The midrashic work, Pesikta Rabbati, recounts that each time God taught Moses the circumstances which would cause a person or object to be rendered spiritually impure, God also revealed the remedy which would purify. Upon learning that a cohen/priest who comes into contact with the dead is thereby rendered impure (Lev. 21), Moses inquired as to the remedy, but God declined to answer. Moses was mortified, but received no answer until this week’s portion, which begins with God issuing the decree of the Red Heifer. It is this ceremony which restores the ritual purity of a cohen defiled through contact with a corpse. That’s 8 weekly Torah Readings; over 900 verses describing many biblical episodes and all sorts of laws. Moses had a legitimate and easily addressed question and was visibly anxious about receiving an answer. Why did God make him (and us) wait so long?
Just last week, in the aftermath of the Korach rebellion, God punished the people with a deadly plague. Moses, seemingly on his own authority, ordered his brother Aaron to intervene. Aaron ran to do so, positioned himself “between the dead and the living” (Num. 17:13), and single handedly prevented the plague from spreading. Standing with the dead and dying saved lives but triggered his ritual impurity. Without a remedy, Aaron would have been forever disqualified from serving as High Priest. Only a Torah Reading a week later do we (and Moses & Aaron) learn the decree of the Red Heifer. Now we know Aaron’s courage wasn’t limited to thwarting God’s wrath, he was prepared to do so at the expense of his role and status as High Priest.
Leaders, going at least as far back as Aaron, have had to take risks in saying or doing what they believe to be right and true. Sometimes their job or status hangs in the balance. 19th century rabbis lost pulpits over sermonizing against slavery. 21st century rabbis have lost theirs taking stands on more contemporary controversies. It seems God was less interested in Aaron’s defiance of the Divine Will and more interested in seeing how much he’d willingly sacrifice to follow his heart. God has a remedy for those called upon to pay a high price, but perhaps that remedy cannot be revealed until it has been earned.
Rabbi Mitch Levine