The parsha begins with the law of the red heifer. An in-depth examination of what meaning we search for when we search for it in the laws of God.
One idol worshipper asked Rabban Yohanan ben Zakai: These things you do look like magic! You take a cow, burn it, pulverize it, and take its ashes. Then you sprinkle two or three drops on one of you who has been defiled by a corpse, and you tell him that he has been purified!
He said: Has an evil spirit ever entered your body?
He said: Never.
He told him: Have you ever seen someone possessed by an evil spirit?
He said: Yes.
He said to him: And how do you handle it?
He said to him: We take roots, smoke them, throw water on them, and it [the evil spirit] flees.
He said to him: Let you ears hear what your mouth is saying! This spirit is a spirit of defilement, as it is written “And also the prophets and the spirit of contamination I will remove from the earth”. We sprinkle the special water upon it and it flees.
After he [the idol worshipper] left, his students said to him: Our Rabbi, you relieved him with a straw [a weak explanation], but what do you say to us?
He told them: By your lives! The corpse does not defile, and the water does not purify, rather the Holy One blessed be He says, I have made a law, I have decreed a decree, you are not permitted to transgress my decrees, for it is written “This is the law of the Torah.” (Bamidbar Rabbah 19)
The idolater barges into Rabban Yohanan ben Zakai’s Beit Midrash, and accuses Israel of sorcery. From his words we may gather that his accusation is not only according to the Jewish context (that is apposed to sorcery) - sorcery is seen as negative also in his own eyes. He may be an idolater, but is well aware of the boundaries of rationalism and laws of nature. His accusation is based on a plastic description of the act of the cow, his focus being on the technical side of the ceremony. The sprinkling of “two or three drops” brings on the strange ritual’s final proclamation - “then you tell him that he has been purified!”. This is also the idolater’s question: if the impurity is something real, how can it be that once these strange actions are preformed the impurity passes? There must be some sort of sorcery, some magic activity that forces itself on the reality of impurity.
What is the meaning of this condemnation of sorcery? Near the Ari’s grave in Safed there is an engraving by Rabbi Chaim Vital in praise of the Ari, emphasizing that his teacher achieved all that he did without the use of incantations or any “practical Kabala”. Sorcery is perceived as a shortcut, since it relies on forces external to the world. The sorcerer does not deal with reality “as is”, instead he finds a way around it and forcefully imposes his will. Since the laws of reality are an expression of god’s will, he who bypasses them is acting against God’s will, by use of forces that god seemingly does not control, and his sorcery is actively denying God’s sovereignty.
Rabban Yohanan ben Zakai’s answer to the idolater is an act of classic interpertation. He speaks to him in his own language, and by relying on verses and resembling one thing to another, turns the acts of sorcery into conventional medicine. The impurity is a spirit, the water is water, and there is also smoke present at some point, threfore it is not about higher forces but a simple action of medical treatment. The essence of interpretation is the act of putting things in context: sorcery stands out in its foreignness, in the detachment between an exceptional act and the real outcome, therefore our view is diverted to external and indifferent forces. The return to nature is done by finding the recognizable context of things, a context that causes the idolator to reinterpret the actions and identify them as part of a causative logical continuity, part of the familiar world. The success of the act of interpretation is measured by the inner conviction that it supplies, by turning the foreign familiar - “Let your ears hear what your mouth is saying!”, and you yourself would not say it differently.
The students’ contempt is too great to be demonstrated in front of the idolater; therefore they politely wait for him to leave. There is no need to explicitly present their question, it is delivered with an ironic knowing wink: the students no longer believe in the laws of nature that rule the idolater’s world, they’ve already lost that innocence. Stripped of the idolater’s simple faith, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakai’s answer loses its context which gave it its comprehensibility, and once again the question rises.
Except that the re-asking of the question tells us that the students agree with the idolater on one basic assumption: they too see in impurity a substance, a reality, and the act of sprinkling a meaningless action. In contrast to Rabban Yohanan ben Zakai’s answer to the idolater, in which he broadened the limits of his familiar world to also contain the external actions, in answer to his students Rabban Yohanan ben Zakai uses a contrary approach. Cynically declaring “by your lives”, he shatters their belief in the world of impurity and compares its status to that of the sprinkling of the water: “The corpse does not defile, and the water does not purify” - the mouth that forbids is the mouth that permits. The question itself is irrelevant, there is no rational causality or logical system that can explain the process and it is all about arbitrary decrees that are devoid of any meaning. The other aspect of the lack of meaning is, of course, its complete and absolute obligatory status - “you are not permitted to transgress my decrees”.
The story ends with this firm and decisive tone, while the question remains in its full potency: are we indeed left only with blind obedience to a set of meaningless rules and instructions? What is one to do when not only esoteric purification rituals raise questions, but also the daily fulfillment of mitzvoth, which are bound to loose their context and meaning?
In a portion often taught by Rav Shagar in yeshiva, we find that Rabbi Elimelech of Lezansk was bothered by this point. It would seem that Rabbi Elimelech poses the question as an outsider, from a non Jewish point of view, since the Jew may take upon himself the ruling not to question god’s laws; what will we answer the heretics that surround us with their questions? Indeed it seems that the willingness to deal with this issue offers a foothold for our inner heretic to ask his questions, and compels the innocent and faithful side to confront them:
… if the reasoning was needed for our sake, we would be understand that it is written as a ‘decree’ to tell us that we are not to question his commandments. But now that we are taunted by the nations it would have been better to specify the reasoning so that we know what to answer heretics…
…And also our Torah that was given to us revealed and concealed - if the reasoning was specified it would be something limited and measured. Therefore the scriptures did not explicitly specify the reasoning, so that we may find our own understanding of the reasoning. This is something that is not limited or measured, because any reasoning that we are privileged to understand on our own has its own special world and by saying that reasoning new skies are created each time. and this is the meaning of “that which the Lord commanded, in saying” - God commanded us to say the meaning of the Torah’s decrees, so that it is something unmeasured… now that reasoning is not stated, whatever they taunt us with we can answer them… we have in our hands the power to brake their strength every time with the world that is renewed for us.
Rabbi Elimelech instantly turns the finite into the infinite, the obtuse into complete openness. It is precisely the arbitrariness and meaninglessness of the decree that make it a fountain of interpretation and new understandings according to the needs of the moment. He himself, like Rabban Yohanan before his students, is directing his words to all the decrees of the Torah: if all Mitzvoth were rooted in a specific context, in a natural or social system of rules, they would necessarily lose that context with the passing of time, and what would remain is a frozen fossil of Halacha. The aspect of the decree, which is at the basis of any mitzvah, is the aspect that allows us to read it each time from within a different context, and taste a different understanding. Rabbi Elimelech actually replaces a belief in a system of rules and context as giving meaning to actions, with the belief in the power of the commentator to create a reality and breathe life into new worlds with his words. It is not the external existence that will verify this, rather it is the inner conviction of the interpretation that will create a new reality.
In this perspective both outlooks that we saw in the Midrash exist simultaneously: it is the questioning non-Jew that raises the need to renew the context, dressed in the garments of current times through Rabban Yohanan ben Zakai’s interpretation; but this must be balanced out with the skepticism that Rabban Yohanan ben Zakai instills in his students, so that the temporary re-dressings do not fossilize and become the decrees themselves. This skepticism does not allow for an acceptance of any one interpretation as it is, like the idolater does; its purpose is to loosen the grip on one specific interpretation, and exchange it for a grip-that-does-not-grip, for the commentator’s free ability. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakai should be understood not as someone who speaks to the outsider in his own language and then immediately escape to the seclusion of his ivory tower of cynicism and subordination to decrees, but rather as one who means every word he says and invests himself in them, all the while aware that his word are creating meaning and not describing it. It is only this complex awareness that allows “new skies” to be “created each time”.
It was often possible to meet Rav Shagar in a position that penetrated the boundaries of our innocence, answering questions by placing an even bigger and broader question mark. He knew how to give a new context to things that the reasoning for them had long been forgotten, and yet, as a people, it had no longer occurred to us to search for new ones. Those who believed in Rav Shagar’s ability to create new skies time and time again, learned how to turn doubt itself into faith, and will hopefully believe in their own ability to create the skies anew as well.