Making Meaning from the Inexplicable

The recent news of the tragic murder of Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali and the reactions I see on my newsfeeds, in my inbox, and in conversations among friends remind me of the parah adumah, the red heifer, about which we read this past Shabbat. The parah adumah is the paradigmatic hok, an example of a mitzvah for which no reason is given in the Torah itself and for which an explanation is difficult to conceive. In both contexts, that of a commandment we don’t understand and that of a terrible tragedy for which we refuse to be consoled, we simply ask, “Why? What is G-d’s plan here?”

Addressing the issue of making meaning from mitzvot, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik writes as follows:

Remaining is the third question, “what,” which inquires about the meaningfulness of particular mitzvot to the individual and to society. This is a legitimate pursuit. Nay, it may even be meritorious to inquire, “How can I integrate and assimilate this mitzvah into my religious outlook?” “What thoughts and emotions should I feel when the Parah Adumah chapter is read in the synagogue?” “How can it help me achieve devekut, a greater closeness to G-d?” Such questions reflect the need to be intellectually and emotionally engaged in the performance of a mitzvah, even of hukim. One does not ask, “Why did God legislate Parah Adumah?” or “How does it purify the ritually defiled?” but “What is its spiritual message to me?”

(Rav Soloveitchik, “May We Interpret Hukim?” in Man of Faith in the Modern World, Reflections of the Rav, Vol. II)

Arguably, the most perplexing aspect of the red heifer ritual is that as a kohen, a Temple priest, sprinkles the ashes of the heifer mixed with water to purify those who had become impure from contact with the dead, he himself becomes impure for one day! Following Rav Soloveitchik’s approach, we must ask, what spiritual impact might this ritual have on the impure and on the kohen in question?

It makes sense to assume that those who are most likely to become impure from the dead are the relatives of the deceased, who were recently involved in their burial. The period of impurity from the dead lasts the same amount of time as that of mourning for a relative (the shiva period) – seven days. At the end of these seven days, the relative of the deceased goes through two transitions: one from impurity to purity and one from mourning to every day life. The fact that the kohen himself becomes impure as he purifies these individuals imparts the message that you cannot help someone end the mourning of their beloved without experiencing some of the loss yourself. The kohen empathetically must remove himself from his Temple service for one day, putting a pause in his own life, and show that he too is affected by their tragedy.

None of us can answer the question of why the Jewish People suffered yet another loss of life to terror. No one has the right to even try to answer the question of “why.” At the same time, we can make this tragedy meaningful by taking it as an opportunity to strengthen ourselves, as individuals and as a people. We can use it as an opportunity to show our mutual care for one another and in particular for the families of the three boys. We can begin to better sympathize with others who suffer similar tragedies and renew our efforts to help them through their losses or prevent events like these from happening again.

The national unity shown by the people of Israel and Jewry worldwide has been inspiring, both before and after the boys’ bodies were discovered. Tens of thousands rallied, prayed, and petitioned for the safety of three boys that they did not know. Jews whom had felt somewhat distant from their national heritage and traditions came together to contribute what they could in the hope that G-d would bring our boys home. All of the kindness, prayers, and Torah learning that we have done as a people in response serves as a zechut aliyah, as a merit for the souls of Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali, whose memory, at least for now, unifies Am Yisrael.

We need to take stock of our tremendous capacity for empathy and successfully channel it, first toward the Frenkel, Shaar, and Yifrach families and then to others going through similarly difficult times. We should also realize that just as it is possible for Israel and the Jewish People to unify around tragedy, it is also possible and necessary for us to rally around our national hopes and aspirations, for peace, for health, for a better and safer future for our children. Despite our many divisions, the Jewish People is still alive, עם ישראל חי, attempting to live up to the begrudging admission of Balaam:

מה טובו אוהליך, יעקוב; משכנותיך, ישראל! כנחלים ניטיו, כגנות עלי

 נהר; כאהלים נטע יי’, כארזים עלי מים

(במדבר כד:ה-ו)

How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, thy dwellings, O Israel! As valleys stretched out, as gardens by the river-side; as aloes planted of the LORD, as cedars beside the waters.

(Numbers 24:5-6)

About the Author
Rabbi Jason Strauss is the rabbi of Congregation Kadimah-Toras Moshe in Brighton, MA and a Judaic Studies teacher at Maimonides School in Brookline, MA.
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