Much snow has fallen since I wrote my last mitzvah. More than the snow, though, yesterday was the tenth Yartzeit of my sister, Lara. Her memory is a blessing. It was a day with a great confluence of events that lead to many tears. So as I sit down to write a new mitzvah, my heart is still heavy from that milestone.
In Number 19.1-9, "G-d spoke to Moses and Aaron, telling them that the following is declared to be the Torah's decree as commanded by G-d: Speak to the Israelites and have them bring you a completely red cow, which has no blemish, and which has never had a yoke on it. Give it to Eleazar the priest, and he shall have it brought outside the camp. It shall then be slaughtered in his presence." This is the cruelty that my father sought to protect us from with our Unitarian Universalist upbringing and education. I understand. How can you explain to a child with all of her wonderment in the world about creation, that G-d commands us to slaughter animals? This evening, panda obsessed, I watched the Animal Planet documentary of our panda cub at the National Zoo. I cried. It has been an emotional week, yes, but there is also something wonderful about new life, about cubhood, about the wonder of creation. I cannot understand a G-d that would want that to be slaughtered, to be sacrificed.
Still G-d commands that. He says, "Eleazar the priest shall take the blood with his finger and sprinkle it toward the Communion Tent seven times. The cow shall then be burned in Eleazar's presence. Its skin, flesh, blood and entrails must be burned."
Seven times. Why seven? One for each day of the week? For the prime number perfection that is seven? More than the number though, why must we burn this cow we have slayed? Its skin and flesh and blood and entrails. I weep for them all. I imagine what it must have smelled like to be Moses or Aaron or Ester or Leah. To have the stench of burning flesh constantly wafting beneath your nose.
"The priest shall take a piece of cedar wood, some hyssop, and some crimson wool, and throw it into the burning cow. The priest must then immerse his vestments and his body in a mikvah, and remain unclean until evening, after which he may come into the camp. The one who burns the cow must also immerse his clothing and body in a mikvah, and then remain unclean until evening. A ritually clean person shall gather up the cow's ashes, and place them outside the camp in a clean place. They shall be a keepsake for the Israelite community to be used for the sprinkling water, as a means of purification."
Oh! We are sacrificing the cow so that we have a means of purification. Perhaps this is just one of the difficulties of modernity. It is hard for me to even consider this seriously: as though we could ever be purified after what we have done, after what we have seen.
Still at my house we are burning fires every night and it is lovely. I can understand how the Israelites though that to be magical. I can understand the gathering of the cedar and hyssop and wool. Pieces to sacrifice to G-d. I can understand how it might have evolved. I can understand how the ritual came to be meaningful.
Last night, for the tenth year in a row, I sat and recited Kaddish for my sister.