Years ago, I taught Parshah. One of my dreads was that a girl would enter the classroom with one of her parents just as I was explaining the narrative of the sacrifice of the red heifer. How could I possibly explain a ritual that is rooted in G-d's wisdom, and not our intellectual perception of His wisdom? Then something happened that changed my perspective. I went on one of Jeff Seidel's tours of the Moslem Quarter. The actual reason that I went , was that one of my sons was studying at Rav ZIlberman's yeshiva in that area, and I wanted to see it (at least partially to relieve my mixture of curiosity and anxiety). He was at an age (15) where you just don't take your mother to see your yeshiva. In fact, at that age you are supposed to act as though you somehow arrived on the planet via spontaneous generation. Parents are embarrassing. Since I didn't want him to die of humiliation, going on the tour seemed like a great idea. I saw the yeshiva and many other Jewish sites. Unfortunately, from a kiruv perspective, the tour was a flop. The only participants that Jeff had that day was several non-Jews and me. When it ended, one of the non-Jews asked if the next stop was the Temple Mount. Jeff said "no". The tourist asked why. Jeff replied, "Because you need a red heifer". I waited with baited breath to hear the skeptical retort that didn't come. There were also no questions; it was though the answer was the most normal thing in the world. Of course, you have to offer a red heifer! It was only then that I grasped that no one had any idea of what he was talking about ("Frank, what's a heifer?) However, no one was brave enough to ask. I asked Mr. Siedel if this ever happened before. "All the time" was his response.
We don't always understand everything, and the truth is that this is part of the plan.
Even the commandments that seem to fit into your paradigm of logic, such as "don't murder", are in the end are sourced in Divine wisdom and not really within your grasp. After all, it isn't easy to pin down what exactly makes human life sacred. One of the most beautiful and profound moments in my life was when I visited Avigail Rechnitz (and although in honestly the SEM Rabbi Kass and I will be opening G-d, willing in September is named after Avigail the prophetess, I think of the other Avigail surprisingly frequently considering that I only met her twice). She was gravely ill, and throughout our conversation, her main concern was the spiritual imprint she would leave on her family. She never made mention of her own suffering, or of the unfinished business she left behind). She understood the sacred nature of every moment. If she were asked what exactly makes life valuable, she no doubt would have used religious vocabulary because not only was she religious, but also because no other vocabulary really works when you talk about the value of human life. Once you accept that G-d created a world of infinite wonder, and that even nature, which can be observed and which has definable patterns, is ultimately far beyond human grasp, you can relate to His decrees.
The sacrifice of the red heifer (which is a fancy word for cow) is related to the laws concerning ritual impurity. The most severe level of impurity is death, since it causes a complete separation between the soul and the body. The soul, which is the source of every possible aspect of life that lasts forever and has eternal meaning goes on to the next station of its journey leaving the body behind like a discarded garment. The famous mystic work Reishis Chochma tells you that even this has purpose-the fate of the body and its disintegration makes you humble. Nothing destroys your inner balance more than prideful self-absorption; and for that reason being humbled is a profound atonement. From this angle, death "works" both for the soul and for the body by bringing about tikkun (rectification)
Once you know this, you might think that you become grim and pessimistic. No! It makes you look at your day differently. You can find your "red cow" every day when you try to use the myriad mini deaths you suffer to humble yourself. Someone cut ahead of you on line. Your mom treifed the kitchen again. Two busses passed by and they were only half-full. Worst of all, you go shopping and realize that you are I deep denial about what your size really is…You can come to grips with the fact that you aren't meant to rule the world, or you can fight a losing battle to maintain your sovereignty….
Keeping Shabbos changes everything. When you keep Shabbos mindfully, giving up your sovereignty is not so hard. The good food, ambience and time out gives you inner peace and a certain sort of tranquility if you let it. When you do, letting go of your need to rule the world is easier on not only Shabbos, but also all throughout the week.
PS the proper spelling of Maya's name is Clausen. Not as written last week.