Sunday, June 24, 2012

Living Contradictions (portion Chukat)

This past spring, Bruce Springsteen gave the keynote speech at South by Southwest, the huge music festival held each year in Austin, Texas.  His target audience: the thousands of young indy musicians who come to SXSW with hopes of winning fame and fortune (or at least a record contract).   Springsteen spoke as an elder statesman of rock and roll, passing his wisdom and experience to the next generation.  His message is, on a literal level, all about music—but it contains important life lessons for non-musicians, too.  Springsteen concluded with these words:

Rumble, young musicians, rumble.  Open your ears and open your hearts. Don't take yourself too seriously, and take yourself as seriously as death itself. Don't worry. Worry your ass off. Have unclad confidence, but doubt. It keeps you awake and alert. Believe you are the baddest ass in town -- and you suck! It keeps you honest. Be able to keep two completely contradictory ideals alive and well inside of your heart and head at all times. If it doesn't drive you crazy, it will make you strong.

Of course, long before The Boss, our Sages recognized the importance of living with contradiction.  This is the reality at the heart of one of the most mysterious parts of the Torah, which is found in this week’s portion, Chukat.  The passage concerns the burning of a Red Heifer and the mixing of its ashes in water.  The paradox is this: the same mixture of water and ash that is used to purify those who are made ritually impure through contact with the dead is, itself, a source of impurity for the priests who prepare it.  In other words, as the medieval Italian commentator Ovadiah Sforno notes, “The crux of the mystery is its property of contaminating the pure and purifying the contaminated.” 

Yet this is really not such a mystery at all.  Life is almost invariably full of contradiction—and the meaning of almost everything powerful is almost always determined by its context.  The same medicine can either cure or kill us, depending on the dosage and our underlying condition.  Money, sex, power, religion, politics—none of these things are intrinsically either good or bad; it all depends on how and when they are conducted. 

A few years ago, I took a class with a young Israeli teacher of kabbalah named Biti Roi.  One of my fellow students once pointed to a logical contradiction in a text that we were studying, which troubled him deeply.  Ms. Roi replied: “Either/Or is for simple mathematics, but not for life.  Life—and Judaism—is about Both/And.”

May we live in that world of Both/And, with the confidence that doing so will, indeed, make us strong.

Note: I will not be doing this e-Torah column during the month of July.  But of course the Torah does not stop during this time.  I encourage you to continue reading and learning.  For starters, check out “Ten Minutes of Torah” from the Union for Reform Judaism at

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