I just got off the phone with my French cousin Michael Hanneux. Michael grew up near Strasbourg and is today one of many young Jewish professionals living and working in Paris. He sounded so down and almost despondent about the terrible attack in Nice. He said the attack struck home even more since it took place on Bastille Day, the French version of our July 4th. Michael asked me where I thought it was safe to be in the world today and I had no answer, just sympathy. He was looking for deeper answers but I told him that in accordance with this week’s Torah portion, we simply don’t have the answers to all of life’s difficult questions.
This week’s portion is called Chukat and opens with a detailed description of the most enigmatic mitzvah in the Torah: the Red Heifer. In Temple times when one came into contact with the dead, one needed the ashes of the Red Heifer to be sprinkled upon them in order to be purified and allowed back into the Temple precincts. The Torah also tells us that the Cohen (Jewish Priest) who does the sprinkling becomes defiled in the process so that as the Cohen purifies another, he himself becomes impure in the process. As such, this mitzvah is seen as the paradigmatic “Chok” or mitzvah that escapes rational understanding. Our Sages teach that even Solomon the wise was unable to understand what the Red Heifer commandment was all about. Having said that, the great rabbinic commentators offer some theories and I’d like to share one from a friend, Rabbi Dov Weiss, that resonates with me and which I think appropriate in the wake of the attack in Nice.
What does it mean that the Cohen who does the sprinkling becomes defiled in the process of purifying his fellow Jew? Perhaps it is to teach that in order to truly help someone else we have to ourselves experience a bit of what they have gone through. To empathize with another in such a way as to be truly helpful, we ourselves need to feel some of the pain they are experiencing. Unfortunately this is not that difficult for us all to do. Remember the feeling all of us in NYC felt after 9-11 or what our brothers and sisters in Israel feel every time a terrorist attack takes place. The feelings of loss the Israeli families whose 13 year old daughter and young father were brutally killed in Israel just last week. Only by taking a moment from our day and reflecting on those losses, which are perhaps “closer to home”, can we even begin to feel the pain of the people of France.
But not everything is that enigmatic and unexplainable. There are certain basic things we can know and we must learn from events such as these. This morning I listened to Secretary Clinton being interviewed By Bill O’Reilley on Fox News and when she was asked how America is working together with its European allies to combat terrorism, she readily admitted that not enough information is being shared between the many countries facing the same threat of ISIS and radical Islam. Even within Europe, she said, countries are not working together to combat this threat. That of course must change. The world will not be successful in confronting international terrorism and ultimately averting such attacks if we are not on the same page, truly working as a one single unit to defeat this plague of extremism, death and murder. We must express our love and sympathy, feel the pain of the people of Nice, but at the same unite to defeat our common enemy.
Anything less dishonors the memory of all those whose lives have been taken by terrorism.