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Chukat: Numbers 19:1 – 22:1

“Dust & Ashes Sprinkled by the Shechinah”


A famous saying in the Talmud teaches: “These are things the fruits of which a man enjoys in this world, while the principal remains for him in the World to Come: Honoring one’s father and mother, acts of kindness, and bringing peace between a man and his fellow. But the study of Torah is equal to them all.” [Zera’im, Mishnah Peah 1:1] The Yalkut Shimoni, an aggadic composition on Torah, teaches that not just these three Mitzvot but: “All the Mitzvot of the Torah aren’t worth one teaching (d’var) from the Torah.” [Y.S., Mishlei 934]

Torah study, the Talmud affirms, is meant to be a direct path to “the World to Come,” to Messianic Consciousness, to Awakening. And though there are levels of interpretations that can serve as guides to navigate “this world,” ultimately, true Torah study must be a contemplative and meditative endeavor aiming at the transcendent. Take the opening passage of this week’s Torah portion, for example: the story of the Red Heifer. The Red Heifer is a blemish-free, completely red cow (not one of its hair can be of any other color) which must never have been put to work. When found, it must be slaughtered and burnt, and its ashes, mixed with water, are to be sprinkled on any impure person in order to make them pure. A commentary about God’s mystifying commandment with regards to the Red Heifer ritual in the Etz Hayim Torah recalls: “It is the classic example of a law that defies rational explanation…the [rabbinic] commentaries ask us to accept this law without understanding it, as a sign of love for and trust in God.” [P. 880]

Our mystics, however, would never worry about whether the Torah can be rationally grasped, nor would they read the passage of the Red Heifer as law but, rather, as a deeply spiritual mystery to meditate upon. To them, Torah is poetry, numinous parables which point necessarily to a reality beyond the limited human rational mind. The Red Heifer falls squarely in this category. The Red Heifer is a mythical creature representing absolute other-worldly perfection. Heifer, in Hebrew, is a feminine word. Our mystics often identify her as Torah or as the Shechinah, through whom flow the “milk” of Wisdom/Chochmah. On the altar of the Temple “Above,” the Heavenly Abode, the Wisdom flowing through the Shechinah is transformed into infinite particles (i.e. “ashes”) that flow down from the Source to manifest as the Temple “Below,” the earthly Realm of Creation.

And speaking of mystical ashes, there is a beautiful story about Reb Simcha Bunim, a Chasidic master from Przysucha, Poland. He carried two pieces of paper with him at all times—one in each pocket. On the first was written: “Bishvili nivra ha-olam — For my sake the world was created.” Or, mystically read: “The world is being created as my path (shvil) unfolding in the flow of each moment.” On the second: “V’anochi afar v’efer — I am but dust and ashes.” Dust: afar, is written with the ayin of nothingness, as Adam was created from afar by YHVH, the transcendent nothingness of the Divine Masculine. Ashes: efer, is written with the alef of Creation, as in-formed by the Shechinah, the indwelling manifest Divine Feminine. Reb Bunim sought to remind himself that he was both.

We, too, need reminding. We tend to think of ourselves as impure, unholy, separate from God. But as impure as we believe ourselves to be, the parable of the Red Heifer reminds us that we, too, have not only been sprinkled by the ash-filled purifying waters, but that we are “dust and ashes,” creatures of the One, embodiments of the Most Holy, through and through.