Commentary for Chukat

29 Jun

In this week’s parshah we learn the laws of purifying a person who has come into contact with a dead body. After a short period of living outside of the main camp, the person takes a mixture prepared by the priest and sprinkles him or herself with it, once on the third day of exile and once on the seventh day in order to become ritually pure again and may then reenter the camp. The main ingredient of the mixture in question is the ashes of the rare red heifer. Mixed in with that are cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet wool, all mixed into water to make it possible to sprinkle them on someone.

 

Interestingly, those middle three ingredients are also ingredients in the mixture used during the ceremony to ritually purify someone who has contracted the skin disease tzara’at, which was a spiritual punishment contracted as a result of spreading gossip. With tzara’at, the water and ashes of the red heifer are replaced with the blood of a sacrificed bird, and rather than being sprinkled onto the person being purified, a second bird is dipped into the mixture and then set free to fly away.

 

In our society the bird is often glorified for its ability to fly away. To spread its wings and leave all worldly cares and burdens behind. To simply get up and go somewhere else. To escape.

 

The cow, on the other hand, is grounded. It does not wander off. It is a pillar of the community, providing us with labor in our fields and milk and meat on our tables.

 

The conditions which cause someone to suffer from these two types of ritual impurity are not things that happen by accident. Any time we open our mouths to speak it is under our own control, and people tend not to randomly just keel over and die in mid-hug or handshake. The difference is that while a gossip shows little regard for the feelings of those they are gossiping about, one who comes into contact with a corpse is doing so because they are defending their people in battle, because they are a medical professional attempting to administer life-saving treatment, or because they are performing the most selfless of all mitzvahs: burying the dead.

 

While the gossip is received back into the community only after witnessing one bird fly away, coated in the blood of another, giving no care about what it has been involved in, a person who has come into contact with a corpse is welcomed back into the community almost as a hero, being anointed with the ashes of the red heifer.   While the carefree life of the bird might seem glorious, it is the cows who give of themselves to keep our communities running strong.

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