Parshat Chukat: Caught Smoking On The Holiest Day Of The Year

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Parshat Korach begins zoit chukat haTorah – This is the statute, the law of the Torah. This pasuk is referring to the peculiar and strange law of the parah adumah – the red heifer. When a person was impure, the kohen would sprinkle ashes of the parah adumah upon him, which would then purify the individual. There are two questions posed: The law is, that when the pure kohen sprinkles the ashes on the impure person, the impure person becomes pure, but the kohen servicing the impure person becomes impure. What’s this all about? How does this make sense? Next, why does the pasuk say zoit chukat haTorah, meaning this is the law of the Torah if it is actually the law of the  parah adumah. The pasuk should say zos chukat parah adumah – this is the law of the parah adumah!

My father, Rav Yitzchok Fingerer shlita presents an astounding response to both questions. The pasuk says zoit chukat haTorah because this is not a law that is confined strictly to purity and impurity. Rather, it is a law of what it means to be a Jew. Part of being Jewish means that sometimes you have to sacrifice for other people, even if it means at the expense of your own purity to make someone else pure. If someone’s impure and in need, you may have to give up your time and your assets, you may have to give up something of yourself to help that person. That’s what we can learn from the impure person and the pure kohen. The kohen is giving up from himself to the impure person at his expense. This is what it means to be a Torah Jew. Isn’t that incredible?

On Yom Kippur, over 60 years ago, in Eretz Yisrael, a man was walking to shul when he saw something that was perturbing and bothersome. Not far away, a block away from the shul, he noticed an old Jewish man who was sitting blatantly in full public view, smoking a cigarette. He went over to the man, took his hand and he spoke, “Today is the holy day of Yom Kippur! My beloved brother, do you know that you are smoking on Yom Kippur?” The smoker turned to this fellow saying, “I was in the concentration camps in World War II. I had an only son, the most beautiful boy with an angelic voice. I never saw him again. You expect me – after all I went through to observe Yom Kippur?”

Turning to the survivor the gentleman replied, “Yom Kippur is a day of forgiveness. Perhaps you could forgive Hashem a little and come with me to the shul. They are about to say Yizkor – the memorial prayer for those we lost. Come say a prayer for your son.” The old man agreed. He walked with the man to the shul. They entered and the chazan, cantor was singing beautifully. The Shoah survivor who had been smoking, walked up to give his son’s name for Yizkor. As he approached the chazan, with tears in his eyes, gave his son’s name – Nosson ben Tzvi. The chazan looking a little surprised repeated questioningly, “Nosson ben Tzvi? He repeats it again – Nosson ben Zvi?? That’s my name!” The chazan and survivor both looked puzzled. They looked at each other closely. The chazan looks at the survivor, the old man who was seen with a cigarette in his hand, and he utters, "Papa?!" The old man replies, "Nosson?!" You won’t believe it. Father and son were reunited!

They each thought they were the sole survivor of their family. They were reunited because someone saw the man with the cigarette and cared. The passerby could have thought, "Today is Yom Kippur, why should I bother myself talking to this rebel?" No. That’s not why we are here. We are here to make the impure pure, even if it means a little suffering. That is the lesson of the  red heifer. The Torah wants us to give – to give up from ourselves and give to someone else. That is what it means to be a Jew.

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