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Parashat Hukkat

July 8, 2022

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Hukkat
By Rabbi Ariann Weitzman (’11)

The most frustrating thing about cleaning is that things don’t stay clean and you’re going to have to do it all over again. The second most frustrating thing about cleaning is that it’s hard to do without winding up filthy yourself. This is exactly the paradox of the ritual of the red heifer. As we read at the beginning of parashat Hukkat, the only way to cleanse the ritual impurity attached to caring for or touching the dead is to bring impurity to a wide circle of others. In order to produce the “waters of lustration,” which are used to ritually purify those who have been in contact with the dead, a perfectly unblemished red heifer, who has never had the experience of being yoked, must be slaughtered and burned to ashes. Those ashes must be collected and saved to be mixed into fresh water for this purification process. Each step along the way creates echoes of the ritual impurity at the center, the impurity of death, and most of those involved in the process must undergo their own purification.

These ritual cleansing instructions may feel random, not clearly connected to anything that comes before or after. But they are an interesting preface to the next chapter. Without explanation, Miriam dies and is buried. We don’t hear anything about the mourning rituals around Miriam’s death. Instead, we immediately hear complaining from the Israelites – they again have no water. Midrash has traditionally connected Miriam to the presence of water for the Israelites. As one of the three sustainers of the Israelites in the wilderness, her singular presence ensured that a well of water would accompany their journey (Ta’anit 9a). Because the well existed only for her merit, her death ended the Israelites’ access to water.

As we just read in Numbers 19, water is an essential part of the practice of ritual purification after death. Without Miriam, the people were not only thirsty, they were incapable of becoming pure. It is hard to relate to the concept of ritual impurity as modern Jews who do not have Temple practice to worry over. Ritual impurity is not connected to physical dirtiness or spiritual insufficiency. Ritual purity is about availability for ritual service. Indeed, when we experience the death of a loved one, we often feel unavailable for taking on tasks which require physical, mental, or spiritual energy. We may also feel emotional distance from spiritual life, numbness or pain that makes it impossible for us to be fully available to spiritual life. This unavailability is written directly into Jewish customs around mourning. We do not attend synagogue; synagogue comes to us. We do not feed ourselves; others feed us. We are less available to do the work of daily living until we have been sufficiently cared for by others.

When Miriam dies, there is no metaphorical “water” of caregiving to soothe an increasingly spiritually unavailable group of Israelites. The effect is immediate: the distress the Israelites have weathered through months of struggle has suddenly become too much. When care from our communities is available to us, whether that is in the form of purifying waters of lustration or meals brought to a shiva house, we can withstand almost everything. When that care is removed, we crumble at the slightest difficulties.

Miriam’s death points to the danger of relegating the task of “care” to one person. Miriam bore sole responsibility for the well accompanying the Israelites on their journey. The ethic of communal care embodied by the ritual of the red heifer – a line of possibly unnamed but essential persons ready to care for the single person afflicted by spiritual impurity – is the antidote to finding ourselves in the position of overwhelm which continuously plagued our ancestors in the wilderness.
Rabbi Ariann Weitzman (AJR 2011) is the Associate Rabbi and Director of Congregational Learning for Bnai Keshet Reconstructionist Synagogue in Montclair, NJ.