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The Tragedy of Tragedy

Chukat-Balak (Numbers 19:1-25:9 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

Parshat Chukat is full of death. First we read about the "red heifer" whose ashes are required to purify someone who comes into direct contact with death. Then we read about the death of Miriam closely followed by the death of her brother Aaron. Moses doesn't actually die but his death sentence is one of the themes here.

Finally, Parshat Chukat ends with the description of the war against Sichon, the first of the bloody wars waged by Israel in conquest of its homeland. Immediately prior to the description of that war, we are told of the river that turned red from the blood of the Amalakites whose attempt to ambush the Jewish people in a desert canyon was miraculously foiled.

This sudden focus on the theme of death is no coincidence. At this precise point, namely the beginning of Chukat, the Book of Numbers changes tracks. Until this point, it has been recounting the history of the Exodus generation. But from here on, the remainder of Numbers and the entire book of Deuteronomy, recounts the history of the next generation, the generation who entered Israel.

All the historical events described take place in the 40th year of the desert sojourn.


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The marker for the transition is the passage describing the laws of the "red heifer," which fit the theme of death. It was selected because the way in which Jews will henceforth encounter death will be markedly different.

The way in which Jews will henceforth encounter death will be markedly different.

Technically, the laws of the "red heifer" as well as the laws of ritual purity applied to the members of the Exodus generation as they apply to all Jews in all historical periods. It is only the spirit of these laws that has affected the later generations in a totally different way.

Thus, without being sprinkled with the ashes of the "red heifer," no Jew was ever allowed into the Tabernacle. Every member of the Exodus generation had presumably come into contact with death at some point in life prior to the establishment of the Tabernacle and had to be ritually purified before he or she could enter it courtyard.

The same applies to us. When it is God's will to restore the Temple, we will have to be purified through the ashes of a "red heifer" before we will be allowed through its doors.

We know for certain that the laws of the "red heifer" were already in practice many years earlier prior to the inauguration of the Tabernacle. The reason why the event was recorded here, out of place, is that the laws of the "red heifer" are the most appropriate marker of the transition of the generations, because they deal directly with the spiritual effects of an encounter with death, and death in the Exodus generation was an altogether different experience than death as we encounter it today.

Because the Exodus generation only encountered the phenomenon of premature death in the clearest association with sin, their sense of tragedy was vastly different than ours. They never had to suffer the painful shock of watching people around them dying apparently senselessly and at random. Whenever anyone perished before his time they knew exactly why this had to be so.

Of course, they, too, had to live through the experience of the deaths of friends and family members who had reached the end of their allotted life span. But even in this case their encounter with death was vastly different than ours.


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The Midrash (Eichah Rabba, Introduction 33) tells us the following story regarding the origins of the holiday that we celebrate on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Av, named the "day of the breaking of the shovels."

The members of the desert generation were all under the edict of having to die in the desert. This generation consisted of all those who were between the ages of 20 and 60 at the Exodus.

No one died before 60 unless he was involved in one of the special incidents involving the sins described in elsewhere in the Torah such as the sin of the golden calf or revolt of Korach, etc. Every year on the eve of the 9th of Av, the anniversary of the issuance of the edict, Moses issued a call, "go out and dig." The 60-year-olds would say goodbye to their families, pick up their shovels, go outside the camp, dig themselves a grave, and lie down to go to sleep. The 15,000 who were destined to die that year [600,000 people between the ages of 20 and 60 dying over a period of forty years equals 15,000 deaths each year] simply didn't wake up.

They followed this custom in the 40th year as well, but much to their surprise no one died. Their immediate reaction was that they had somehow mistaken the day, so they went back to sleep again the next night in the graves they had dug. After six days, when they saw the full moon rise on the evening of the 15th day of the month, they were certain that there was no mistake and realized that the edict had lapsed. They established that day as a holiday.

In the desert generation, children did not die in terrorist attacks.

Children did not die in the desert generation in senseless accidents, buildings never collapsed on innocent people, no one perished in terrorist attacks. While all death is painful to witness, their experience with it can hardly be described as tragic.

So why has the world changed so drastically for us? Why must we experience death in such close association with tragedy? In what way are we so different than they were?


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Rav Dessler in his eulogy of the Chazon Ish expressed a thought that can be applied as an approach to this problem. When a believer in Divine Providence is witness to a tragedy in which innocent victims lose their lives, his reaction should inspire him to follow a certain train of logic:

Step 1: The people who died were deserving of life at least as much as I, if not more. I believe that God runs the world and that He is just. It follows, therefore, that if they suffered such tragic untimely deaths -- and I am no better or more deserving than they -- that I should also have suffered a similar fate. But I know that I have committed no crime that deserves such severe punishment. Logic therefore dictates that they did not die as a punishment for their sins. But if so where is Divine Justice?

Step 2: As the victims did not lose their lives to atone for their personal sins, and yet as God is just, they must have suffered justly, therefore, it follows that their deaths are an indication that there is something seriously wrong with my society. My society must be infected with the disease of unjustifiable cruelty toward some of its members. I know that the punishments of God are "measure for measure." In a world run by God, a society that is functioning as it ought, would be protected from senseless evil. Senseless evil that occurs in the outside world is a certain indication that we the Jewish people are practicing senseless evil against each other.

Step 3: It follows that God allowed this tragic event to take place in order to shock us out of our complacency. We should, therefore, assemble for an introspection session and attempt to identify the areas in which we are failing in the fulfillment of our obligations to our fellow Jews and in the observance of our duty towards God.

Step 4: If we do this, than the people who died in the tragedy will not have died in vain. On the other hand, if we remain in our state of complacent slumber, it is we who are responsible for turning their deaths into pointless tragedies, and it is we who will be held responsible for the human waste.

Step 5: This means that we should not focus the brunt of our attention on the natural causes of the tragedy. Every event that occurs in our world even one that is Divinely ordained has some natural cause. We do not live in a world of miracles. When the building collapses it was obviously structurally weak. But it doesn't follow that the structural weakness was the ultimate cause of the deaths of the victims. God has an infinite number of methods at His disposal, none of them miraculous to insure that weak buildings collapse without harming anyone. No scientific test ever devised could possibly determine that the building had to collapse precisely when it did collapse. The most brilliant engineers would not have been shocked had the floor managed to hold up under pressure through the night or only developed a large crack instead of collapsing outright.


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Therefore, to focus our attention exclusively on the owners, engineers and licensing authorities as though they were entirely responsible for the tragedy is the ultimate form of cruelty. They may have caused the collapse. God brought on the tragedy. (See Maimonides, "Laws of Fasting," Chapter 1.)

How can the rest of us go on about our business as usual, satisfied that we have discovered the culprits and solved the problem, expecting to live peacefully on as though nothing had happened?

Such expectations border on heresy. For if I am allowed to live on in peace, and I am no better than the people who perished, than their deaths were totally senseless. Thus I am really saying that God is indifferent to what happens in the world and He doesn't give a hoot when the innocent suffer. I avoided their fate purely by chance. It was blind luck that placed the victims there at the wrong place and the wrong time. Such a thought must be rejected as anathema as soon as it enters the mind of a true believer.

How can a believer possibly entertain the notion that God allowed a senseless tragedy to afflict His children?

The thought that God works in mysterious ways and we cannot penetrate the workings of Divine Justice, while no doubt perfectly true, is not much better in this case. How can a believer possibly entertain the notion that God allowed a shocking tragedy to afflict His children, the Jewish people, without specifically intending to shock them? Was He asleep?

Therefore, my expectation of a continued peaceful life can only be termed an empty fantasy. The only reason I did not perish along with the victims is because God took mercy on me. I had better wake up and do something.

The cruelty to which Maimonides refers (in Laws of Fasting, chapter 1) is as obvious as it is enormous. If tragedies are indeed warnings, when they are ignored, it is obvious that the need for further warnings has hardly been eliminated. On the contrary, if small tragedies are insufficient to wake us up, greater tragedies are obviously called for.

The ignorance of Divine warnings causes the appearance of an even greater danger on the horizon of Providence, the reaching of the point of no hope, when God abandons His attempts to arouse us from the smugness of our slumbers as beyond His reach. If that time ever arrives, then God forbid, another policy entirely comes into effect, the policy of destruction.

God stated in the clearest terms that He isn't interested in supporting pointless existence. It was evening it was morning the sixth day (Genesis 1:31) Rashi states regarding this passage: God stipulated, "If Israel accepts the Torah on the sixth day of Sivan, then I am willing to have a world. If not, I see no point in it."

There is little difference between non-acceptance and non- compliance. A Jewish society that does not concern itself with the purpose of life and focuses the bulk of its energy on maximizing the quality of life in this world -- while abandoning spiritual concerns by the wayside and entrusting fellow Jews to the tender mercy of uncaring governments -- is a Jewish society that is going nowhere fast. Such a Jewish society is in danger of facing very great tragedies which involve mass annihilation. It is infinitely preferable to heed God's warnings and wake up.


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In a previous discussio of Parshat Chukat , we examined the technical aspects of the concept of tamey, spiritual impurity.

The phenomenon of tamey is a spiritual pollution that is always associated with departing life force whenever it is encountered. It is easy to see how death can be a powerful source of spiritual pollution, especially if we interpret death as a tragic event that hits us at random. Such a view of death prompts us to disassociate ourselves from God and become spiritually isolated and cut off from Him.

We Jews alive today, are the remnants of our ancestors who stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and conducted a personal conversation with God Himself. Granted that the event took place long ago and far away, but how did we lose so much of our national faith since then? What could possibly have caused the drastic spiritual erosion that has placed the Jewish people in the bizarre situation in which the majority has to be persuaded about the very existence of God? How did the erosion of faith start?

It is clear that initially some Jews who fully believed in God must have decided to rebel. Indeed, one of the three types of sin is called avon in Hebrew, and it describes the person who knows God and decides to rebel against Him anyway.

A person who rebels against God, thinks he is rebelling against injustice.

But isn't such rebellion a very strange phenomenon? When a person rebels against human authority, he generally does so with some hope of success, but surely a successful rebellion against Divine rule is inconceivable? The answer is simple. A person who rebels against God, thinks he is rebelling against injustice. He looks at the tragic deaths of innocent people and he says to himself, "I don't want to serve a God who is capable of such unjust cruelty no matter what my rebellion costs me! If I abandon my sense of justice what am I worth anyway as a human being or as a Divine servant?"

The ultimate source of severance from God is located in the phenomenon of tragic death. Tragic death is senseless death. Senseless death originates with an "Unjust God."

The refusal to accept any death as senseless is the key to elimination of tamey, the spiritual pollution caused by the sense of severance from a just God which renders rebellion against His rule conceivable.


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A Jew who comes into contact with death needs a reality check before he is allowed to tread on the holy ground of God's Temple. Entrance to the Temple is inseparable from contact with the Divine Presence. A Jew who walks around with a sense of tragedy cannot bond with God properly. Somewhere in his subconscious, the idea of an unjust God and a senseless world is rattling around.

The first separation from the sense of unity with a just and loving God that Israel gained through the encounter at Sinai was caused by the sin of the Golden Calf. The "red heifer" is reminiscent of that incident. The rabbis say that its laws are a metaphor to a lady whose daughter caused a great mess and she is told to come along and clean it up. (Tanchuma, Chukas 8)

Being sprinkled with the ashes of the "red heifer" constitutes a reality check. The person that undergoes the ceremony is reminded that every death is a demand for a correction. The proper acceptance of tragedy is the only way to rid the world of tragedy.

Let us conclude with this inspiring thought from Maimonides ("Laws of Mikvot, Chapter 11, 12):

It is clear that the laws of tamey are Divine edicts and are not phenomena that human reason would arrive at ... Even so they contain a message that does speak to our reason. Just as someone who immerses himself in a mikvah with the intention of purifying himself becomes pure even though he has undergone no physical change, someone who sets his heart to purifying his soul from spiritual impurities which are rebellious thoughts and pernicious beliefs, as soon as he agrees firmly in his heart to separate himself from them and immerses his soul in the waters of his reason, he is immediately purified...

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