Parashat Hukkat

The "Waters of Lustration:" Tears and Tzedakah

Jewish sources suggest tears and tzedakah [charity] as two modern replacements for the Red Heifer, two ways to purify ourselves from the death and destruction that surround us.

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Steadily, our sense of humanity has been overwhelmed; our perception of human beings as made b'tselem elohim (in God's image) instead of as corpses has been confused; our hearts have become "petrified."

How can we be made "pure" rather than suffer being permanently "cut off from Israel" (Numbers 19:13)? What might we use instead of the arcane and obscure Red Heifer to create a cleansing "water of lustration?" Jewish sources suggest two possible ingredients: tears and tzedakah (charity).

In this week's parasha, both Miriam and Aaron die and are buried. In Miriam's case, mourning is usurped by a sudden lack of water in the wilderness community of the Israelites--as though the stemming of tears and the stemming of blessing were interconnected. In Aaron's case, "All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron thirty days" (Numbers 20:29). Once again, tears become the well waters of the human soul and the currency of our relationship with God: "When we shed tears for a virtuous human being," says the Talmud (in Tractate Shabbat 105b), "the Holy One counts them and lays them up in [God's] treasury."

By Jewish standards, however, every human death is equivalent to the loss of an entire universe. Perhaps, then, were we capable of weeping for every one of the senselessly slaughtered of our world, we could, as the Midrash expresses it, "cool hell with our tears."

Yet tears alone do not bring cleansing from our contact with death. Our "water of lustration" must also contain the ashes of the Red Heifer, the ashes of sacrifice: tzedakah. Over and over, the Jewish tradition describes the centrality of tzedakah in Judaism's cosmology, including that it "saves from death" (Proverbs 10:2 and Bava Batra 10a).

The rabbis took this quite literally, recounting, in a Talmudic catalogue of "synchronicity" events, how deeds of tzedakah saved one or another of their comrades from drowning, from snakebite, from mortal injury. Less literally but no less significantly, tzedakah is the spiritual love potion of Judaism--awakening our souls to the humanity of others, to the binding ties of community, and to the reality of our renewable partnership with Creation.

Combined, tears and tzedakah create a cleansing "water of lustration." It is dashed on us each time we give tzedakah, as the tradition bids us, to mark the death or yahrzeit (the anniversary of a death) of someone we mourn or honor, and in connection with those holidays on which Yizkor (the memorial prayer which mentions giving tzedakah) is recited. It is also dashed on us when we prepare to enter each Shabbat, as we fill our tzedakah boxes, sometimes weep over the candle flames, and gain our neshamah yeterah, our "extra Shabbat soul," in a process of cleansing and rebirth.

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Lawrence Bush

Lawrence Bush is author of several books of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, including the forthcoming Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist.

Jeffrey Dekro

Jeffrey Dekro is the senior vice president at the Jewish Funds for Justice.