"Speak to the Israelites and have them bring you a completely red cow, which has no blemish, and which has never had a yoke on it. Give it to Eleazar the priest, and he shall have it brought outside the camp. It shall then be slaughtered in his presence. Eleazar the priest shall then take the blood with his finger and sprinkle it toward the Communion Tent seven times. The cow shall then be burned in [Eleazar's] presence... The priest shall take a piece of cedar wood, some hyssop, and some crimson [wool] and throw it into the burning cow. The priest must then immerse his vestments and his body in a mikveh and remain unclean until evening..." (Numbers 19, 2-7)
The red cow is one of the most perplexing laws of the Torah. Our Rabbis state that its perplexity lies in the fact that the ashes of the red cow were the main ingredient in a purification water designed specifically to cleanse an individual who had incurred a spiritually impure state; as for example, one who had contact with a human remains. The Rabbis note the paradox that the very agent used to purify renders those involved in its preparation impure "[the priest will] remain unclean until evening." The red cow is a commandment identified as a hok, a statute, one of those Divine decrees characterized by its apparent lack of logical human explanation. Its apparent paradox, its self contradiction, places an almost impenetrable wall before the human intellect. It is the hok, the unexplainable statute observed by the Jew, that exemplifies the most laudatory expression of the Faith of Israel in the Alm-ghty and His Word. Lacking the security of human understanding, the Jew approaches the observance of the hok, the statute, with but one thought; the desire to fulfill the unalterable and eternal Will of G‑d revealed at Sinai.
When I served as Minister to a congregation in Manchester England, I oft times heard from colleagues and congregants alike that the then Chief Rabbi, Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, had likened the relationship of the Congregational Rabbi and his community to that of the priest and the spiritually unclean individual. The purpose of the Rabbinate is to cleanse and purify the Jewish People, the Chief Rabbi was reputed to have said. And in the dynamic of purification, just as with the red cow, the Rabbi, while fulfilling his spiritual commitment, many times renders himself impure at the very moment he acts to make his congregants pure, i.e. more firmly committed to Judaism. I've often pondered these words attributed to the Chief Rabbi. How true they are! For many is the time when the Rabbi is placed at a crossroads. Should he yield a deeply held principle, a sense of what his duty is in a given situation, to the pressures of congregants wishing to move in another direction? How far should he bend on such a principle? In truth what is the fundamental nature of the equilibrium that is to be maintained by him as Teacher, as Pastor, and that of his warm, close ties with his congregants, that essential element required in moving them forward toward the more spiritual, moral Jewish life?
Sadly, many Rabbis have grave problems dealing with this eternal conundrum. It is this challenge that, on occasion, results in the discrediting of a Rabbi, in bringing him to the impure state of the priest of old whose only desire was to purify and elevate his impure fellow Israelite. I have felt this dynamic in my own life. It became most pronounced when I was a prison chaplain. Visiting the prison, one is confronted with a "congregation" that is always present in "synagogue." Lacking freedom and living a rather tedious life, prisoners generally revel in speaking with their Chaplain. The life of the prisoner often creates an atmosphere of introspection and contemplation. Such individuals, searching individuals, draw the caring Rabbi like honey to a bee. I found, at times, that early on my perspective was beclouded when I embarked upon one of these relationships.
The fact that the individual I was counseling was a cold blooded murderer, seemed to evaporate from my conscience. My concern for the prisoner, for his needs, comfort and development, became all consuming. In my empathy, the horror of his act, the pain and death he had inflicted upon another, seemed remote. The balance had been lost - my abhorrence, my disgust of the bestial, nay worse than bestial, had all but vanished, and in its stead was an overpowering compassion and understanding for the prisoner. The effort to purify had somehow developed an impure side to it. I had forgotten why this individual was in prison in the first place.
These examples call into question the unfettered sense of tolerance for the right of another to do as he or she pleases so prevalent in America today. The major tension in our society is the desire by a growing number of citizens to curb this unbridled "liberty" and, in its place, restore defined rules of behavior and conduct. Sullied by their absolutist commitment to individual freedom, those seeking true freedom, seeking to purify our society, have themselves become impure by that very effort. For in their frame of reference the most repugnant behavior must be tolerated by the majority to insure personal liberty. The net result of this view has been a major breakdown in our value system calling into question the imposition of what were once considered the most basic norms of human morality and ethics. Sad but true we are but mortals, ever prey to our own frailties. Perhaps this is the true message of this otherwise incomprehensible Biblical statute. First and foremost we must remain committed to the Divine plan for human behavior much as one fulfills a hok, a statute, with absolute Faith in the truth of G‑d's Word. Then perhaps, and it is only a perhaps, we can venture forth upon that precarious plain attempting to purify those who have become impure, those who have strayed from the Jewish path of life. It is only with this approach solidly in place that we can hope to invigorate our society, developing a community which is ennobled by its steadfast commitment to G‑d's eternal plan for humanity.