Chukat Balak: Fall and rise

No civilization lasts forever. On a summer night in the year 410, the ancient society of Rome, whose namesake capital was called the “Eternal City,” saw its walls breached for the first time in eight hundred years by raiding Goths. For three days these raiders ransacked the city, stealing treasure, assaulting civilians, and burning temples before they retreated into the northern landscape. Over the next several years, an empire that had lasted a millennium, collapsed in a rapid succession of catastrophic civil and environmental failures. Bryan Ward-Perkins chronicles Rome’s foundering in his book, The Fall of Rome, showing that in its last days, the empire that built the most expansive road and water network the world had ever seen, beautiful colonnades and thick layers of economic, social and religious life collapsed under the weight of its own hubris and excess. When Alaric, the Gothic warrior, came to sack the city, he found the gates unlocked and open. The walls of the city were stout, but Rome itself was brittle long before raiders came to the threshold.

Jerusalem in many ways was no different. When the Romans came to the “City of Gold,” they came not as invaders but as intermediaries. The death of the Jewish Hasmonean queen Salome Alexandra led her two sons into an inheritance dispute that eventually plunged the kingdom into civil war. Eventually they beseeched the Roman officials to mediate the conflict. After several bouts of failed diplomacy, Pompey, the Roman general, marched on the city in 63 BCE. When they arrived, the army found the walls firm and impenetrable, but the gate was open. It might take another century before the Temple was turned to ash, but it was that moment when Pompey entered the upper city that Judea lost its autonomy for the next thousand years. 

Both Rome and Jerusalem collapsed from within long before they fell to outsiders. The same is true for all of us. Like the walled city, we assume our lives can be fortified by our fortunes and our privilege. We assume that what happens outside the walls is what draws our focus and attention. No need to look inside and cultivate the spirit of conscience. We assume what happens “out there” in the world — business, politics and society at-large — has nothing to do with what is inside ourselves. We hide behind words like sanctus, meaning separate and apart. Like a walled city, we want to be spiritual isolationists, keeping what is truly holy inside our hearts, and relegating everything else to the profanity of the outside world.  

But what we learn from history and psychology is that what happens in the world between us, is because of us. Cities rise because people decide to build them. Oceans are crossed because the explorer wants to see what is over the horizon. When we cultivate what is within, we can begin what is without. So when our hearts wither, so does our city. When leaders refuse to invest in the spirit of a nation, the nation founders. When a society ignores the spirit of grace and generosity, of taking care of the poor, the disenfranchised, the terrified and the weak, they scoop out the very soul of what it means to be together. It does not matter how many submarines we have or how fast our missiles travel; if we don’t have a reason to care for each other, we invite disaster. Great civilizations are founded with the heart, but fall by the sword.  

In this week’s Torah portion, Chukat, we see in the most arcane fashion how the inner life cultivates the outer. A perfect red heifer without any blemish was brought to the center of the community, slaughtered and burnt into ashes, mixed with water and spread over the altar for the purpose of purification.(Num. 19:2)  For generations this ritual known as the Para Aduma or the “Red Heifer” was pointed to as a “ritual law,” (Heb. chok), which carries no rational explanation other than ritual behavior. The rabbis go on to say that laws like the Red Heifer are unquestionable specifically because they have no rational basis. (Tanchuma Chukat 7) If there ever was a ritual that was so opaque, so internal to the life of God, it is this one. What use is it then, if its utility seems preposterous?

I argue that it is exactly this moment where the inside spirit meets the outside world. Think of the cultivation of the beast for slaughter, the domestication, the protection to keep it perfect. The Red Heifer, the commentator Ibn Ezra says, must be an adult. (Ibn Ezra ad locumWhat kind of person would pay that close attention to another living creature without the spirit of care? What kind of education must he have, to know how to keep this animal from harm? The Mishnah dares to ask the question, “what if the heifer refuses to go out [to be slaughtered]?” (Mishnah Parah 3).  Since no harm, no yoke, no switch can be taken to the animal, what then? The Talmud concludes that it must go on its own, no other coercion can be taken.(Yoma 43a)

What appears to many at first as an arcane and inscrutable ritual, is in actuality a reflection of a civilization’s orientation towards itself. That is, a society that puts care as its central ritual, is a society that will pour forth care from that center to the rest of its hegemonic sphere. The Torah goes on to say that anything that was in the dead person’s presence becomes unclean at the moment they died, and anyone who comes into contact with the dead person for any reason, also becomes unclean, requiring the Red Heifer ritual to become pure again. (Num. 19:16)  What the Torah teaches here is totally radical. Every death has implications for the society in which it happens. We cannot be untouched by a death in our midst, and we must act in response. In fact, the Bible says, “Zot Torat Adam – This is the Torah humanity” at this moment.(Num. 19:14)  It is here, at its most opaque, where the Torah feels most human. 

Finally, it is these same priests who receive the instructions to care for and sacrifice the red heifer, that also were told, “love your neighbor as yourself,” “leave the corners of your field for poor,” “to not put a stumbling block before the blind,” and to never “wrong the stranger who resides with you…you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Lev. Ch. 19

What we learn from the arcane nature of the chok, is that there is no separation between ritual and the ethical. A society is implicated when it fails to cultivate its spirit.  Holiness is not a refuge from society, but a launch pad into society. 

The great danger of today is the cynical dismissal of the spirit. We cannot merely invest in our physical infrastructure without investing in spiritual infrastructure. We need more moral fiber and less carbon fiber. We need to invest with our hearts and not with our swords. It is the underserved, the poor, the harried, the terrified that our tradition sees at its heart song. Their deaths at the hands of our inaction implicates all of us.  

No civilization lasts forever, but we can renew our own and rise again to build a world of care and of love. 

Shabbat Shalom

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