By RACHEL SABATH BEIT-HALACHMI
What can ritual do? Everything. Just ask the book of Numbers. According to its verses ritual can do just about everything: Ritual can purify the impure, turn an impure person into a married person ready for marital relations, determine whether a woman is guilty of adultery, and even make the presence of death somehow vanish. Most of the time, it depends on water– in the right amount, the right kind, and at the right time. Water purification rituals are still essential in the most primal areas of our Jewish human existence; without ritual immersions in water, it wouldn’t be possible to eat, to have marital sex or honorably prepare a dead body for burial. We need ritual cleansing with water in order to uphold the observances of kashrut, marital sexual relations, and the honoring of the deceased. Water brings us closer to God while we wrestle with the most complex issues of what it means to be alive.
Just sprinkle some water or blood here or there –according to this week’s Torah portion Hukkat (Numbers19-22)—and that which was once impure becomes pure and that person who was necessarily taken outside the camp is allowed back in. Even that person or object which was touched by death can become pure again. "He who touches the corpse of any human being shall be unclean for seven days.” (Num. 19:11) But thereafter? "And you shall wash your clothes on the seventh day, and you shall be clean,” (Num. 31:24) With ritual washing –today performed usually in a mikveh, a ritual bath, or through the washing of one’s hands– a person can become clean again from all kinds of impurities. Such a system is a powerful ritual management not only of real public health concerns, but also of the fear of death itself. Coming near death is not death itself, although it may feel that way to us, and so God commands that we ritually purify ourselves before entering back into the larger community of humanity.
According to the most famous anthropologists of ritual, from Clifford Gertz (1926-2006) to Mary Douglas (1921-2007), ritual orders a chaotic world which would otherwise be intolerable. But for those of us who take ancient ritual seriously as part of a system of faith, ritual also serves to help us order time, preform ethical acts, and ensure that we live a life which is in keeping with what God demands of us. We need ritual in order to fulfill our human –and Jewish—calling.
In one of her most famous books, Purity and Danger:An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966), listed as one of the hundred most influential works of non-fiction, Mary Douglas studies the differences between the sacred, the clean and the unclean in different societies and times. While she makes startling conclusions about why the ancient Israelites understood some animals to be unclean and others to be clean, it isn’t until a much later book, In the Wilderness: The Doctrine of Defilement in the Book of Numbers (1993), where Douglas focuses on the role of water in desert and Temple rituals of purification. Water was such a serious matter in the journey of the Israelites through the desert that it is precisely water which can not only literally clean but ritually clean as well.
But water plays a much larger role than just purifying the unclean. Water is life itself. The Mishnah says that the water well that accompanies the Israelites through the desert was on the account of the merit of Miriam, because it disappears once she dies. Without water the Israelites become thirsty and demanding. God tells Moses and Aaron to strike a rock once so that it will bring forth water but Moses strikes it twice. He is punished by God for this lack of faith and is told that because of it he will not be permitted to enter into the Promised Land. (Numbers 20:3-13). God’s connection to humanity through water is a powerful trope throughout the Bible. Use it to water your crops and to cleanse yourself from being impure, and it can give one life, even in the face of death. But misuse it, become too demanding or impatient with it, and God will withhold it, making life impossible.
Because of Moses’ impatience, anger or perhaps disbelief (according to Midrash Numbers Rabbah 19) the waters that emerge from the rock after Moses sinfully strikes it twice, are called in the Biblical text the "waters of contention" – waters that emerged in anger or disagreement. While they may quench the thirst of the Israelites, their children and their animals, the waters symbolize disobedience and serve ultimately to distance Moses from God.
Ritual is a powerful human religious tool of communication between us and God. While it can bring us nearer to God when we perform it in normative traditional ways with proper intention, when we preform it without patience and proper understanding – regardless of the pressures on us to do otherwise – any angrily preformed ritual can also distance us from God. When we engage in ritual while we are angry and impatient, like Moses, refusing to hear and wait, then that spirit of anger and impatience will likely cause our untimely death. But when we take it seriously and focus spiritually on what higher goal the ritual enables us to reach, then ritual can give us new spiritual life and cleanse us in the most profound ways.