5779 – Chukas
When Napoléon was defeated in October of 1815, one of the greatest blows was to the pride of French intellectuals, who believed that their superior advances in science, mathematics and politics should surely ensure their victory.
One young French academic, Sadi Carnot left France in 1821, to visit his exiled father and brother in Germany, where many discussions of steam engines took place. Steam power was already used for draining mines, forging iron, grinding grain, and weaving cloth, but the French-designed engines were not as efficient as those designed by the British.
Convinced that England’s superior technology in this area had contributed to Napoleon’s downfall and the loss of his family’s prestige and fortune, Sadi Carnot threw himself into developing a robust theory for steam engines.
In the end, Carnot did not succeed in restoring French honor, through his study of steam engines. Instead, he unwittingly became the first person to formalize the laws of thermodynamics; specifically, the law of entropy.
The law of entropy, loosely, can be defined as the tendency of energy to dissipate. The heat of your soup will flow into the bowl, to the table and the room. Your ice cream will melt, and all good things come to an end.
What Carnot discovered is something we have known for generations as by John Green says it, in “Looking for Alaska”:
“Everything that comes together falls apart. Everything. The chair I’m sitting on. It was built, and so it will fall apart. I’m going to fall apart, probably before this chair. And you’re going to fall apart. The cells and organs and systems that make you you—they came together, grew together, and so must fall apart. The Buddha knew one thing science didn’t prove for millennia after his death: Entropy increases. Things fall apart.”
The Epic Proportions of Meaninglessness
The decent into disarray is law of the natural order. The dissolving of light and heat into the void. It happens in the cosmos and it happens in our lives.
Friendships that fade, relationships that lose their steam. Marriages that grow stale, and bonds that weaken. It happens in the world of ideas and experiences as well. Things we thought were amazing grow tired and bored. Music that no longer sings in the way it once did. And so it seems, is the natural order of the universe.
In halacha, there is a name for this falling apart. It’s called Tumah, impurity. And this Shabbos, the Torah tells us that it doesn’t have to be that way. There is process of re-infusing light and heat and love and warmth into a person, a saturation or circumstance. It’s called Tahara – purification; reconnection, restoration. And it’s secrets are hidden in the laws of the Parah Adumah.
But the mechanism by which this Tahara occurs is a break in the natural order. It doesn’t conform to the laws of physics.
So Rashi quotes the Medrash:
חקת התורה – לפי שהשטן ואומות העולם מונין את ישראל לומר מה המצוה הזאת, לפיכך כתב בה חוקה, גזירה היא מלפני אין לך רשות להרהר אחריה.
Because Satan and the nations of the world taunt Israel, saying, “What is this command and what reason is there for it”, on this account it (Scripture) writes (uses) the term חקה about it, implying: It is an enactment from before Me; you have no right to probe after it (Yoma 67b; cf. Midrash Tanchuma, Chukat 7).
There is an objection levied by the Yetzer Hara, by the nations of the world. You crazy Jews! What are you bothering for? Don’t you realize that the way of the world is that conquered nations stay conquered? Forgotten languages stay forgotten? Broken hearts remain broken? Failed relationships are failed forever? What are you fighting for? Striving for? Yearning for? In the end, all things are futile.
So Hashem says, “Yes, that’s true. That’s the way that the natural world works. But what I am offering is beyond the natural world. And from where you’re sitting, you cannot understand it.”
In the words of the Izbitzer (מי השילוח ח״א):
והוא שאין שום רע מגיע עד עומק חיים של ישראל. הן העדר ומיתה לא יאונה להם
No evil can fully penetrate the life of a Jew. Loss and death doesn’t hold us captive.
The Energy to Make a World
So the question that begs asking, is: How do we access this transcendent world of Tahara, of life and warmth. How do we reconnect with people that have become distant? How do we open a siddur and talk to Hashem for real, when we haven’t done that in months or years? How do we find time to learn, when we feel so guilty for not doing so? How do stop talking in shul, when we always talk in shul? How do we overcome entropy?
The reality of physics is that in order to overcome entropy, serious energy must be injected into the system. Once the soup is cold, you have to start again, heating it up as if it was never hot before. And logically, the same should be true of every aspect of our lives. But this is plainly wrong.
The Yerushalmi (דמאי ג:ד) quotes an epiphany of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Kavsui:
אמר רבי יהושע בן קבסוי כל ימי הייתי קורא הפסוק הזה (במדבר יח) והזה הטהור על הטמא טהור א’ מזה על טמא א’ עד שלמדתיה מאוצרה של יבנה… שטהור א’ מזה על כמה טמאים
My whole life I would read the pasuk: והזה הטהור על הטמא – “And the pure one will sprinkle onto the impure one,” as teaching that one pure one can purify one impure one. Until I learned from the treasure chest of Yavneh … that one pure one can purify many impure ones.
The Ohr HaMeir explains:
“At first, he thought that in order to overcome impurity, one needs a wealth of purity, or at least a one-to-one ratio. But from Yavneh he learned that a small amount of purity can overcome much impurity. One small candle can illuminate much darkness, and so too a small amount go truth can push away much darkness.”
One hug, one phone call, one kind word, one tefillah, one smile. Life is not a soup, you don’t always need to start from scratch.
Rav Elyashiv (דברי אגדה חקת ע׳ רצה) explains that there is a difference between the mechanism of becoming pure through a mikvah and from a Parah Aduma. In order to become pure through a mikvah, you need to immerse fully. Every inch of your body needs to be in contact with the water, with nothing coming in between. That’s the natural order, to start again. And sometimes we need that.
לעומת זאת בהזאה מספיק שרק טפה אחת תגיע על הטמא וזוהי טהרתו
In contradistinction, one tiny drop of water from the Parah Aduma renders a person pure.
A Life of Connection
The Medrash Rabba begins it’s discussion of our Parsha with this point:
זאת חקת, זה שאמר הכתוב: (איוב יד): מי יתן טהור מטמא לא אחד, כגון:
ישראל, מעובדי כוכבים.
העולם הבא מעולם הזה.
מי עשה כן, מי צוה כן, מי גזר כן, לא יחידו של עולם?!
They quote the Pasuk in Iyyov: מי יתן טהור מטמא לא אחד – Who can create purity from impurity? No one!
But then the Medrash explains:לא אחד?! Can it be anyone other than The Only One?! Take for example, Avraham from Terach, the Jewish people from the nations of the world, the world to come from this world. All things fall into disarray – but Hashem gives us the capacity to find meaning, to build worlds, to create dreams.
The Yid HaKadosh of Pshischa would explain even further, that in order to draw purity from the world of impurity, all you need is לא אחד – One good “No!”
One “no” to the Yetzer Hara, one “no” to temptations, one “no” to anger, one “no” to meaningless scrolling. One “no” to resentment and jealousy.
The legacy of our people is to fight entropy with tiny drops of Parah Adumah water. Tiny acts of purity. A smile, a phone call, a second chance, one good “no!”.
Two weeks ago, former Ohio governor, John Kasich was interviewed by the Washington post:
I was going to ask you about your book [to be published in October]. The title is, “It’s Up to Us: Ten Little Ways We Can Bring About Big Change.” What is one of the 10 ways?
Well, start a movement. Best example of that would be Greta Thunberg, that young Swedish girl who started standing outside the parliament and talking about the fact that adults were ruining her environment. She started a worldwide movement. Or join a movement. Or realize that life doesn’t go on forever. Or get out of your silo. So basically, as somebody said to me in Michigan, if there was one thing that you would like to lay on people’s hearts, what would it be? And I said that everybody matters and everybody can do something to change the world. I’ll give you another simple example. You know what a minyan is?
When a Jew dies, they want to have a minyan; that means you must have 10 people attend your burial. So there was a Holocaust survivor who grew old and lost touch with his supporters and friends and family. And when he died, this hospital chaplain was very concerned he wouldn’t have a minyan. So he went on Facebook and he said: This man is going to be buried tomorrow; we need to have a minyan. And when he got to the cemetery there was, like, 100 cars, and he thought, Wow, I wonder who has been so popular that they’re all here for this burial. Well, it turned out it was for the guy who he wrote about on Facebook. Now what’s the lesson? Sometimes you change the world just by showing up.
This is the secret of the Parah Adumah. That tiny acts that connect us to Hashem can save us from falling apart. This is what Moshe Rabbeinu tells us in Dvarim: ואתם הדבקים בה׳ אלקיכם חיים כלכם היום.
The greatest gift we have given to the world is the truth that tiny acts can infuse the world with meaning. Hashem should help us to remember it, to live it, to fill the world with light.