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Occasions for holiness
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Occasions for holiness

Chukat Numbers 19:1-22:1

Parshat Chukat opens with the description of the peculiar ritual of the parah adumah (red heifer). It was to be slaughtered and burned, its ashes mixed with water and used to purify someone who had contracted tuma (ritual impurity) from contact with a human corpse.

Over the centuries, many attempts have been made to explain this ritual. However, there is no real explanation for its odd components; one of the oddest is that the para aduma causes impurity for the pure and purifies the impure. That is, all the steps must be performed by people who are tahor (ritually pure), who become tamei (ritually impure) through their actions in order to restore a person who is tamei to a state of purity.

Why should a ritual intended to produce ritual purity render those who participate in it tamei? After all, tuma is a bad thing. The Torah tells us, “Whoever touches a corpse, the body of a person who has died, and does not purify himself, defiles the Lord’s Tabernacle; that person shall be cut off from Israel.” In other words, tuma is the antithesis of kedusha, holiness. So perhaps the ritual of the para aduma is meant to teach us about achieving holiness.

There are several religious traditions in which people lead holy lives by removing themselves from the temptations and potentially contaminating influences of ordinary life. They do not hold regular jobs, marry, or raise families. They do not mix freely with those outside their special groups. With the exception of simple, necessary tasks, they devote their time to prayer and contemplation. In this way, they hope to become closer to God.

Jewish tradition views this approach as mistaken. You cannot become holy simply by avoiding that which might contaminate. Rather, the ritual of the para aduma teaches that it is impossible to create holiness, to restore a person who has become tamei to a state of purity, if everyone withdraws from contact with him.

The only way to bring about holiness is for those in a state of ritual purity to be willing to “get their hands dirty.” The person who is tamei must remain in that state until others are willing to become tamei to help him. Thus, the Torah teaches that ritual purity is important, but is not the same as holiness, which is greater and more significant. Kedusha is measured not only by how close one is to God, but also by how one lives in the world.

Judaism teaches that holiness can be part of everything we do: earning a living, being part of a family, functioning in a community. That’s why the Torah’s commandments are not limited to prayer and sacrifices and holidays. They encompass buying and selling, agriculture, family life, and much more. Everyday activities can be occasions for holiness if we choose to make them so.

Judaism insists that every life can — indeed, must — incorporate kedusha. The lesson of the para aduma is that none of us will be tahor, holy, unless we are willing to engage fully and freely in the joys and cares of ordinary life.

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