The Interpersonal Aspect of Parah Adumah

The most fundamental difference between the kind of reasoning one finds in the Bavli with that one finds in the Yerushalmi is “vertical” vs. “horizontal”. The Bavli will drill down to get the full depth of an opinion, whereas the Yerushalmi will refuse to speculate about the implications of a position and will instead compare statements from various discussions to see where two topics are similar, to ask why a parallel is broken. (See “On Nets and Pieces” for more discussion.)

To illustrate how the Yerushalmi works, I enjoy taking a rather extreme case — Berakhos 7:1, 51b:

  1. רב הונא אמר: ג’ שאכלו זה בפני עצמו וזה בפני עצמו וזה בפני עצמו ונתערבו מזמנין.
  2. רב חסדא אמר: והן שבאו משלש חבורות.
  3. על דעתיה דרבי זעירא וחבורתיה: והן שאכלו ג’ כאחת.
  4. רבי יונה על הדא דרב הונא הטביל ג’ איזובות זה בפני עצמו וזה בפני עצמו ונתערבו מזה בהן.
  5. רב חסדא אמר והן שבאו מג’ חבילות.
  6. על דעתיה דר’ זעירא וחבורתיה והוא שהטביל שלשתן כאחת.
  1. Rav Huna said: Three who eat, this one by himself, this one by himself, and this one by himself, who then mix together should bentch with a mezuman.
  2. Rav Chisda said: But this is [only] when they come from three [separate] groups [of three people, so that each ate with an obligation of zimun, even if from different groups].
  3. According to the logic of Rabbi Zei’ira and his friends: But [the only may make a zimun] when they ate together.
  1. Rabbi Yonah [commented] on that which Rab Hunah [was just quoted as saying]: If [the kohein] dipped three hyssop sprigs [into the water made with the ashes of a parah adumah], this one by itself and this one by itself, and mixed them [the hyssops] together, one may sprinkle [the person needing taharah] with them.
  2. Rav Chisda said: But this is [only] when they come from three [separate] groups [of three sprigs, so that each sprig was dipped as part of a group of three, even if different groups].
  3. According to the logic of Rabbi Zei’ira and his friends: But [the only may may be used for sprinkling parah adumah water] when they were dipped together.

Rabbi Yonah finds a parallel between the group of three hyssop sprigs used for sprinkling the parah adumah with the group of three people needed to make a zimun. In both cases, there is an opinion that any three could combine to make a group, another that says the group had to be established at the beginning, and a third which says that each member had to be part of a group — if not this one — in order to be “ready” to be combined.

But what justifies this comparison? Is it really an expectation that all groups of three ought to be alike, regardless of the topic or the sort of group?

In 1973, Ernest Becker wrote a book on philosophy and psychology titled “The Denial of Death”. To give a thumbnail of his basic thesis, here are some snippets from The Becker Foundation’s “Theories” page:

“[T]he basic motivation for human behavior is our biological need to control our basic anxiety, to deny the terror of death.”

The basic premise of The Denial of Death is that human civilization is ultimately an elaborate, symbolic defense mechanism against the knowledge of mortality. Since human beings have a dualistic nature consisting of a physical self and a symbolic self, we can transcend the dilemma of mortality through heroism, a concept involving the symbolic half.
Becker describes human pursuit of “immortality projects” (or causa sui), in which an we create or become part of something that we feel will outlast our time on earth. In doing so, we feel that we become heroic and part of something eternal that will never die, compared to the physical body that will eventually die. This gives human beings the belief that our lives have meaning, purpose, and significance in the grand scheme of things.
Still, for Becker, the only suitable source of meaning is transcendent, cosmic energy, divine purpose…

Becker develops an idea that strikes most of us naturally. A central — and perhaps THE central — piece of our drives to contribute to community and to pursue a higher meaning is because these both overcome our own death.

What I give my children outlives me in my children, grandchildren and beyond. What I contribute to the Jewish People is eternal because our nation is eternal. What I add to the development of humanity from Adam to the messiah outlives me in impacting the lives of generations to come.

Fear of death, the need to embark on “immortality projects” can push us to expand our souls to beyond our mortal bodies. As Rav Shimon Shkop writes:

The entire “I” of a coarse and lowly person is restricted only to his substance and body. Above that one is someone who feels that his “I” is a synthesis of body and soul. And above that one is someone who can include in his “ani” all of his household and family. Someone who walks according to the way of the Torah, that one’s “I” includes the whole Jewish people, since in truth every Jewish person is only like a limb of the body of the nation of Israel.

And there are more levels in this of a person who is whole, who can connect his soul to feel that all of the world and worlds are his “ani,” and he himself is only one small limb in all of creation. Then, his self-love helps him love all of the Jewish people and [even] all of creation.

The parah adumah is about overcoming death. A person who witnessed or experienced another’s death is told to go through a ritual of changing tracks. Ending the tum’ah of death. We can deduce from the Yerushalmi comparing the eizov of the parah adumah with the men joining together in zimun that the Yerushalmi takes it for granted that the person going through the parah adumah ritual is learning lessons about living in community. He not only sees three sprigs from a scrubby bush, but also is thinking about joining together and how he can join with others. How to turn that conversation around from death and its reminder that we are merely physical beings toward death as a drive to go beyond that.

We should not forget the most cryptic (choq-like) element of the parah adumah. It not only brings taharah to the tamei, but paradoxically the kohein who sprinkles the water thereby becomes tamei. Becoming pure not only involves a ritual that includes a re-commitment to the community, it requires that someone from the community reach out to them, even at their own expense. A true uniting of someone who might be thinking about death and man-as-mammal back into being a person contributing meaning to a larger community.

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