RED COWS & MODERN JEWS
Rabbi David Walk
Someone dear to me, for whom I have great respect, suggested that I write a book about Jewish laws for emergency situations. You know, like when you're stuck in traffic as Shabbat begins or came very late to shul and want to know how to catch up. The list could go on and on. We find ourselves in difficult situations all the time. I immediately loved the idea and even came up with a working title, B'Sha'at Hadchak (Emergency Times). But the more I think about it, the more dangerous the idea seems to me. If I really were to pen such a work, my audience would clearly be that group usually designated as Modern Orthodox. I say this because the Charedi (ultra-Orthodox) community has a different definition for 'emergency'. To a Charedi an emergency is when you have to drink regular kosher milk because chalav yisroel (milk processed with Jews constantly on site) isn't available. For us drinking milk with an OU is l'chatichila (a normative, regular position). What worries me is that often our team of Modern Orthodox Jews accept emergency positions as standard. I don't want to write a book for those looking for lenient positions. Sometimes I think that my beloved Modern Orthodox movement is in grave trouble, and I'm not just basing this on disturbing demographics (as our proportion of the Jewish population continues to shrink), but on a spiritual malaise which I believe this week's special reading addresses.
I want to begin my analysis of the issue from the perspective of a seemingly side topic. How come the Israeli Dati L'eumi (religious Zionist) movement seems relatively strong while our supposedly parallel Modern Orthodox movement seems less robust? This phenomenon can be seen most tellingly in the youth. The Israeli kids seem excited about things like their youth groups and serving in the IDF. American Modern Orthodox kids don't seem to have passion for any similar Jewish pastimes. When an American seems to get zealous for anything Jewish we usually assume that he or she is moving to the right, and becoming if not actually Charedi at least Yeshivish, a sort of halfway house between the movements. Where does this Israeli passion come from? I think its source is mesirut nefesh (self-sacrifice). The best of Israeli Dati L'eumi youth are nursed in an atmosphere of mesirut nefesh, whether it's for the army or the settlement movement. We don't push our youth to give up anything. It's almost like the credo of Modern Orthodoxy is 'We can be Orthodox and have it all.' There's nothing wrong with great kosher restaurants or classy Orthodox vacations or Yankee box seats (except that the Yankees are evil, of course) per se, but it doesn't engender a sense of passion or purpose. It engenders a sense of entitlement.
The Sfat Emet (Reb Aryeh Leib Yehudah Alter of Gur, 1847-1905) wrote that mesirut nefesh is basically the essence of being Jewish. Back in Genesis he answered the famous question of why did God choose Avraham to be the bearer of God's covenant on earth, with the idea that our great forebear invented self-sacrifice as a principle. This happened, according to a famous Midrash, when he was willing to go into the fiery furnace rather than renounce his belief in monotheism. Our willingness to give up whatever is necessary for our religion has been a hallmark of our devotion to God ever since. We sort of invented the phrase 'ours is not to reason why; ours is to do or die (really it's a quote from Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem The Charge of the Light Brigade).'
What's this got to do with the red heifer or para aduma? Well, this week we read the mitzvah of bringing this perfectly red (well, sort of brownish auburn really) cow as an offering and then sprinkling the solution of its ashes mixed with water on people who have become tamei (ritually impure). We don't understand why this works or why it makes the cohen who administers it impure, and, therefore, this becomes the prototype for the chok or precept which we can't fathom. It is the greatest expression of our faith, devotion and passion for God that we are willing to fulfill mitzvoth even when we can't understand why.
This absolute compliance with God's law hearkens back, perhaps, to the epiphany at Sinai, when we declared na'aseh v'nishma, we pledge to perform even before we have heard the obligation's requirements. Most of us believe that these chukim have reasons; we just haven't figured them out yet. So, it really is similar to our commitment at Sinai. We are accepting the mitzvah before we have heard and absorbed its full meaning and impact. This is crucial to our spiritual development on many levels, but the most basic is that we want to recreate the enthusiasm our forebears felt. Our souls crave to feel the passion unshackled from philosophic speculation. Usually we are a cerebral tribe. Look at all those Nobel Prizes on our national mantel piece. It's refreshing to be visceral on occasion.
That's the significance of the para aduma. But we must carry that concept forward. Just like we are ready to follow orders like a Marine (or Givati), so, too, we are prepared and ready to do our duty without compensation. This brings us to the famous dictum of Antignos of Socho from Pirkei Avot, 'be as servants who serve their master without the assurance of reward (1:3).' We must be super dedicated to Torah, ready to sacrifice for its observance.
So, I'm leery of a mind-set which searches for the easy way out. I'm modern Orthodox because I believe that a modern education helps me become a better scholar and practitioner of Torah. It should never be about leniencies. It should always be about getting it right with enthusiasm and excellence. The degree of difficulty should never be at issue. We should always perform as perfectly as circumstances permit. So, maybe I should write that book for when circumstance are challenging, but never for when the willingness is lax.