggested that in these moments we are in a different place psychologically and/or spiritually, isolated from our regular social circles and alienated from the normal give and take of daily life in community. We have had a powerful, singular experience, not given to sharing. Our experience has taken us outside the community; a veil hangs between us and our companions, and we are not fully seen.
It’s a temporary experience, and when enough time has passed, we will find our “new normal,” sometimes with the help of a ritual moment that allows us to cross over the divide between the solo truth of lived personal experience and the compromises inherent in communal existence. The red heifer helped our ancestors to do this, but we don’t grind cow ashes into a potion anymore. We still, however, need a way to mark our transition.
That’s where the other significance of this Shabbat comes in, as this is also the Shabbat of Trans Visibility. In our own day, in our own way, we all need to be seen, and welcomed as part of our communities of meaning – even – especially – when we’ve had an experience that makes us feel at least temporarily alienated. For a trans person, that might include being “birthed” into one’s true gender. Even as the ancient Israelite community deliberately and officially acknowledged a passage in a tamey person’s experience (from woman to mother, from child to orphan, from partner to parent) so also on this Shabbat our community says to those among us who are trans that we see you, and we embrace you as part of our community. As we do so we offer our support to the trans person as they seek to complete their journey from isolated tamey to part-of-us tahor, and find their belonging with the rest of us.
The first Seder of Pesakh 5779 will be celebrated on erev Shabbat, Friday evening April 19. What transition do you need to complete to be ready? What belonging do you need? What welcome can you offer? Now is the time to plan and consider, invite and prepare. May all who are hungry for community find their place; may all who seek to take a deep breath of belonging find their welcome.
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Shabbat Hukkat: The World in a Word

This week’s parashah is called Hukkat, a word that can be translated as “statute,” “ordinance,”, or, simply, “law.” We often find it as half of the hendiadys hukkim umishpatim, which you might have seen translated as “laws and ordinances” or some such. Of course, one of the basic rules for Torah study is that there is no such thing as a simple synonym; the Rabbis of antiquity sought to understand what nuance was inferred by the use of two words where one was clearly not enough.
One compelling answer is revealed by the root of the second word, which is ש.פ.ת [sh.f.t], a root that refers to judges and judgements. This word evokes the world of the courtroom, and of the human process of judgement. Mishpatim, then, are laws which are worked out by human agency, wherein the Torah’s commands are applied to real life through human discernment and understanding.
The 12th century philosopher and jurist (and mystic and physician) Rambam, also called Maimonides, explained mishpatim as that category of law that we could figure out for ourselves. The revelation at Sinai was not really necessary for this category of law, since any sane society could work out for itself that murder, theft and the like must be prohibited for human beings to be able to live together.
Hukkim, on the other hand, said the Rambam, required revelation, since hukkim don’t obviously make sense; we are not able to work out the meaning of hukkim by ourselves. Our parashat hashavua offers us the chance to consider what this means.
First of all, the word itself is hard, grammatically, to pin down. The word itself, hok, plural hukkim, can also be found in the Torah as hukah, plural hukkot. The form hukkat, the name of our parashah, is an additional form used when a feminine noun is modified by another noun immediately succeeding it. Note that the word hok/hukkah can be found in both the male and female forms (all Hebrew is gendered).
Second, the word itself comes from a root that also can be translated “etch.” This is fascinating, since one would think that such a word would connote certainty, and perhaps it does, but not of the logical sort. That is, Rambam’s definition of a hok or hukkah is that it designates those Torah laws that cannot be understood with logic, and that therefore had to be revealed.
Sure enough, the Hukkah that we find at the beginnning of this parashah is not only difficult to understand logically, it is famous in Jewish tradition as a law so difficult to understand that even King Shlomo, considered the wisest of all in his lifetime, confessed that he could not understand it. This hukkah of the Red Heifer describes a recipe to create a substance, a potion that changes the status of those made tame’ by death to tahor, and therefore capable of approaching G*d in ritual communication. The part that is most difficult to understand is that the one who creates the substance is made tame’ by contact with it…..
Or perhaps the part that is most difficult to understand is the way that Jews and non-Jews alike have seen this mysterious potion as essential to the summoning of the End of Days. The logic goes like this: until the ancient Jewish sacrificial system is reinstated in Jerusalem, the Jewish End of Days cannot come. There are Christians who believe that their End of Days cannot arrive until all the Jews are returned to Israel and to their ancient form of ritual communication with G*d.
And since the potion requires an all-red heifer, there are actually people who scour the world looking for one, for upon it all depends. (And if you have not read Michael Chabon’s novel The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, I recommend it for a highly enjoyable treatment of this topic.)
Hok, as the Hebrew word which refers to all the laws that we cannot logically understand, comes to signify something much larger than the guiding law of Judaism; hok or hukkah reminds us that many of our rituals are not logical, even as much of our lives will not yield to logic. And how glorious and vital that is! There is a mystery at the heart of life which commands our humility and our gratitude. Not all can be understood, not all is subject to human discernment and understanding.
Like everything else in our spiritual tradition, we balance that which we can know with that which we will never understand. The two terms are not, however, opposites; they inform each other in a necessary dance, just like another common hendiadys in Torah Hebrew, which is tzedek umishpat, “righteousness and judgement.” Here is our same root, ש.פ.ת [sh.f.t]. Here it is contrasted and balanced with tzedek, “justice” or “righteousness,” to remind us that even when we understand the law, it is quite possibly not just, for it is only human law, humanly arrived at.
Even as we must infuse the mishpat of law with the tzedek of righteousness, may we find ourselves able to recognize the presence of the mystery of hok and hukkah even within what we believe are our logically-derived judgements of mishpatim.

Shabbat Parah: This Calf Makes Sense, This Cow Does Not

This Shabbat is called Shemini, “eighth”, because the parashah begins with an account of the eighth and final day of the ritual of ordination into the priesthood for the very first High Priest, Aaron, and his sons, who were now his assistants. For seven days they have carried out a precise order of sacrifices and purity practices, and now they are ready, body and soul, to take on the role of intermediary between G*d and the People of Israel.

What is the first thing you do when you are finished with the process of getting ready for a new role? Maybe you are pregnant and preparing for the role of mother, or maybe you are graduating college and preparing for the role of participatory citizen in your community. Perhaps you are finishing orientation for a new job, or completing training for a volunteer responsibility, or getting ready for a mikveh that will turn a significant page in your life.

It seems a very positive, promising moment. But then the High Priest receives his instructions for his first official act: “Take a calf [עגל] of the herd for a sin offering” (Lev. 9.2) A sin offering? How depressing on the first day of the new reality! 

The Zohar explains:

“Aaron was commanded to offer a calf as a sacrifice – because it is the offspring of a cow – to atone for that other calf that Aaron made, thereby sinning against the cow, who is unblemished, consummation of the faithful of Israel.” (Zohar, Shemini 3.37a) 

This calf of the herd is offered in atonement for the golden calf. That much is clear. But what is the other, unblemished cow?

The other cow that the mystical tradition mentions here is the cow for which this parashah is also named: Shabbat Parah, the Shabbat of the Cow, or, more specifically, the Red Heifer. 

This third of the special Shabbatot occurring in the weeks before Pesakh is named for the special additional Torah that we read. It describes a recipe for creating a substance that purifies a person who has been in contact with a dead body. The recipe requires a sacrifice of “a red cow without blemish” which is completely burned. Its ashes are mixed with cedar wood, hyssop, and “crimson stuff”, and the resulting ashes are kept in a safe place, to b used for “waters of purification” when necessary.

The curious part of this, and the reason why this is the cow that does not make sense, is the following: the priest who oversees the concoction becomes impure and must undergo a purification ritual of some hours. The same is true of the person who moves the ashes. How is it that handling something pure makes one impure?

No one, not the great sages of yore and certainly no one since, understands this. It is said that Shlomo the King, who was by legend said to be the wisest of all human beings who ever lived (tradition relates that he even knew the languages of all the animals), was unable to fathom the secret of the this red cow, and after contemplating it, he was said to have declared “I said, ‘I will become wise, but it is far from me’ .”(Kohelet 7:23) 

This leads us to the Two Kinds of Halakhah; the mishpat and the hok. Mishpat is the Jewish law that makes sense, such as the prohibitions against killing or stealing. Hok, on the other hand, is the category of kashrut, of the do’s and don’t’s around holy days, of this strange cow purification ritual.

For us who swim in the nearly endless sea of Jewish tradition, there will always be mystery, and we should learn to welcome it. It keeps us humble: we don’t understand everything, and we can’t. It keeps us mindful: I am doing this because I am a Jew, and there’s no other reason. And it helps the under-used imaginative side of our brains keep up with the over-emphasized rational side.

And it is a good reminder that when we stand on the edge of a new experience, there will be that which we cannot understand, and cannot possibly prepare for. And more: one does not enter a new experience “clean” of all that one has ever been. Standing on the edge of what will be, we must recognize that we bring all we ever were with us. Both cows, the one that symbolizes all you understand and the one that reminds you of all that you don’t, come with you.

Thus we go forward: humbly, realistically, humanly.

parashat hashavua Hukat: listening for the bat kol

The parashat hashavua, the Torah reading of the week read all over the Jewish world, is called Hukat – “law”. There are two words often used for “law” in the Torah: hukah, or hok, and mishpat. You will often see them mentioned together, and they are usually translated with words that seem like synonyms to us: “laws and statutes”, for example. 

     But Jewish tradition teaches that there are no synonyms in Torah, no wasted words and no redundancy: when confronted with hok and mishpat, therefore, we are to look below the surface of the text, and try to hear deeper resonances of Torah that can speak to us in many relevant ways, once we begin to look. Our ancestors described the more subtle nuances of G-d’s word with the term bat kol, a “still small voice” that brings insight, once we were quieted from our wordy struggles with meaning, so that we can calm down, and listen to it.

     Torah interpretation of these two terms is significantly informed by this week’s parashah. The text begins with “G-d spoke to Moshe and Aharon saying This is the hok of the Torah…” (Numbers 19.1-2) The hok, called in English a “statute”, is, in this case, the commandment of the ritual of the Red Heifer – a ritual so confoundingly illogical in its particulars that even the wise King Solomon, it is said, did not understand it.

     A hok, then, is a mitzvah, a command, that is not necessarily understood. One might suggest that its presence in the Torah is to teach that one to obey it as one obeys all G-d’s commands, because it is a command, not because it is understood. Maimonides explained the difference between hok and mishpat rationally: a mishpat is a law we could figure out on our own – a law that is logical in terms of social or personal life. But a hok is a law that we could not intuit on our own, i.e. it is a command that requires revelation by G-d.

     Torah laws that don’t make sense can be upsetting. We can disagree endlessly over them. Or they can invite us to an exercise of humility: painful though it might be, it is sometimes necessary for we human beings to be reminded that we are not, ourselves, capable of understanding everything about our lives. It is even possible, once in a while, that someone else is right, even when we are sure that we ourselves are correct. It is only through this struggle that new insights into Torah are revealed…and one of those insights is that some revelations will always be beyond us.

     Religious practice will always contain an element of mystery, of that response which the hok summons: I don’t get it. That is the enduring contribution of religion in our age; it gives us a framework to help us consider mystery, and to confront the meaning of faith as the place where knowledge cannot go. I am not sure; I cannot explain why I feel this; I just know. These are not statements of science, nor of certainty – yet there is no reason to feel anxious about that. There is mystery at the heart of life, and we will never solve it. It can make us anxious, though; it can cause us to argue and even to become angry.

     It is only when we stand in the presence of mystery, unafraid and ready to listen, that we begin to hear the bat kol, that sense of some voice outside of us that brings us insight we cannot achieve alone. It might be in the words of a friend, or a child, or a parent, or a stranger – or even an adversary in the struggle for meaning. G-d is heard every day, in the still small voice that calls to us all the time….but which we can only hear when we quiet our fears, our anger and our ego. And the way in which we deal with our uncertainty, and the way we treat each other in our anxiety, will determine whether the conflict produces more light, or only more heat.

     Hillel and Shammai managed to bring light into the world. They represented two opposing Torah interpretation groups in ancient Israel. It is said about them that they disagreed about every law in the Torah, yet they conducted themselves toward each other as one indivisible community – demonstrated by the fact that children from each side married each other. In one memorable debate between the two schools, they argued seemingly incompatibly opposite positions. 

     But at the moment when each side stopped arguing and listened to each other’s words, both sides heard it: a bat kol issued forth declaring these and these are the words of the Living G-d. (Talmud Bavli, Eruvim 13b) 

     “Living” – in mystery, in conflict, in disagreement and in contradiction, even as are we – only thus do we hear the Living G-d, and so gain insight, knowledge, and understanding as we are able.