Sometimes the only thing that can penetrate the thickest of walls is the wailing of a child. As a parent of a two-year old, I’ve become quite familiar with a child’s cry. Over the course of the past two years, I’ve grown more accustomed to our son’s crying and the various sentiments he’s expressing. I’ve also grown more accustomed to tuning out to some of his crying. At times this is helpful, if not necessary, while at other moments it’s just selfish and bad parenting. Nonetheless, I’ve come to accept that I’m not always going to be present to attend to his needs and have worked hard to continually be as available as possible.
Seemingly, the piercing cry of children has also served to wake our nation up to the immoral policies of separating children from their parents as a result of their immigration status. While implementation of the “Zero Tolerance” policy began several weeks ago, it wasn’t until the wider distribution of audio and video footage of traumatized, parentless children that a much larger number of people began to mobilize and push for an immediate change to the current policy.
It’s not completely surprising that it took several weeks to get to this point. Our shared desensitization to state-sponsored immoral activity has become more and more common. All of us lead busy lives with important responsibilities and it’s natural for us to find ways to turn away and ignore topics or situations that are complex, uncomfortable, and take effort to understand. It’s because of this reality that the cry of child can have such power. Understanding a child’s cry is fairly straightforward, i.e., a vulnerable and completely dependent human being is in distress and can’t do anything but cry out for assistance. And that sound tells us, parent or not, that there’s a problem that needs addressing.
Life is more complicated than this, and the problems we experience aren’t often announced with the starkness of child’s cry. This week’s parashah offers us some insight into this reality and provides us with some guidance for dealing with our tendencies to turn away and ignore problems. The parashah opens up with a complex set of instructions about sacrificing a red/brown cow for a burnt offering and the incorporation of its ashes into a purification ritual for restoring a person to a state of ritual purity. Over time, many generations of Jewish commentators have wrestled with the mystery involved with this process and it has garnered a great deal of confusion and uncertainty. So much so, that the generally accepted sentiment is that it is unlikely that there is a fully satisfying explanation. Accordingly, these instructions are given as an example of our need to accept the limitations of our (human’s) capacity to understand G!D’s perspective, yet still be committed to following G!D’s direction.
Jumping ahead, the rest of the parashah is filled with several incidents of death (first Miriam, then Aaron) and disappointment (G!D informs Moses that he won’t be the leader, leading people into the Promised Land). Interestingly, in the chronology of the narrative, there is a 38-year jump between the time when the instructions about the red/brown cow are offered and the next major event (Miriam’s death). While unstated, one of the main things that goes on during these 38 years is the death of the first generation of ex-slaves. That’s a lot of death and loss.
A verse from the Talmud is often connected with the detailed instructions about the red/brown cow. Megillah 13b states that G!D creates the cure before the disease. It can be understood that prescribed ritual, even one as mysterious and confusing as this, has a role in helping people (re)connect with issues that one would otherwise be inclined to turn away and ignore.
So often we find ways to fill up our lives and distract ourselves from the things that really matter. Our unwillingness to accept life on life’s terms drives us to do all sorts of unhealthy things. Thus, like the Israelites who had to deal with a great deal of death and loss during the 38 years of wandering in the desert, we have a variety of spiritual instructions and rituals available to help purify and transform us.
Since most of the really important things in life don’t arrive with child’s cry, it is up to us to be willing to listen and hear the crying of others’ souls as well as our own. Responding to this cry with appropriate attention and staying committed to engaging in the healing processes that we know will move us forward in our lives.
Chaplain Adam Siegel