Our story this week outlines the mysterious and esoteric rite of the red heifer. Through an intricate series of rituals involving many people and much bathing, the Israelites are to turn this special cow into a purifying potion. To be more specific, this sprinkling moves someone from tumah to tahara. While these terms have traditionally been translated as impure and pure, I believe it is more accurate to understand them as communal states of readiness. In that way, those who are tahor are fit for communal worship and those who are tamei are not.
With this in mind, it is interesting that God begins concluding Her instructions on this section by saying, “If anyone who has become unclean fails to cleanse himself, that person shall be cut off from the congregation, for he has defiled the Lord’s sanctuary” (Bemidbar 20:20).
If tumah is a state that merely precludes me from communal worship, why should I be punished for deciding to opt out? In fact, I can think of a laundry list of good reasons why I would decide to exclude or distant myself from Jewish communities.
While the Ramabam rules very clearly that anyone who distances themselves from the community – even if they do no sins, but merely do not partake in the troubles of the community – has no place in the World to Come (Mishneh Torah tshuvah 3:10); I think our passage is coming to teach a slightly different lesson.
I remember a specific Hillel board meeting in college. We were discussing Passover and how events would be run that year. I got very heated and made remarks I immediately regretted. Embarrassed by my actions, I removed myself from the meeting. The next few days I brooded in my frustration and disappointment. Even though I had made apologies, I could not bring myself to walk to services that Friday evening. I was at war with myself – how could I possibly face the people I had hurt or participate in the joys of the community which I had scorned?
I believe it is to this exact moment that the Torah is speaking. Through my actions I had separated myself and was not fit for communal service – I had fallen into tumah. However, I had now made amends and the necessary amount of time had passed for healing to occur – it was time for me to cleanse myself and re-enter the community.
Sometimes when we are far away, the hardest thing is coming back. No matter how much we want it, we cannot face the shame and guilt that comes with acceptance and forgiveness. For that reason, God specifically commands us to return – for if we fail to re-enter, we will surely be cut off from the community forever.
The parsha begins, “This is the law of the Torah which God commanded” (Bemidbar 19:1) – this is the law – to return over and over and over. We can never be perfect, but I pray we can find the strength to time and again come back – to come home.