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"Having the Last Laugh"

Helen Herzberg's Adult Bat Mitzvah Talk • June 23, 2018

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Helen Herzberg

It’s not easy to articulate why I always wanted to become a bat mitzvah. I grew up in a family of mixed beliefs and mixed nationalities, but with a solid ethical bent, and certainly an emphasis on thought and study. As I matured, the Jewish tradition resonated deeply with me. I’ve explored it, taken classes, read a lot on my own, this seemed like the next logical step.

This personal journey has been partly to establish my credibility and identity. But of course, there’s a lot more to explore. It might not be Hebrew grammar, or figuring out how to keep a kippah from slipping off my head, but I look forward to it with joy. To learn as an adult, and to choose freely in my pursuit, has been a privilege and a blessing.

The Torah portion for this week is known as “Chukat” or decree. It details a ritual that was in use thousands of years ago when Judaism was a very different religion and was centered around an enormous Temple in Jerusalem to which all Jews tried to make a pilgrimage.

The ritual is for the purification of a person who has come in contact with a corpse. Until the defiled person is cleansed, they cannot enter the Temple area, and are cut off from society. The simplified steps are: take a red heifer, slaughter it outside the camp, burn it, and make a concoction with the ashes. The defiled person washes with this solution, or drinks it, and thus is cleansed and acceptable to the community and may re-enter the Temple precincts.

This messy sacrifice is one of the most puzzling Torah portions. Rabbis have called it "enigmatic;" others have written pages on the interpretation of the Hebrew word “chukat.” It has also been considered a commentary on blood, grief, war, and other nasty apocalyptic events.

What can I bring that’s new ? When I first read the portion in my halting Hebrew, I laughed - at the word “zot” with which it begins. The word “zot” means “this” in Hebrew, but in Luxembourgish is slang for “crazy.” I’m much more fluent in Luxembourgish than Hebrew, so instead of reading “This is the law of the Torah," my mind read “Crazy law of the Torah."

Another thing that struck me is the emphasis on a red heifer. Yes, red heifers do exist; most are a common mutation of the Black Angus breed. I grew up on a small farm; we had Herefords – another breed of red cow, but with a white face and underbelly.

Thus red heifers have relevance to my experience. My father was the local county coroner. Following that logic, since he did have contact with corpses, we would have quickly decimated our little herd in order to purify Dad after autopsies.


Then there’s this messy ashes concoction. My interpretation is that this was an early attempt to manufacture soap. The main ingredients of soap are water, animal fat, and ashes. The Egyptians made soap as early as 2,800 BCE, so maybe SOME of this knowledge got carried along with matzo when the ancient Jewish people fled from being enslaved in Egypt. They just forgot to add the lye, perfumes, and oils that make it gooey and nice to wash with. Or, if it was drunk, it was the Biblical equivalent of washing your mouth out with soap.

Does this Torah portion still have meaning today ? Luckily for us and the red heifers, Judaism is a flexible religion, and adapts to our times. Thus we modern Jews are not required to fulfill this mitzvah, because it’s for purification before approaching the Temple, and since the Temple was destroyed 2,000 years ago, we’re off the hook. Yet rabbis and bar and bat mitzvah students like myself are still wringing their hands over it. Like some tax laws, it has "sunsetted," and is no longer in effect. It is worthy of discussion, but let’s keep it all in perspective and not get too serious.

Finally, one last image that came to mind is the red heifer logo for the Laughing Cow cheese. It’s a happy cow, with her two cheesebox earrings, grinning because she doesn’t have to be sacrificed. She’s alive and well, and having the last laugh.

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