Hefsiba “Jen” Cohen, Special to Valley News
In the Torah portion “Chukat,” which means “decree,” in Numbers 19:1-22:1, it describes the decreed ritual of the sacrificial red heifer. This ritual is a very curious mandate regarding the ashes of a special cow, along with ashes of cedar, hyssop and red wool, which became a cleansing medium when added to water for all who had become ritually impure from nearing a corpse.
If the natural separation between life, represented by the living, and death, represented by the dead, was violated, then the ceremony of cleansing with this ash-water was required to bring normality of movement and association. If someone wasn’t cleansed, they also could not serve in the tabernacle or perform other religious observances and could ultimately lead to mandated “social distancing” of sorts from the whole community. It seems quite bizarre to a 21st century understanding, but it teaches the importance of separations as depicted here between life and death. In fact, as we look deeper in the Torah, we can find that God often creates from separations.
In the Genesis creation story, God began the world with creation by separation. God separated light from darkness, and in doing so, created a visible world.
More creation by separation followed as God separated the water and atmosphere, creating earth and sky. God separated Adam into two people, creating male and female. God separated the seventh day from the previous six, and by doing so, created Shabbat. In all the separations, something new was created.
Likewise, in the Torah portion, in the separation between life and death, ritual purity and ritual impurity, a new creation, howbeit abstract, emerges: a better understanding – the understanding itself of sanctification and being “set aside.” It helps people better comprehend holiness – a further separation from the unclean or mundane.
People often regard God as a divine source of peace and unity. While it is true, God often achieves these things, ironically, through processes, mitzvot or commandments and separations. Yes, God can unite people as peaceful and ethical people, but it means they must separate from hostile and unethical behavior.
Too often human ideas of separation are often segregated, hurtful and destructive, manifesting as racism, classism and all those other hurtful “isms.” With God, however, separation brings new creation. People don’t like to be separated from that which they love, and often they denote separation with despair and sadness. They might be separated from their job, home or family. They might be separated from much more, experiencing the unspeakable pain and loss of loved ones. While those examples are truly the epitome of painful separations, with them still comes the promise of something new – a new time to cherish and remember, a time for soul searching and memorializing.
Coming out of pandemic lockdown, many people have felt separated from so much that they love, but even with this recent isolation, something new was created – newfound gratitude. Many people no longer take for granted the simple pleasures of gathering with family and friends and going out in public places. While this Torah portion taught about separation and cleansing in an ancient society, people can still hold on to the timeless lesson of separations and new beginnings.
Hefsiba Cohen is a student rabbi and adult educator.
Congregation B’nai Chaim is located at 29500 Via Princesa in Murrieta. For more information, visit https://www.bnaichaim.com or find them on Facebook.