Parashat Chukat: Getting Your Hands Dirty

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Dirty Hands
21 Jun 2007

Part One: Dirty Hands

Our parsha begins with the unfathomable ritual of para aduma, the red heifer. The completely red-haired animal is burned on Har Ha’zaytim to the east of the Temple Mount, in direct line with the Holy of Holies, which enabled the officiating kohen to see into it.

The Torah informs us that all the people involved in the preparation of the para aduma became tamei (a state of ritual impurity), even though the results of their efforts is the purification of people or objects which became tamei through contact with a corpse.

How strange that the people who are engaged in the purification of others become themselves impure!

But here the Torah is teaching us a huge lesson in Yiddishkeit that, in the fulfillment of Hashem’s will, a Jew at times is called on to dirty his hands – literally and figuratively.

The gemara in pesachim 57a tells of a kohen gadol (high priest), Yissachar of Barkai, who would protect his hands with a silken cloth when performing the sacrificial rituals: shechita, collecting the blood, cleaning the innards, taking down the charcoal, etc. These were not for a kohanic aristocrat brought up on the west side of the suburb of Barkai (or any other west side).

He was eventually punished, when he came into conflict with the king who ordered his two hands to be amputated.

Hashem was saying in effect to this kohen, “Why did I give you hands if not to serve me. If it is unbecoming of you to dirty those hands in my service, why do you need hands?

I have a friend who is now retired from work as a dustman (sanitation worker) in Yerushalayim. I would always stop to talk with him; and while leaning on his broom, he would quote pasuk after pasuk from the Tanach. This special Temani man would always remark how much pleasure he got when seeing the beauty of Yerushalayim and knowing that he contributed in some small way to it.

There was a man from Bnei Brak whom I knew many years ago. He told me what was happening at that time in his family. His usually happy, energetic teenage daughter suddenly became extremely despondent, but refused to reveal what was troubling her. After his wife and he made it very clear to their daughter that the situation could not continue and that they were preparing to call in professional help, she told her mother what the problem was. Her father had never discussed his work with his children, so they never really knew what he did. One day, while riding the bus, she saw her father together with other men paving the road between Bnei Brak and Petach Tikva. She was so shocked to learn that he was a manual laborer that she closed herself off.

The man told me how he then sat down and explained to the young girl that to pave the roads in Eretz Yisrael is more honorable than the prestigious job he had filled in Hungary before the war. The road he was building would bring untold people to do mitzvot; and in Hashem’s painstakingly exact calculation, a part of every mitzva would be accredited to him and the entire family.

In the process of bringing purity and kedusha to the world, one must be prepared to dirty one’s hands and soil one’s clothing.

This is the diagnosis of the ailment from which we religious people suffer. How much more pleasant to escape the responsibilities of being an active partner in bringing about the redemption of our nation.

It was more pleasant to go on with one’s life in Europe in the early 20th century than going to the Galil to drain out the Chula swamp, or to clear the field of the Jezreel Valley from the stones to prepare the land for planting after 2000 years of dormancy.

We who believe in the Torah and the sanctity of Eretz Yisrael didn’t do it; the chalutzim, whom we mock for their alienation from Torah, did. They fell from malaria, fought off the Arab gangs with no more then sticks in their hands, went into the ocean to bring in our brothers from the refugee ships under the noses of the brutish-British, and they established the State. And the nearly one million religious Jews in chutz la’aretz led by certain people continue to mock, degrade, despise, scorn, disdain, the “Tzionim”, but continue to sit on the sidelines, spectators to the renaissance of our nation.

I can hear the response of some people reading this. Why am I “picking” on the benei Torah in chutz la’aretz when the same is going on in Eretz Yisrael in certain circles? You are correct!

True, it’s not very pleasant to have to crawl on your belly in a thorn field or to have to learn how to throw a hand-grenade for 5 hours under the beating sun in basic training; not to mention being shot at. Why dirty my hands when someone else and his son can do it.

The Kohen Gadol Yissachar from Barkai learned the lesson of dirtying one’s hands in the service of Hashem; but we, unfortunately, have not learned the lesson of the shoah that what we don’t do for ourselves no Gentile will do for us.

The hills of Yehuda and Shomron begged for the Children of Israel to come and claim their God-given heritage. The beautiful seaside plains of the Gaza area stood waiting for the tens of thousands of Jews to come. The rolling hills and mountains of the Galilee wait for the fulfillment of the prophecy of the words of Yirmayahu to our mother, Rachel, that the “sons” will return to their land. But, no. For tens of thousands of our brothers, it is a bigger mitzva to fill Madison Square Garden and pat each other’s back for the great sacrifice of learning a page a day.

So now we are paying the price. Two organs were amputated from the body of Eretz Yisrael, one in Gush Katif and the other in the northern Shomron.

Yehuda Ha’Levy laments at his inability to come to Eretz Yisrael if only to embrace the soil on the ground.

But thank God there is a generation of kippot serugot in the land – “produced in Israel for domestic use, not for export” – who will be the backbone of the next generation. I stood with the young people in defiance of the undemocratic and immoral decree of our government to evacuate Jews from parts of Eretz Yisrael. This never would have come about if there were another one hundred or two hundred thousand G-d fearing people in the land.

So take a good look in the mirror, and then look at your hands and try to find the calluses.

Part Two: The Unity of the Red Heifer

When studying the matter of para aduma, the following thought came to my mind, which may make the matter just a little less obscure.

The atomic table contains (to my last knowledge) 115 natural and artificial elements. However, in the “chemical table” of the Zohar, there are only four elements which – due to their qualitative and quantitative mixtures – produce every physical object in the universe:

The Torah relates that at the early dawn of mankind there were four major holocausts:

1) One third of mankind was killed when Kayin (Cain) murdered his brother, Hevel (Abel).

2) The deluge in the time of Noach.

3) When the five centers of culture, Sdom and Amora and their three sister cities, were destroyed.

4) When the army of the then superpower of Egypt was destroyed in the Red Sea.

1) Tradition states that Kayin argued over ownership of the Temple Mount. Kayin then murdered his brother with a rock and buried him in the ground – this is all on the background of the first element “afar” dust or soil.

2) Humanity was destroyed in the time of Noach through the second element “mayim” water.

3) Sdom and Amora were decimated by the third element “aish” fire.

4) The waters of the Red Sea (parashat Beshalach) were split by the fourth element “ruach,” when a great wind raged all night and blew again to restore the waters to their natural state.

Para aduma utilizes all of these elements: 1) Fire burns the para creating “afar” or ashes called “ayfer“; 2) the kohen then mixes the ayfer with water. He does not pour the liquid on the person coming to be tahor. Instead, the kohen flings the mixture on the person by using the wind which he creates by the force of his arm.

We see that when each element is taken alone, it brings death and tuma. However, when taken together through the para aduma, the joint forces of all the elements bring tahara and life.

I don’t know if this is the right track to the true understanding of the para aduma, but the lessons to be learned are certainly applicable. Unity among the Jewish nation creates an atmosphere of tahara, whereas disunity produces strife and tuma.

As an example of this, I would like to relate a most unfortunate incident which occurred several years ago in New York City. The major orthodox organizations decided to declare a prayer occasion near Wall Street in view of the difficult situation here in Eretz Yisrael. However, the heads of Agudat Yisrael made their participation conditional on not reciting “mi sha’bay’rach” for Medinat Yisrael or Tzahal.

After the event, I learned of the condition imposed by Agudat Yisrael and wrote a letter to one of their leading administrators, ostensibly seeking advice in a delicate matter.

I have a son who is a senior officer in Tzahal. Our army does not award campaign ribbons to the soldiers; but if it would, his uniform would not be big enough to hold the awards he would receive. Thousands of Jews owe their lives to the daily and nightly efforts of him and his soldiers.

I asked the rabbi what I should tell my son when he finds out what happened in New York and asks me: “Abba, why didn’t they pray that I should come home safely to my wife and children?”

And when his wife, who is a talmida chachama (being a teacher in an ulpana, she knows more about korbanot than most rabbis living abroad), asks me: “Abba, why didn’t they pray that my husband should return safely to me and our children?”

And when their children ask: “Saba, why didn’t they pray that Abba come home safely to us?”

Rabbi, please tell me what I should I tell them.

In the wake of this heartbreaking chillul HaShem, my dear friends, Chaim (Howard) Rhine and Vel Werblowsky, initiated a project of achdut (unity) together with the OU to negate the divisiveness of others. They printed beautiful prayer cards for Tzahal, with a magnificent picture of three soldiers from three different infantry units standing arm-in-arm at the Kotel, with the idea that every person should recite the tefila every day.

This project is in the spirit of parah aduma; it brings tahara where there is tuma; unity where there is dissension; humility where there is arrogance.

Part Three: Collective Force

In response to many requests for more chapters of my autobiography, I am including the following:

On the second day after our arrival in Eretz Yisrael, we went up to Yerushalayim for the first time in our lives. I was drinking in the rapidly changing landscape, from coastal plain to agricultural areas, from the beginning of the Judean foothills to the rapid climb up the Judean Mountains from sea level to 800 meters. We were traveling in a shayrut (taxi service) in a stretch Desoto limousine. My inquisitiveness got the better of my manners, and I asked the driver how he had obtained such a magnificent car? He replied, “I enrolled my two sons in a missionary school in Jaffa, and they helped me purchase the vehicle”.

I was overtaken by a mixed sense of disbelief and disgust. Here I was sitting in a car purchased by the sale of two innocent Jewish souls by a father whose greed had made him sell his own soul to the devil – and here in Eretz Yisrael.

After arriving in the Holy City and walking around, I entered an imposing building called “Heichal Shlomo” on King George Street (Israel is the last former colony of the British Empire to retain a major street so named). At that time, the building housed the Israel Chief Rabbinate and the religious courts. We entered a courtroom where two people were noisily taking their turn in mutual accusations. They were the surviving son and daughter of their deceased mother and were arguing over the estate. The daughter accused her brother of never really loving ‘mama’ and of only wanting her money, and the brother retorted with similar barrages of sibling niceties.

Here too, I was gripped with a feeling of great disappointment. Is this the Eretz Yisrael for which I dreamt? But little did I know that G-d and His hashgacha pratit was “setting me up” for a great lesson.

We left Heichal Shlomo and found ourselves standing in front of a lovely white building on Betzalel Street – the municipal community center of the area (bet ha’am). The door was closed, but I knocked anyway. The custodian appeared and was seemingly annoyed, because I had interrupted his afternoon siesta between the hours of 2:00 and 4:00. To his interrogation about what we wanted, I replied that we were olim chadashim who had arrived just two days ago. In a more affable voice, he ushered us inside and said that he had something very interesting to show us.

We ascended three flights of stairs and arrived in a very large room. One end was enclosed and formed a small chamber with a bed, a table upon which rested a book and several other items. What made the entire scene look like a kafka-esque apparition was the fact that this smaller chamber was enclosed with bars. At that moment I heard the words, “You are standing before the cell of Adolph Eichmann.”

Eichmann, who had organized the transport of millions of Jews from all parts of Europe to the various extermination camps, escaped to Argentina and was brought to Israel by the Mosad. He was put on trial and sentenced to be hanged for crimes against humanity and the against the Jewish people. The film of the court proceedings of that day was flown to the States, and I would be “frozen” to the television set every evening to relive the unprecedented tragedy, which befell our nation at the hands of this man Eichmann and too many others of his ilk. He was hanged one week before we came to Eretz Yisrael, and here was I standing before the cell which housed the “master butcher” of my people.

There was a book on the night table, and within its pages a bookmark stood out. When he was taken to be hanged, this “master” of order and discipline returned the bookmark to its place, because to do otherwise would not be “ordernung“.

He was hanged in Ramle prison and his ashes were thrown into the ocean, as the gemara relates in Gitin regarding the ashes of Titus, the Roman general who destroyed the Holy Temple. Titus ordered his body to be burned and the ashes thrown into the ocean, so that the Jewish G-d would not be able to inflict punishment upon him. The gemara relates that G-d retrieves the ashes every day, inflicts punishment upon the body and returns it to ashes until the following day.

At that moment, I felt the hand of hashgacha prateet.

The message was loud and clear. There were and will always be individuals, like the taxi driver and the brother and sister, whose arrogance and greed pervert their conduct. But the collective entity of a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael stands higher than the human frailties of its individuals. Only such an entity, which consists of a Jewish army and covert organizations as the Mosad, and with courts of law and a national conscious, is capable of actions on the highest national level; whereas, a gathering of Jews on the community level is incapable of effecting any change over Klal Yisrael. It is our religious duty to become part of that collective and imbue it with the spirit of Torah, so that its actions will be a kiddush Ha’Shem on a global level. It is, indeed, in our hands if enough G-d-fearing Jews come home.

Shabbat Shalom, Nachman Kahana

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.