The Power of Ashes

Rabbi Reuven Mann

It comes as a surprise that something as seemingly inconsequential as ashes should play a major role in Jewish religious life. This week’s Parsha, Chukat, deals with the subject of death and the purification therefrom via the entity of the Para Aduma (Red Heifer).

Judaism teaches that contact with a human corpse engenders a state of ritual impurity with significant consequences. These specifically distance one from entry into the Holy Temple and partaking of consecrated foods. However, the state of Tumah is not permanent. One can go through a process of purification and return to a normal condition.

This entails a waiting period of seven days, after which the person submerges in a body of water known as a Mikvah. However, the process is only valid if he has been sprinkled with a mixture of special ashes that have been produced by the burning of the Red Heifer. This sprinkling is done on the third and seventh days, after which he is eligible for ritual immersion and then obtains a state of purity.

While this procedure doesn’t seem that complicated, it is rendered so by the difficulty of acquiring the cow which corresponds to the features of the Red Heifer. We have not had one and hence its ashes for many years. Thus, today virtually all Jews, Kohanim and others are regarded as ritually impure and are unable to alleviate that state.

The question arises, why does the Torah impose a state of impurity just because of contact with a corpse? This is especially problematic given that respectful treatment of the deceased, especially the provision of a decent burial, is considered a great Mitzvah. In spite of this, one who engages in this commandment by coming in contact with a dead body contracts a state of Tumah. What is the reason for this?

Numerous explanations been proffered for this phenomenon. I should like to add some thoughts of my own. It seems to me that contact with the deceased can be an unnerving experience. Death is a troubling phenomenon, as it violates man’s sense of immortality. In order to function at his optimum, man needs to deny death and to behave as though he is going to live forever.

The sight of a corpse impels man to acknowledge the reality that this life is temporal and that sooner or later we are all going to expire. At first this is a painful awareness which can cause a certain depression. For the cognizance of mortality can dispel the spirit of enthusiasm which is integral to man’s creative endeavors. The sense that one is going to die anyway can leave one feeling hopeless and uninspired.

However, on the other hand, the experience of death can cause one to lose unrealistic fantasies and to reorient himself to a more appropriate outlook. He may come to the realization that there is such a thing as immortality but that it pertains to the soul not the body. Judaism teaches that the Tzadik (righteous person) who has lived in accordance with the Mitzvot and has perfected himself through study of Torah and performance of good deeds, effectuates a transformation of the soul which enables it to live on after its separation from the body.

Perhaps then a state of Tumah is imposed in order to get the person to think about the significance of his encounter with death. It does not mean that man is only a temporal being who lives for a time and then departs the scene never to be heard from again. That may be true with regard to the physical aspect of existence that he partakes of in this world. That may very well be a one time thing.

But the essence of man resides in his Neshama (Soul) which is not subject to the laws of death and decomposition. The soul is a non-physical entity which has the potential to live on after the death of the body. This depends on how the person has lived his life.

If he sought to cultivate the soul through pursuit of wisdom and performance of deeds which enabled him to overcome the forces of the instincts, then his Neshama becomes stronger and eventually reaches the level where, upon death, it outlives the body in what is known as Olam Habah (World to Come). The Rabbis teach that all Jews have a share in the World to Come. May we merit to attain it.

Shabbat Shalom.