Life is more a matter of mystery than of reason

Numbers 19:1-22:1
Judges 11:1-33

It has often been said that the task of religion is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. As we learn in this week’s parashah, this quality of paradox is not only a characteristic of Judaism; it is a feature of life itself.

Parashat Hukkat brings us two striking examples of paradox. The first is the ritual law of the parah adumah or brown cow, in which an animal is slaughtered and burned, and its ashes used to purify one rendered ritually impure by contact with a dead body.

It is perhaps strange enough that the Torah prescribes the remains of a dead cow as the antidote to contamination through contact with death. But stranger still is the text’s stipulation that contact with the ashes renders one who has touched them impure. (Numbers 19:9-10) As many commentators have observed, these ashes both “purify the impure” (one who had come in contact with a dead body) and “contaminate the pure” (one who had handled the ashes).

Many commentators regard the case of the brown cow as the paradigm of law that defies human understanding. Obeying the Torah’s prohibitions against murder and theft, for example, is simply a matter of rationality, not of piety. It is only when we obey a law that eludes human reason that we express our willingness to surrender to a Mystery beyond ourselves.

Our parashah brings us yet another paradoxical passage, in which a plague of serpents is sent to punish the Israelites for their complaints about food and water in the desert. When the time for healing has come, God commands that a figure of a snake be mounted in the midst of the camp, so that all in need of healing would gaze upon it and recover. How can it be that that which brought destruction can now bring relief? The Mishnah, commenting on this puzzling story, states the problem concisely: “Does the snake kill? Or does it bring life?” (Rosh Hashanah 3:8)

The classical explanation is that the bronze snake has healing power because, in gazing upon it, the people lift their hearts toward God, and this is the beginning of healing.

These two passages remind us of the place of paradox in our spiritual lives. Jewish liturgy frequently insists that we contemplate apparently contradictory realities as part of a larger whole. In the Haggadah we continually shift between seeing ourselves as free people laboring to sustain the memory of our past enslavement, and as enslaved people longing to be free. On the level of simple logic, we might protest: How can we be both of these at the same time? But in the logic of the soul, opposites coexist. In fact, they focus our attention on the larger oneness of which we are a part.

We moderns so treasure the illusion that our lives are amenable to rational explanation. But the greatest crisis points in our lives — like our parashah’s two examples of encounters with death and illness — often teach us that life is far more a matter of mystery than of reason. Perhaps the essence of the spiritual life is to help us grow to accept, even savor, this truth.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg, a Conservative rabbi, is a spiritual counselor in private practice.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at