Kenneth Brander
Kenneth Brander
President and Rosh HaYeshiva, Ohr Torah Stone

Life’s Fragility and Maximizing Our God-Given Potential (Parshat Chukat)

TRANSCRIPT

Far too often, life is so hectic that we lose our focus on the larger narratives of our existence.

Why are we here? What can we do to give meaning to our relatively short time on earth?

How can we reclaim a proper perspective that will enable us to live lives of purpose and accomplishment in all aspects of our existence?

One answer comes from a surprising source, the intricate laws of ritual impurity found in the beginning of this week’s parsha, Chukat.

The parsha begins with the laws involving טומאת מת – the ritual impurity of someone who has come into contact with a human corpse, which is the quintessential example of טומאה, ritual impurity. (Numbers 19:1 – 22)

As we continue, we learn that only vessels that have a function can become ritually impure.

Moreover, a vessel’s ability to become ritually impure is proportional to its importance.

The higher the value of the vessel, the greater the capacity for ritual impurity to permeate its walls.

This principle becomes even more pronounced when we look at the laws of impurity in relation to the lesser creations.

For example, earthenware vessels, כלי חרס, the most simple and fragile of utensils:

…וכל כלי פתוח אשר אין צמיד פתיל עליו טמא הוא

…and every open vessel, with no lid fastened down, shall be unclean. (Numbers 19:15)

The walls of such a vessel are too primitive to contract ritual impurity from contact by touch.

They can only receive ritual impurity when an impure object is placed in its air space – Avir Klei Cheres.

Let’s reflect on that. An earthenware vessel and a human being come from the same elements.

The difference between them is their environment, and their potential.

The Torah views the human as the highest of vessels, with a commensurate ability to receive or impart ritual impurity in a multitude of ways, while the earthenware pot is the lowest of vessels, with a limited ability to contract ritual impurity.

What an important message for us.

Human beings are the crown jewel of God’s creation.

We are the ultimate vessel of God’s will in this world, His partner in working to perfect it.

We are holier than angels. (Tiferet Yisrael [Maharal], Chapter 24)

And built into our spiritual DNA is the incredible capacity to be a vessel for tremendous achievement and enlightenment.

But proportionally, we also have the capacity for stunning levels of degradation and destruction.

With this precarious balance in mind, we must constantly ask ourselves how the way we live our lives fits into the larger narrative of the purpose and potential of our existence.

God has made known His affection for us and our unique standing in the universe, as Rabbi Akiva taught:

חביב אדם שנברא בצלם

Beloved is man, for he was created in the image of God. (Pirkei Avot 3:14)

One more fact regarding the ritual impurity of a vessel:

If a vessel shatters, it may have lost its primary function, but if any of the shards can still hold water or food then they still have the capacity to be מקבל טומאה to receive impurity.

Shards of a vessel which still have purpose, can receive ritual impurity.

Sometimes, our dreams and goals are shattered like a piece of pottery.

When our dreams and goals are not being achieved, when there are obstacles in the way it may make us feel broken – but it is important for us to realize that despite all of that we are still receptacles of holiness – even when we feel fragile, even when we fail.

We have the capacity to transform ourselves, our families, our community, our society.

With this in mind, it is upon us to constantly consider the incredible potential that we possess the capacity in us to transform ourselves, our families, our communities and the world around us.

Shabbat Shalom.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander is President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, an Israel-based network of 30 educational and social action programs transforming Jewish life, living and leadership in Israel and across the world. He is the rabbi emeritus of the Boca Raton Synagogue and founder of the Katz Yeshiva High School. He served as the Vice President for University and Community Life at Yeshiva University and has authored many articles in scholarly journals.
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