It feels like every day we turn on the news and have to ask ourselves why. Why is there so much violence, hatred, division, intolerance and tragedy in this country and around the world? We barely had time to recover from Orlando, and then there was Louisiana and Minnesota and Dallas and now Nice. They are all dramatically different tragedies, but they all represent what happens when we do not love our neighbors as ourselves and we do not invest in peace and love, but rather violence and fear. We ask ourselves, we ask each other and we ask God, why does violence even exist? Why do these things have to happen? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do innocent people have to die? And the answers we come up with, if we can come up with answers at all, can feel shallow and empty. In Jewish tradition, the answer is not that the victims have gone to a better place as it may be in other religions, not because we don’t believe there is a better place, because we do, though we don’t talk about it as much. But going to a better place is not the answer because we are charged with making this place better. We are here to repair this world, and when it starts to feel more broken, the next world, Olam Haba, is not meant to be the consolation. Sometimes I have answered “why” by looking at the human race as 3-year olds in the universe, and realizing that 3 year-olds can be devastated by seemingly simple events like parents going out for the evening or going to sleep alone in a dark room, but our adult selves know that there is nothing to be afraid of. And though that does provide some comfort through the concept of faith in something bigger than us, it is really relying on the idea that we just don’t know enough to understand which in essence is really a non-answer. So maybe instead of struggling for the answer to “why,” maybe we are asking the wrong questions. Maybe we should be asking “what,” as in, “What have we learned from this?” Or maybe we should be asking “how,” as in, “How can we help?”
This week’s Torah portion focuses on what we can learn and how we can help in a decree that though is one of the mitzvot that is no longer required to be carried out, is still positioned to have tremendous impact. The Parshah begins with the statute of the red heifer. The red heifer is used for purification for anyone who has touched a dead body. They must be purified with blood and ashes from a red heifer. It can’t even have 2 black hairs. This is one of those passages that begs for a “why.” Why a red heifer? Why must it be burned in order for this purification to be carried out. But what struck me while reading was the irony of what happens if you were the one to burn the red heifer in order to purify people. The person who burns it also becomes unclean for a short period of time. So by helping someone become purified, the person suffers a contamination. This feels like the answer to “how.” Not just “How can we help others?”, but “How much can we help others?” And the answer is not just a little bit. We need to help them until it hurts us. Help to the point of sacrifice. How many people help in that way? If we examine the ways in which we help, do they feel like a sacrifice? I know that I am always on the lookout for people I can help, from the homeless who are on the streets of Nashville selling newspapers for $2 as part of a city program, to larger donations to official charities or time donated to places like St. Jude and Make-A-Wish. But how much of a sacrifice is that for me really? If I think honestly about my contributions, am I helping beyond my comfort? As humans, we tend to default to what is comfortable. We do that in many of our life choices from career to family to money, and why wouldn’t we? Being uncomfortable is counter-intuitive. It feels unnatural. We are biologically conditioned to stay as comfortable as possible since it is linked to our survival. And as an interesting side note, when do we typically help beyond comfort? We do that for our children. We spend tremendous sums of money and give limitless love and support, and part of that may be biological survival, not to disparage at all the endless love that we feel for our children as it is core to our humanity. But we are also spiritually conditioned to help and to repair the world, so when we focus only on biological comfort or biological sacrifice, we feel a dissonance with our true selves. That search for what we are meant to do and who we are supposed to be in this world may be initiated by this dissonance and may lead us to the what and the how.
So as we face our week, what have we learned from all of the recent tragedy? Maybe we have learned that each one of us is responsible for being a part of love and peace, and that there are limitless ways to help and we are challenged to do more than we think. And how can we help? We can help by doing not only the simple everyday things that we discuss regularly like kindness to strangers and allowing the opportunity to connect to other people, but also the more challenging things that require real sacrifice of time, talent and money, and to have the courage to be the person who initiates change in the world. It is not easy to find a red heifer with no black hairs at all, but it is our responsibility to do more than casually and comfortably look.