“The Sanctity of Human Life”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In the first of this week’s two parashiot, Chukat-Balak, we learn of the law of the Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer.

In Numbers 19:14 the Torah states: “Zoat ha’Torah, ah’dahm kee ya’moot b’o’hel, kol ha’bah el ha’o’hel v’chol ah’sher ba’o’hel yit’mah shiv’aht ya’meem,” This is the law regarding a person who dies in a tent: Anything that enters the tent and anything that is in the tent shall be defiled for seven days.

From parashat Chukat we learn that a Jewish person who comes in contact with the dead, by either directly touching a dead body, standing within four cubits of a dead body, or being under the same roof as a dead person, is rendered ritually impure for seven days. Until the defiled person has been purified with the waters of the Red Heifer, he/she is forbidden to enter the camp of G-d–the Tabernacle or the Temple in Jerusalem.

The ritual of purification requires all impure persons to approach the Tabernacle or Temple, be sprinkled with the waters of the Red Heifer on the third day and the seventh day, and to immerse in a mikvah on the night of the eighth to achieve complete absolution.

It is interesting to note that there are varying degrees of ritual impurity. If a first degree ritually impure person, one who has come in direct contact with a dead body and has not yet been purified, touches another person, that person as well is rendered impure until nightfall, when he/she must wash his/her clothes and immerse in a mikvah. Vessels and foodstuffs may also become impure by coming in contact with the dead or contaminated persons of the first or second degree.

The laws of ritual impurity are extensive and complex. They in fact seem to be incomprehensible, especially today when most of these laws are no longer observed. The only areas of ritual impurity that apply today are the prohibitions for a Cohen (someone of priestly descent) to come in contact with the dead and the menstruant woman who is considered in a state of ritual impurity until she goes to the mikvah.

While the laws of ritual impurity may seem obscure, obtuse and irrelevant, in truth, they play a key and vital role in Judaism and Jewish life because these laws represent Judaism’s way of underscoring the ultimate sanctity of human life. In fact, it may very well be that the principle of the sanctity of human life is the bottom line of all of Jewish life! It has been cogently argued that every single one of the 613 mitzvot, as well as all the derivatives of those mitzvot, can be traced back to the principle of the sanctity of human life.

Since Judaism regards nothing more sacred or more sanctified than human life, there is nothing more contaminating or defiling than death. Therefore, anyone who comes in contact with death is automatically defiled.

The principle of the sanctity of human life is reflected in many of Judaism’s laws and rituals. A Jew, upon waking in the morning, says: “Mo’deh ah’nee,” Thank you G-d for restoring my soul, then washes his/her hands, alternating each hand three times in the same manner in which one’s hands are washed after visiting a cemetery. Washing in this manner after rising from sleep, in effect, affirms the principle of the sanctity of human life. After all, sleep and unconsciousness are the closest thing to death that a person experiences.

Reciting blessings over foods again reaffirms the principle of the sanctity of life, reflecting our appreciation to the Ultimate Provider for our nourishment. Not eating meat and milk together emphasizes that a human being who takes an animal’s life in order to eat meat should not at the same meal drink milk–the substance that would have sustained that animal’s life. Of course, the regulations of charity and caring for the poor, the infirm, the widow, not causing undue pain to animals, all play a powerful role in advancing the principle of the sanctity of human life, as well as teaching respect for animal life.

In effect, Judaism maintains that each time a person comes in contact with death the person is reduced as a human being. Judaism is especially concerned that frequent contact with death will render those who survive indifferent or inured to human life. The challenge faced in the 21st century, to maintain an exalted respect for human life, may in fact be greater than at any time in human history. Because of today’s modern technology, the volume and rapidity of reports of death is far greater than ever before. It is not uncommon for people to read about major earthquakes with thousands of victims and simply turn the page. Reports of a tsunami with hundreds of thousands of victims may disturb us for several hours or several days and then be quickly relegated to the ash heap. The fact that leaders of large metropolitan areas in the United States like New York City proudly celebrate the “decline” in the number of murders while hundreds of people are still murdered annually in these cities is nothing less than “obscene”! All this only goes to underscore how quickly human beings are reduced by the constant exposure, indeed overexposure, to human suffering and death.

If some form of the laws of Parah Adumah were still practiced today, requiring that each person who is exposed to death travel to Jerusalem or to some “special” location and undergo a ritual affirmation of life, there is little question that people would not be as lackadaisical and indifferent to the principle of the sanctity of life, as much of society is today. That is why the ritual of Parah Adumah must not be allowed to pass into obscurity. It is not enough to read this text twice a year as part of the annual cycle of the Torah reading (a second reading of this text takes place on parashat Parah, after Purim). It is important that we see the implications of Parah Adumah in every one of the mitzvot and rituals that we perform.

My friend, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, has made an acute observation, noting that most people are annoyed when the sounds of fire engines or ambulances disturb their peace and tranquility. He suggests that it is important that, whenever such alarms are heard, we utter a silent prayer that the rescue vehicles reach the victims in time and that no one will be seriously hurt. It is this heightened awareness and sensitivity to the sanctity of human life that the Torah rituals constantly try to reinforce. It is an important lesson, which is probably more relevant today than at any time in human history.

May you be blessed.