“Impossible things are happening every day,” sang Cinderella in the Rogers and Hammerstein version of her story.
Impossible things certainly happen in this week’s Torah reading. The Red Heifer is one of the most mystifying commandments in the Torah, and is basically impossible to achieve. It begins with a person who has become ritually impure by touching a dead body. To purify him, you need to begin with a perfect red heifer, without even the slightest blemish. It’s virtually impossible to find. Once they do find such a creature, the priest involved in the process and the person who takes the responsibility of making the requisite potion become unclean. Even the person who gathers up the ashes after it has been sacrificed becomes unclean.
How can making something meant for purification change a person’s status from purity to impurity? How is that possible? Perhaps the very process of rescuing someone from a negative status pulls the rescuer down too. The good news is that in the Torah they became pure again at nightfall, just by dint of the passing of time.
We try to help each other in difficult times. We sit with mourners and we are told not to try to comfort them but rather simply to listen and accompany them in their grief. The effect is subtle but palpable – in order to help your friend achieve a level of peace, you need to step down to their psychological space. You too need to grieve.
It is possible to do the impossible, to change yourself on behalf of another. People in the helping professions know that they must do this, but only to a certain extent. They must take good care of their own souls in order to not stay with their clients into the depths of despair.
Many of us have dreamt of being Cinderella, of having a fairy godmother who magically changes our status so that we can be rescued by a Charming Prince. The fallacy of the Cinderella story is that an external change is all it takes. Dress a young woman in a beautiful gown instead of rags and poof! she becomes a different person.
The episode of the red heifer teaches us otherwise. To be truly helpful to those who need us, we must be willing to step down into the depths of despair with our friends and loved ones. It is the truest form of service to the other. And by so doing, we can gain the strength to rise up and begin again, renewed.
Thank you for this beautiful lesson
Rabbi Goldie Milgram said:
Great way to take a challenging piece into action. Thank you, Jennifer!