Here is a long esoteric quote from the weekly Torah portion:
God spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: This is the ritual law that God has commanded: Instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid. You shall give it to Eleazar the priest. It shall be taken outside the camp and slaughtered in his presence. Eleazar the priest shall take some of its blood with his finger and sprinkle it seven times toward the front of the Tent of Meeting. The cow shall be burned in his sight—its hide, flesh, and blood shall be burned, its dung included—and the priest shall take cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson stuff, and throw them into the fire consuming the cow. The priest shall wash his garments and bathe his body in water; after that the priest may reenter the camp, but he shall be unclean until evening. He who performed the burning shall also wash his garments in water, bathe his body in water, and be unclean until evening. A man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the cow and deposit them outside the camp in a clean place, to be kept for water of lustration for the Israelite community. It is for cleansing. He who gathers up the ashes of the cow shall also wash his clothes and be unclean until evening. (Numbers 19:1-10)
Ok, put aside any notions or hesitations or complaints you may have about animal sacrifice, ancient texts, weird rituals or even spiritual purity (remember, in the text above “cleanliness” does not have to do with a physical condition, but a spiritual condition.) What is important to point out that this ritual of purification, which is meant to reinstitute a state of spiritual “cleanliness,” makes the priest who performs it unclean. In other words, that which heals, as it were, also hurts.
I’ve been thinking about this recently as we are again confronted with evidence that our society is suffering from the “uncleanliness” of racial injustice, institutionalized privilege, ever present violence, proliferation of guns, police brutality, and xenophobia. The killings in Baton Rouge and Minnesota, and the subsequent violence in Dallas, are only the most recent examples.
And as Jews we have been reminded recently that anti-Semitism, a millennia-old hatred, is still ever present as evidenced by imagery developed by a white supremacist group and promoted by the Trump campaign, and an inflammatory statement in our own Thurston County, sent out by the Auditor’s Office in advance of the August primary.
Once could ask why does this seem to be happening more than ever. Certainly we can look to a lower level of civic discourse and engagement and a higher tolerance for inflammatory rhetoric as contributing to an overall devaluing of others. Or, we can also suggest that what is happening is not an increase at all, but that acts such as these have been always happening, but it is only with our increase accessibility to media–both as broadcasters and consumers–we are seeing old problems in a new light.
In any event, these are our ills to confront, and confront them we must. In our age of media choice, our tendency is to shut out the voices that we do not like to hear, that are unlike ours, that offend us. But that is too easy, and not getting at the root of the problem.
I read a great piece recently called Do Not Unfriend the Racists. (It was from last year, though I only now came across it, but still relevant.) It warned against the tendency of those who experience privilege in matters of race (i.e., white people) to challenge racism by “unfriending” the racists: disengaging with them and separating oneself from the vitriol.
But, shutting out voices that we do not agree with, that offend us, is not real action. Real action is in the confrontation, in the challenging, in the educating, in the taking ownership. Real action as allies to people of color is to understand privilege and work to dismantle systems of oppression. We, as Jews, confronted with anti-Semitism, would expect nothing less from our allies.
But this is not easy, because it is not comfortable. We want to be comfortable, to avoid confrontation, to block out the painful parts of our existence. But to move forward as a society, to fix the brokenness, to dismantle oppression–we need to make ourselves uncomfortable. Just as we must “comfort the afflicted,” as the saying goes, we must “afflict the comfortable.” It is only by living in that discomfort, truly feeling it, experiencing it, that we can know that there can be a better way, a different path, a more just future.
The first step is discomfort. The way to spiritual cleanliness is to make ourselves unclean. That which heals also hurts.
The Torah’s story of the red heifer might be remote and esoteric. But we do know that here in the northwest the blackberries are starting to ripen on the bramble. And as anyone who has gone out to collect blackberries knows, we can not get to the sweet fruit without encountering thorns. That which heals also hurts. And that is the only way forward.