This coming Shabbat we read the Torah portion that delineates the laws of the Red Heifer. Jews who contacted a dead body were deemed ritually impure. The process of purification was lengthy, but one of the steps was for the impure person to be sprinkled with a mixture of water and ashes from a red heifer.
Maimonides teaches the community was obligated to ensure a plentiful supply of ashes for anyone who needed or wanted to be purified.
Let’s provide some context for the concept of ritual purity. To enter the Holy Temple or to partake in the holy offerings, one had to be in a state of purity. Otherwise, Jews were not required to preserve their ritual purity. The priestly class, the kohanim, were exceptions. They were required to always maintain their purity because they were always expected to be prepared to serve in the Temple. Another reason, because they were supported by terumah gifts given to them by the Jews and these terumah gifts could only be eaten in a state of ritual purity.
Most Jews did not belong to the priestly class and only had to ensure their purity when they visited the Temple. Since most Jews made pilgrimage to the Temple three times a year, for Sukkot, Peach, and Shavuot, this was the time that Jews had need of these ashes.
So, let’s reflect for a moment. The occasions when Jews were obligated to purify were relatively few. It was only for those who made pilgrimage and among them only those who had become impure since their last pilgrimage. Considering that many people did not make pilgrimage, we are left to conclude that a relatively small percentage of Jews were obligated to purify.
The elderly, the ill, and the young, were exempt from pilgrimage. Women usually went, but when they had young children, they often stayed home. Unlanded men and Jews who lived outside of Israel were also exempt. During the era of the second temple there were many such Jews. Thus, a relatively small number were obligated to make pilgrimage.
If that is the case, one wonders why there was an obligation to assure a plentiful supply of ashes for anyone who wanted to purify. It makes sense for G-d to oblige us to put in a supply for those who are obligated. But why is the congregation required to provide for those who opt to purify. If they opted in, they could arrange their own supply.
Protocols of Piety
It would appear that the answer is simple. If your fellow wants to accomplish something even if he or she is not required to, you should extend yourself to help them. Of course, we must extend ourselves to help others fulfill their obligations, but the Torah wants us to go the extra mile and help others even when they are not obligated.
But this answer is overly simplistic. There is an entire genre in the Torah called protocols for the pious—going beyond the letter of the law. If the answer is indeed as we presented it, this law should have been included in that section. It would have been deemed a pious thing to do rather than an obligation for all people. The fact that this is included in the legal code tells us that there is something more to this. What might it be?
Our sages taught that the red heifer is reminiscent of repentance. Impurity results from contact with the dead. Now you might recall from your studies of genesis that had Adam and Eve eaten from the tree of life rather than the tree of knowledge, humanity would have lived forever.
Death resulted from the first sin. The impurity that flows from death is also emblematic of sin. As the red heifer is the remedy for impurity, so is repentance the remedy for sin.
Thus, there are similarities between the red heifer and repentance. The red heifer was the only offering that was slaughtered outside of the Temple grounds. Similarly, repentance is the only Mitzvah that is born of extraneous forbidden behavior— sin. When burning the red heifer branches of cedarwood and hyssop were thrown in. Similarly, repentance brings us low like a hyssop when we used to stand inflated and tall like a cedar.
These similarities prompt us to view repentance in a new light. We usually think of repentance as something to fall back on only in the event of sin. The ordinary Jewish routine doesn’t entail repentance. After all, if you don’t sin, you don’t need to repent. But the fact that the ashes were always made available tells us that repentance has a role to play for all people at all times.
We must always remember that no matter how pious and righteous we are, we can trip up at any time. Sinful opportunities abound and one should never say that they are above sinning. If we looked deeply into the mirror, we would likely find a sin or two that we have already committed. Even if we are one of those exceptional people who have not sinned, we know that we are capable of it at any time.
Our sages taught us not to believe in ourselves until the day we die because only then will it be too late to sin. Accordingly, we must review our behavior each night before going to bed to see if we sinned that day. If we did, we must repent for it specifically and explicitly.
Even we haven’t sinned, we must ask ourselves whether we could have done better. We might not have done anything wrong. We might have done everything right. But could we have done better or more? The Hebrew word for sin is chet. Chet doesn’t translate literally as sin. It translates more accurately as lacking or falling short. This tells us that sin doesn’t only refer to outright infractions. Sin also refers to failing to give it our all, failing to do our absolute best.
Thus, repentance should not be viewed as a mitzvah that is only needed by sinners and penitents. It is a Mitzvah that we must all use every day. There are some tools that we keep in the dusty toolbox under the bench in the garage and when we need them we can never find them. But the tools that we need regularly are kept in the kitchen cabinet or under the bathroom sink. We know where those tools are because we can ‘t afford not to know. Repentance is not a toolbox tool. It is a kitchen cabinet tool. Keep it close at all times.
This explains why we must always provide ashes for all people. It is not providing ashes for people who opt in. It is providing ashes for people who might not be obligated to purify, but still ought to. Just like we could make excuses for ourselves and fail to repent, so could these Jews. But they don’t. They step up to the plate and seek purification. The seek it because they need it. And if they need it, it is our obligation—not just protocol of piety—to provide it.