Death and Perfection, Star Wars Style

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, June 30, 2023 / 11 Tamuz 5783

Summary: This week, I present a longer reflection on one of the strangest rituals in all the Torah and what it says about our desire for perfection.

Reading Time: Six minutes

The first time I watched the Mos Eisley Cantina scene in A New Hope, the original Star Wars film, it made a lasting impression. The motley collection of aliens was exotic and decidedly otherworldly. We had never before seen anything like that on the big screen, but it doesn’t require a science fiction film to induce that sort of experience. We all have those moments when the weirdness of life takes away our breath. I think it was Lord Byron, the English Romantic poet, who first said, “Truth is always strange; Stranger than fiction.”

For me, living in Jerusalem when I was nineteen fit this bill. Even for a New York kid, the sheer variety of people, dress, and culture was staggering. Perhaps strangest of all to my young eyes were the Haredi, or Ultra-Orthodox Jews; part of that, no doubt, was that they were me, and I was them. We were flesh of one flesh, part of the Jewish body. In other words, they allowed me to see that I was strange to myself in the way that the equally distinct Armenian Christians couldn’t; those Armenians were so distant from my world and my identity that they didn’t register as part of me. But the Haredi Jews did, so I was fascinated enough to end up studying in a “Black Hat” yeshivah for six months. Their Judaism, their areas of concern, their style of prayer—their entire zeitgeist—had an otherworldly quality to it, even as I could recognize myself in their practices.

You’d think familiarity would dispel a sense of difference; after all, exposure to those who are different from us is the first step in revealing our common humanity. On that level, my time in a Haredi yeshivah was a success. Simultaneously, looking closely enough at someone or something reveals how irretrievably unique and flawed each object is. Author Annie Dillard, in her marvelous book of nature and theodicy, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, recounts an afternoon looking at all the leaves on a tree. She discovered that not a single leaf was whole and unblemished. Each was imperfect, scarred by its encounter with the sharp reality of nature. Some were misshapen, their genetics not unfurling them just so. Others had been eaten by insects or withered by the sun. Perfection is not a regular occurrence in our world, but there remains a strong human urge to seek it.

This week’s double parshah of Hukkat Balak surfaced these reflections on perfection, alienness, and our stance toward each, for within the pages of our Torah we learn about the Red Heifer, one of the strangest rituals in our tradition. The Red Heifer, or Parah Adumah, is an ostensibly perfectly red or ruddy brown cow, which has never been yoked or worked. It is sacrificed, burned to ash, and then those ashes are used to ritually purify those who have been contaminated by contact with a dead person or carcass. According to some ancient leaders, such as Rabbi Joshua ben Batera, even two non-red hairs were sufficient to disqualify a cow from this ritual. Such a red cow was not really a red cow.

Our Sages struggled with the rationale for this mitzvah, placing it in the category of a chok, a law whose meaning is beyond the reach of human intellect. It is, in other words, completely alien to our minds; despite that, it is arguably one of the most important commandments in the Torah. Since the destruction of the Second Temple, the categories of ritual purity and impurity are beyond our reach; as a result, these laws have fallen into desuetude. Nonetheless, it is impossible to conceive of Biblical Judaism without an understanding of these states of being. Purity and impurity are centrally important to how the Bible views human life, and how it understands we should relate to our own mortality. Framed in that way, the Red Heifer recalls my experience in the Haredi world. I was both of and completely apart from their expression of Judaism: I was a visitor to their cantina.

From a religious perspective, we may never understand how a red cow could work its spiritual magic. That is indeed beyond our limited human minds, yet from a psycho-spiritual lens, this ritual is not at all alien. There is a body of psychological research that highlights the connection between perfectionism and death anxiety. Irvin D. Yalom, an existential psychologist, noted that three of our four fundamental fears are of death, meaningless, and isolation. Perfectionism, it seems to me, is one of the ways we address those fears. We pretend, at a very deep level, that if we or our work can be sufficiently perfect, then our lives will have meaning, we will be loved, and in some magical way, even the sting of death will be reduced.

The Red Heifer combines these elements in one fantastic ritual. We take that which is perfect, burn it to ash, and use that to remove our death anxiety. In that process, we move from being ritually contaminated (by contact with death) back to a state of aliveness, wholeness, and well-being, a state, by the way, which allows us to rejoin the community after a period of quarantines, thus ending our sense of isolation.

Nor is this something from the past. Last September, five perfectly red heifers were shipped from a Texas ranch to Israel. They were greeted at Ben-Gurion Airport by many Jewish dignitaries, including four Haredi rabbis. It is hoped that they will remain perfectly red past their third birthday, at which point they would be eligible to have their ashes used to restore kohanim to a state of ritual purity necessary to serve in a rebuilt future Third Temple.

It is easy to look at all of this effort, this admittedly peculiar religious obsession, and imagine that these Haredi rabbis are a bit unhinged. But that would only be possible to state if they were truly alien as well as otherworldly and not, indeed, a part of us. In my work, whether with b’nei mitzvah students or in pastoral sessions, it is clear that a great many of us struggle with perfectionism. We may never know how the ritual worked; nonetheless, it is clear why we needed it. The ritual of the Red Heifer touches us in our softest and most vulnerable spots.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

    1. When does your drive for perfectionism show up?
    2. How have you tried to mitigate that impulse for perfection?
    3. Even if perfectionism isn’t a problem for you, how have you dealt with the fundamental fears of death, meaningless, and isolation that Dr. Yalom outlined? Do you have a ritual to address those fears?

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