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Parashat Hukkat 5784

The Ritual Playbook

July 10, 2024
by Rabbi Enid C. Lader ('10)

Our Torah portion this week begins with describing “zot hukkat haTorah – the ritual law” concerning the red heifer. (Numbers 19:1-22) The subsequent ashes of the red heifer will be combined with mayim hayim – fresh water – and another party who is pure shall take hyssop, dip it in the water, and sprinkle it upon the person or items that are impure, as a result of coming into contact with a person who has died or the bones of the dead.

These instructions are perfectly timed, as they precede not only the deaths of Miriam (Numbers 20:1) and Aaron (Numbers 20:23-29), but also the battle with the King of Arad (Numbers 21:1-3), death by fiery serpents as a result of the people complaining against God (Numbers 21:4-9), another war with Sihon, king of the Amorites (Numbers 21:21-24) and Bashan, king of Og (Numbers 21:33-35). Death… and more death! Loss, and more loss – of beloved leaders and soldiers (and possibly civilian casualties as well) – young and old, witnessed by fellow soldiers, and mourned by families and friends.

How to make sense of all this loss… when all this loss does not make sense? That would be the eternal question – that remains eternally unanswered. In the midst of profound loss, we have ritual to serve as our scaffolding and support to help us navigate our way through this difficult time.

The ritual of the red heifer – the waters of lustration (purification) – provided the ancient Israelites with something to do, steps to take, to help them through this intense grief.

Rituals are an important way for people to find meaning when they lose a loved one. The power of rituals lies in their symbolism. Research even shows that some rituals facilitate the body’s release of endorphins, which can help reduce anxiety and physical pain.

One might wonder what must it have felt like to stand and be sprinkled with this special water as a ritual of purification… One also might wonder if this is in any way related to why we wash our hands upon leaving a cemetery…

Perhaps the answer to this question might be found in the later explanations for washing hands upon leaving the cemetery. In his commentary on Numbers 19:11, Rabbi Bahya ben Asher (Spain, 1255–1340) wrote:

“whoever touches the corpse of a human being…he shall purify himself with it, etc.” The word בו (with it) refers to the mixture of the ash of the red cow and the spring-water from its respective container. This verse is the origin of the widely accepted practice that when we leave after a visit to the cemetery, we wash our hands as a symbolic gesture. It is merely an allusion to the ritual (nowadays impossible to fulfill) of the purification through the red cow.” (Rabbeinu Bahya, Bamidbar 19:11)

This washing of one’s hands after participating in a funeral or visiting a cemetery (or touching a corpse) is codified in Rabbi Joseph Karo’s (Spain, 1488-1575) Shulhan Aruch, Orah Hayim 4:18:

“These are the things that require one to wash their hands with water: … one who walks among corpses… One who touched a corpse…”

Perhaps this begs the question: what is so terrible about being in physical contact or proximity with the dead? There is an old superstition that demons lurk in cemeteries and seek to attach themselves to the living under their fingernails. The water used for handwashing is thus called nagelwasser (literally, “nail-water”).

Can we really answer this question?

The development of ritual gives us a playbook to follow. The purifying ritual of the red heifer is a hok, that category of law [that Maimonides (Spain and Egypt, 1138–1204) teaches] which “does not have a clear reason.” (Guide for the Perplexed Part 3:26) And yet, to this day, many of us will wash our hands upon leaving the cemetery or entering a house of mourning after the cemetery. Unlike the sprinkling of the waters of purification upon the one who is unclean by another person who is clean, the washing of the hands is done for – and by – ourselves. Like the shovel used to fill the grave, the washing cup is not passed from one person to the next, but set down so each person must lift the cup and pour the water for themselves. This ritual moves us from contamination to continuation – moving us forward into life.                                                                             
Rabbi Enid Lader (AJR ’10) is the Rabbi Emerita of Beth Israel – The West Temple in Cleveland, Ohio. She is a member of the Association of Rabbis and Cantors, and is the secretary for AJR’s Board of Trustees.