This week's parsha
How to Live Like Ash and Water
It is the most difficult law in the Torah to understand. It defies logic, and it inherently contradicts itself. King Solomon, the wisest of all men, could comprehend every commandment except this one. It is the law of the red heifer.
Yet, all you need to know for your spiritual life lies in this one law.
The opening words of the law of the red heifer, whose ashes were mixed with water and sprinkled to purify the ritually impure, are: “This is the decree of the Torah.” This law captures the essence of all that the Torah wants to teach. We can’t just ignore this law and move on to more “exciting” and “relevant” parts of the Torah. This is the decree of the Torah. But how is it relevant to us? We have no Holy Temple, no actual offering of a red heifer. What does this law have to do with our modern, 21st-century lives?
The purifying waters have two primary ingredients: the ashes of the red heifer and spring water. The ashes are the byproduct of fire, the polar opposite of water. In essence, the law is telling us that our approach to spirituality must contain two opposing forces. On the one hand, we must be like fire, which always reaches upward, expressing our yearning to escape the confines of the physical reality and reach a higher place. On the other hand, we must be like water, which flows downward, expressing the “return” from spirituality to the physical world, imbuing the physical existence with spirituality.
Conventional wisdom teaches that to connect to the Divine, one must escape to a sanctuary or a mountaintop to meditate and pray, abandoning the challenges of materialism that present themselves in everyday life.
“Not true!” cries the red heifer. “You must also have water, which nourishes all life on earth. If you want to connect to G‑d, you must find Him on this earth.”
We must balance both extremes, mixing ashes into the water, cultivating our spiritual life in order for our material life to become holy. Only by yearning to escape the confines of the earth can we imbue our life on earth with meaning.
Two people are on a flight home from their vacations. Both are returning to a similar home, job, and lifestyle. The first person went on vacation to escape everyday reality. On the flight home, realizing that the paradise of vacation is over, facing the prospect of falling from the intense pleasure of vacation to the mundane reality, she is devastated. The vacation did nothing to improve her daily existence. In fact, she would have been better off taking the money spent on vacation and using it to improve some part of her normal existence. The second person went on vacation, not to escape his life, but rather to enhance it. He realized that if he took some time off, he would return to his routine with greater focus and passion.
The same is true for our lives. We need to "go on vacation." We need to devote some time every day to escape from the mundane and immerse ourselves in spirituality. We need ashes, which represent the flame yearning to escape its wick. But our intention in going on our spiritual vacation is not to escape the world, but rather to get recharged -- to better accomplish our mission of mixing fire and water, of connecting heaven and earth.