In this week’s parsha (parshat Shemini) we read of the death of Aharon’s sons on the day of the inauguration of the altar. Then, as the “maftir”, we read parshat Para – the special instructions for the ritual purification required following contact with a human corpse, a process requiring the ashes of a red heifer.
Our Sages point to parshat Para as an example of a commandment that cannot be understood by human logic: “The Holy One said, ‘I have made a statute and instituted a decree” (Pesikta 4). Why is it specifically in the handling of a person who has become ritually impure through contact with a corpse – a sphere in which we would expect the Torah to command emotional support for a person who has had to deal with death at such close quarters – that we find an emphasis on “statute”, on the incomprehensible aspect of the commandment?
Chained in the reasoning chain
The human mind creates forms and methodologies of reasoning and logic; the proceeding of thought along these paths is what we call reasoning. The problem is that no matter which method of reasoning we choose, our thinking is limited to those patterns which we have created or which we have chosen to follow. The fundamental objects of our thought and the relations we impose upon them are the carriers – but also the delimiters – of our thinking process.
Death lies beyond the limitations of human thought. No matter which philosophical view of the thought process we adopt, death cannot be contained in human causality. If we observe our mind to be an object-relation oriented processing tool, we must conclude that we are unable to internalize or truly process the idea of total emptiness or nullity. We can comprehend something that is absent or missing – the negation idea – but capturing nullity is beyond our mind’s grasp. The empty set is an important axiom in Set Theory; it allows us to create a numerical system and a system of logic, but it is itself an axiom whose source cannot be comprehended.
If we view reasoning as a logical process, then by the rules of logic we know that for a logical process or algorithm to determine the question of its own termination is an undecideable task – this is known as the “halting problem”. Termination of a process is not integral to that process – at least according to our logical understanding of processes.
If we regard thought as an extension of existential experience and of language, then death is not part of our system of experiences. We experience loss, we experience longing, but no-one can actually experience death and then share with us the nature of that experience.
It is at that point where all reasons and reasoning collapse that the Torah’s “statute” comes to our aid. The Hassidic masters point out the linguistic proximity of the word “hok” (statute) or “hukkah” (law) to the root “h-k-k” (to engrave, or to legislate). The statute (hok) of the Torah, then, is a “hakikah” in both senses of the word – both an enactment and an engraving.
Where human logic is unable to make any headway, the Divine work comes to help us. God legislates the laws of the Torah, but He also engraves the Torah within man and within the blueprint of the world. Following the Divine commandments as we proceed along the roads of our reality allows us to purify those who have becomes defiled by contact with death in a way that may not be intelligible to man, but which – by its very fulfillment – allows us, practically, to rely upon God’s word that is inscribed within reality, freeing ourselves of the chains of human causality.
Aharon is silent in the face of his incomprehensible tragedy – the loss of his sons on the day of the altar’s inauguration. Words cannot express or address those matters that are beyond our understanding. But he knows that following God’s command will lead to ultimate victory over death: “I shall sprinkle over you pure water, and you shall be purified.”