By Rav Ronen Neuwirth
Every encounter with death raises theological questions, challenging questions, unanswered questions. Many of us have experienced this struggle, particularly recently with the many lives tragically lost during the Coronavirus pandemic.
This is the essence of the Red Heifer commandment, an obscure and incomprehensible mitzvah that even King Solomon, whose wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people, could not comprehend:
“All this I tested with wisdom. I thought I could fathom it, but it eludes me.” (Kohelet 7:23). “King Solomon said, “About all these things I have knowledge; but in the case of the parashah of the Red Heifer, I have investigated it, inquired into it, and examined it. [Still,] I thought I could fathom it, but it eludes me.” (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:3)
Death represents the pinnacle of uncleanliness in Judaism (avi avot ha-tuma’a – a progenitor of a primary source of uncleanness), while the Red Heifer is designated for the purification process of that impurity of death. The purifying waters produced from the ashes of this holy cow – Mei Chatat – purify those who are unclean, but at the same time defile the kohen who touches it.
This paradox of simultaneously purifying and defiling make the Red Heifer a symbol of those Torah commandments which are incompressible. These Chukim are divine instructions which remain puzzling and leave us with major question marks about the Torah and G-d’s ways.
In the introduction to the Zohar (1:2a:2), there is a fascinating story about Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s encounter with Elijah:
“This secret was never revealed, until one day when I was at the seashore, Eliyahu came and told me: “Rabbi, do you know what this is, WHO (MI) has created THESE (ELEH)?”
I told him: “These are the Heavens and their hosts, the works of the Creator, that man can look at them and bless them, as is written, ‘When I behold Your Heavens, the work of Yours.’
He told me: “Rabbi, there was one thing concealed before the Creator, which He revealed to the Supernal Assembly, and it is this. When the Concealed of all the Concealed desired to reveal Himself, He first made one single point…a concealed image of the Holy of Holies…and it is called M”I – who – which is the inception of the structure…which is hidden deep inside the name.
He desired to reveal Himself and to be called this name, so He clothed Himself in a precious, radiant garment and created ELEH, and ELEH ascended in name. These letters combined with these, and the name Eloh-IM was completed…
And on this secret stands the world – Breshit Bara Eloh-IM”
The secret that Eliyahu reveals to Rabbi Shimon is the secret of a Red Heifer. MI represents the question mark, whereas ELEH represents our knowledge and understanding of the world and reality.
The foundation of our existence in the world lies in the tension between the comprehensible and the unknown. Throughout the course of human history, we engage with the ELEH element. We have questioned and investigated, explored and researched, revealed and discovered. Especially in our generation, thanks to the “Information Revolution”, all knowledge is accessible and available to anyone at any time on the internet and through social media. As a result, we may become addicted to knowledge and become arrogant about our abilities. That is why we all need the MI element in our lives: the question marks that constantly remind us that we do not know it all; we are only human beings.
That is the purpose of the Red Heifer, a commandment with a built-in paradox whose role is to ensure that, no matter how much knowledge we have acquired, even if we are as smart as King Solomon, we will always have at least one question mark.
The late great Elie Wiesel, shared in his writings the many question marks he had about G-d and Divine Providence as a Holocaust survivor, doubts that were inherent to his faith in G-d:
“How will a man rise to glory and exalt divine justice and mercy in the generation of Majdanek and Treblinka?
“Ahavah Rabba – with great love have You loved us, Lord, our G-d;
Chemla Gedolah – great and superabundant compassion You have shown us”
Ahavah Rabba and Auschwitz?
Chemla Gedolah and Bergen-Belsen?
Thousands of communities uprooted and “With everlasting love have You loved Your people Israel”?
How could a Jew pray after what happened?
How could I? How could we say these words in the concentration camps?
I don’t know how.
“A great love have You loved us, Lord, our God” – How will the modern Jew continue to say this?
He will say it because other Jews said it before him.
Whatever his difficulties are, he feels that he must not be the last in the chain. The chain must not stop there.
Basically, prayer is faith in the full sense of the word, faith in God, as the master of history.
Unreceptiveness to prayer is a punishment, more than a sin!!!”
(Prayer and Modern Man, 1976)
About twenty years later, Elie Wiesel wrote the following words of reconciliation, in an article he published before Yom Kippur:
“Master of the Universe, let us make up. It is time. How long can we go on being angry?
More than 50 years have passed since the nightmare was lifted. Many things, good and less good, have since happened to those who survived it. They learned to build on ruins. Family life was re-created. Children were born, friendships struck. They learned to have faith in their surroundings, even in their fellow men and women. Gratitude has replaced bitterness in their hearts. No one is as capable of thankfulness as they are. Thankful to anyone willing to hear their tales and become their ally in the battle against apathy and forgetfulness. For them every moment is grace…
What about my faith in you, Master of the Universe?
I now realize I never lost it, not even over there, during the darkest hours of my life. I don’t know why I kept on whispering my daily prayers, and those one reserves for the Sabbath, and for the holidays, but I did recite them, often with my father and, on Rosh ha-Shanah eve, with hundreds of inmates at Auschwitz…
In the kingdom of eternal night, on the Days of Awe, which are the Days of Judgment, my traditional prayers were directed to you as well as against you, Master of the Universe. What hurt me more: Your absence or Your silence?
In my testimony I have written harsh words, burning words about your role in our tragedy. I would not repeat them today. But I felt them then. I felt them in every cell of my being. Why did you allow if not enable the killer day after day, night after night to torment, kill and annihilate tens of thousands of Jewish children? Why were they abandoned by your Creation? These thoughts were in no way destined to diminish the guilt of the guilty.
These questions have been haunting me for more than five decades…Many theological answers were given me…I reject all these answers! Auschwitz must and will forever remain a question mark only: it can be conceived neither with God nor without God.
At one point, I began wondering whether I was not unfair with you. After all, Auschwitz was not something that came down ready-made from heaven. It was conceived by men, implemented by men, staffed by men. And their aim was to destroy not only us but You as well. Ought we not to think of Your pain, too? Watching Your children suffer at the hands of Your other children, haven’t You also suffered?
As we Jews now enter the High Holidays again, preparing ourselves to pray for a year of peace and happiness for our people and all people, let us make up, Master of the Universe. In spite of everything that happened? Yes, in spite. Let us make up: for the child in me, it is unbearable to be divorced from You so long.”
(A Prayer for the Days of Awe, New York Times, Oct 2, 1997)
This is the secret of the Red Heifer – the importance of the existence of question marks in our lives, as an inherent part of our faith in G-d. For without question marks one cannot be an authentic believer.
Rav Ronen Neuwirth, formerly Rav of the Ohel Ari Congregation in Ra’anana is author of “The Narrow Halakhic Bridge: A Vision of Jewish Law in the Post-Modern Age”, published in May by Urim Publications.